The Beautiful Noise

The Expanding Role of Theater Sound Design

There are, though, sound designers who actually got where they are through formal study. "I went to school for audio at Muhlenberg," says Paul Adams, who designed last season's Four at the Worth Street Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club, a show that featured automobiles seemingly racing behind the audience. But it's possible that for every Paul Adams, there's a Jane Shaw, who trained but didn't necessarily start out in that direction. Shaw, responsible for the melodramatic aural carryings-on in the CSC's Monster, was a Harvard/Radcliffe biochemistry major who played the viola but wasn't sure she wanted to pursue either interest. One night she helped a friend running a show by pressing the play button on a cassette deck and thought, Hmmm. Only a year later she was at the Yale School of Drama on her way to what she does today.


Meat Is Floating By: "The use of sound is completely integral," says Collapsable Giraffe's Iver Findlay.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Meat Is Floating By: "The use of sound is completely integral," says Collapsable Giraffe's Iver Findlay.

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(photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Sound design is the newest theater art, having typically been something stage managers or electricians saw to before, say, 1970. Sure, there were people rattling metal thunder sheets in Elizabethan England, but that was pretty much it. In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, music was written to accompany straight plays; Paul Bowles composed scores for at least five Tennessee Williams works. But it wasn't until Abe Jacob did the sound design for the rock-oriented Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) that anyone actually received a credit as sound designer. Only a few years ago were sound designers welcomed into a union—IATSE/USA 829. And sound designers, for all the enhanced values they bring to Broadway offerings, have yet to be eligible for Tonys. According to a Tony organization spokesperson, they are unlikely to be considered anytime soon.

Jacob, now known as "the godfather of sound design" and whose most recent job was the just-closed Little Night Music at City Opera, expanded the use of electronic equipment for Superstar and Bob Fosse's Pippin and Chicago. He pioneered the of use small speakers and body mics. Darron L. West claims responsibility for taking microphones one step further, when he suggested headset mics for New York Theatre Workshop's downtown production of Rent. "I came up with that," West remembers, "because Jonathan Larson told me he had not been happy with the sound." Musicals and straight plays have different sound design demands. Scott Lehrer outlines the differences succinctly when he says about musicals, "Primarily your job is mic’ing, orchestral balances, making sure actors are heard over the orchestra. Sound environments are a different job and aesthetic." West emphasizes that these days he'd rather not do musicals. "I just want to make sound for the theater that is integral to a piece, not something layered on top at the last minute."

His conviction that sound is as important as any other design element is shared by newer performance companies like Radiohole and Collapsable Giraffe. "The use of sound is completely integral, drawn from sound in general," Giraffe's Iver Findlay says. "Why we're interested in making theater is our general interest in music." Findlay, who refers to "sound sculpture," mentions that the group's recent Meat Is Floating By pulls sounds from various sources and "has a segment of live punk-band stylings." For him and his companions, he says, "the way theater is made today and the making of live music performance aren't that great of a difference." For last season's Talk, about a panel discussion that veered in and out of reality, Tim Schellenbaum, part of the 2000 Obie-winning Jennie Richee design team, says he, playwright Carl Hancock Rux, and director Marion McClinton "all contributed to what we wanted to hear at specific moments," which meant a sound design that sometimes alternated between standard mics and body mics and sometimes used both simultaneously.

As sound design proliferates, the practitioners aren't the only ones exhilarated by new possibilities. So are many playwrights, directors, and producers. Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner were among the first to see potential when they were preparing Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. "We always loved sound—some sound effects innately have wit to them," Tomlin declares. Tissues being pulled from a box and a nose-hair clipper in operation are some of the witty sounds heard behind her when she does her one-woman, no-props piece. Rent director Michael Greif, whose most recently staged piece is Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A, thinks about sound but admits, "I'm blissfully unaware of the changes and levels of sophistication. I leave that up to the talented sound designers I work with."

Scott Myers, on the job at The Crucible, This Thing of Darkness, and Blue/Orange and putting finishing touches on his textbook, Sound Design in Theater, thinks back on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, done when he was at the Royal National Theatre some years ago. He remembers telling Stoppard and director Trevor Nunn, "You guys go play with the keyboard. Then there's Tom and Trevor like kids in a candy store." Tim Schellenbaum says that he appreciates working with directors who leave matters in his hands, but also likes it "where a director has a good idea, and I'm fulfilling that." He cites John Kelly's Paradise Project, which includes excerpts from the soundtrack of Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise." Schellenbaum says of the multi-tasking Kelly, "This is an instance where I'll take what he gives me."

Changes are happening so fast in sound design that Myers conjectures that his book "will be out of date by the time it goes to print." Then where will it end? Says Jane Shaw, "I don't think we're even on the crest."

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