Sound designer Charles Coes is a prolific associate on Broadway productions, often working with designer Darron L West, including on the Tony-winning production of Peter And The Starcatcher. He has also worked at such theatres as Two River Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theatre, and McCarter Theatre. A Live Design Award is presented to Coes and West, for their multi-faceted approach to sound design and their spirit of collaboration. The award will be presented by actor Tom Nelis (The Visit) at the awards ceremony at NYU on Thursday evening June 4 as part of the Live Design New York Master Classes.
Live Design: How do you successfully collaborate on a design project?
Charles Coes: It depends a lot on the team. It's always about coming to the table well prepared with research and ideas at the ready, but the nature of the process changes once you start conversations. Sometimes it's about giving a director or collaborator a structure for a transition, sometimes it’s about shaping something they have in mind already, and occasionally, it's about just making the music louder so you don't hear a loud moving light mark or turntable, and making a called fade out because the priority is to push through to the next scene. You have to be really open to the way the conversation develops, and how you can offer input in a productive way to keep the show true to a design and make it better. Sometimes that means saying a ton in the moment, sometimes it means laying back and having a conversation on the next break, and sometimes it means acknowledging that the show has gone in a slightly different direction and you need to shift, too. It can be a little frustrating at times, but the work is better for it. I often say that the important thing to remember is that you're in the theatre to do the job you were hired for, not the job you want it to be.
LD: What is your favorite production and why?
CC: That’s a tricky one. I'll pick three, but they have common threads: Chris Bayes' Servant Of Two Masters, Peter And The Starcatcher, and An Illiad. All of them are about a company of actors transforming a space into something else with words, seemingly simple sets, and music. I'm not a fan of kitchen-sink realism. I think we do it less well than film, and that it lets the audience off the hook as participants. The great thing about theatre is that we're all in the room together, and all of these shows took advantage of it. All of them are pretty complicated, but in a way that is icing, not the cake itself. All of the productions had, I think, pretty awesome design that made them soar, but would have been strong shows if the actors had been given a bare stage and a ball of twine.
LD: How did you get into this industry?
CC: Many of my friends growing up were musicians, and I was a pretty mediocre one, so I found myself mixing and doing lights for them and continued to pursue it as a college job, focusing more on theatre as that was the regular work, and it was fun and a great community. There wasn't any formal training in sound at Swarthmore, but they were happy to have a person interested in treating it as a design discipline, so I got to learn a ton from folks in the Philly community, and make some things up as I went along. I loved that the job takes you from being a dramaturge to a systems engineer to a composer to a sound editor, and occasionally to being a back seat director. Then I went to grad school at Yale and found myself in New York City afterwards.
LD: What is your favorite thing about your work as a designer?
CC: I love solving problems, and design presents new ones every show, and different ones. It's nearly impossible to fall into a routine of just rehashing the same content or system. Different shows need different hats—dramaturgy, engineering, composition, consigliere to the director. It never gets stale.
LD: What’s your favorite piece of gear/software/gadget right now, and why?
CC: I feel pretty strongly that we should be making technology more transparent. Sound designers often get caught up in the gear and what widget makes the show better, and get stuck noses into computers or consoles. The idea is the thing, and the show in front of you. My favorite piece of gear at the moment is an external keyboard and trackball for my laptop so that the thing directly in front of me on the tech table is the show, and I have to turn to the side to look at a screen. Lighting designers do it all the time, and it makes sense. It's a subtle way to manipulate myself away from checking e-mail toward being present in the room. The default resting position of my head and neck is to look at the stage, or my notes, not the little red dot on the computer monitor telling me that something more important might be going on.