Natalie Margaret Houle: Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship Winner

Natalie Margaret Houle, who goes by "Nat," is a senior at SUNY New Paltz, where she will receive a BA with a major in Theatre Arts: Design and Technology and a minor in Music. This upcoming year, she will be a student in Phyllis Chen's composition studio. She recently composed the music and created the touring package for Lauren Bone Noble's FURY!, which was produced at the Denizen Theatre. At New Paltz, she most recently designed and composed for The Servant of Two Masters, She Kills Monsters, and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Nat has also worked as a broadcast A2 for the past four years on shows such as Good Morning America and as a theatre A2 at ACT of Connecticut. She is one of the founding members of Virtual Theatre Collaboration, which was created to keep theatre students and early career artists working together during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat looks forward to furthering her compositional abilities and diving into plays that are challenging to society, demand intensive research processes, and widen the scope of her capabilities as a theatre artist. 

Nat is a recipient of the 2020 Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship, presented by Live Design in collaboration with USITT and TSDCA. Sounds designer Melanie Chen Cole, part of the judging process for TSDCA, notes: "Natalie stood out to me because of the eloquent way she talked about her work, and the passion she has for the future of sound design.” Fellow judge and audio engineer Angie Hayes adds: "Natalie is already an active and dedicated part of the community who, with the help of the scholarship, will be able to finish her education and continue contributing her unique perspective to our industry.”

Live Design: Why did you apply for the Pat MacKay Diversity In Design Scholarship?

Natalie Margaret Houle: The Pat MacKay Scholarship is something that I’ve been aware of since it first launched. When I heard that it was occurring this year with an extension, I knew that I had to apply. My sound design professor and academic advisor, Sun Hee Kil, is constantly encouraging me to apply to scholarships and to engage in projects that will further my knowledge and bolster my college goals. With her support, I learned more about the Pat MacKay Scholarship and realized what a fantastic opportunity it was. I also felt strongly about the message it conveys to the industry. I saw this application process as a way to put my best foot forward, to build my website portfolio, and to share my best work with the judges. Because I pay for my college education myself, I couldn’t pass up such a generous chance to support my senior year through a design-specific scholarship.

LD: What made you interested in the field of sound design?

NMH: I grew up around my father doing sound and my mother carrying me as a baby while she sang on stage. I was around music and musical equipment throughout my childhood. From third grade on, I was always deeply involved in choir and band. Then, in middle school when I was about thirteen, I moved from being in the pit band for our musical to being in the tech crew. I learned what a wireless mic was and became aware of playback software. For the school musical that year I volunteered to make a sound effect for Willy Wonka’s chocolate waterfall. I vividly remember sitting down next to my dad with iZotope open as we designed the waterfall sound effect together. I was amazed at what reverb could do! From then on, I started helping my dad with his church, wedding, and festival gigs - even if that only meant pressing one button. I gradually worked my way up to mixing full bands and events with his supervision. I continued audio and sound design into high school and beyond. The more I learn and practice, the more I am continually amazed at how sound design as an art and science impacts us as humans emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. 

LD: What are your career goals?

NMH: My true love is sound design for theatre, and I hope to work in whatever environment supports my humanity as an individual and channels my creative energy into worthwhile stories and artistic environments. Another central goal of mine is to amplify and support narratives that need to be heard. Additionally, I love working as a technician for broadcast and I am enjoying dabbling into film as well. I truly would be content working in all of these areas throughout my career, but I feel the most “myself” when I’m sitting at a tech table.

LD: How can the industry better serve underrepresented communities?

NMH: This is a question everyone seems to be asking themselves right now. 

I firmly believe that without extensive work being done by individuals, mission statements mean nothing. The first step is to recognize oneself and the degree of one’s privilege. Then, the work is to assess what forces exist that may have propelled one person while at the same time preventing others from obtaining those same opportunities. The second step is to listen: to educate oneself on why those forces exist, what can be done about them, and how someone can use their privilege to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. The step that can’t be overlooked is to morally commit to upholding what is true, and being willing to be wrong about what one has perceived to be true prior to beginning—or even during —this process. 

That’s all on the individual level; the company response to this question, from my perspective, is much more straightforward once the awareness on the individual level has been facilitated. So then the question becomes something like: a production team includes voices from many communities, races, gender identities, economic backgrounds, and cultural experiences, and that’s great - but is everyone treated with equal respect, opportunity, consideration, and pay? And then, if the group is an educational force in a community, who is being reached out to? 

We as an industry need to ask these questions on both the individual and society level, and we must answer them honestly and with full accountability. 

LD: Who or what are your influences, in terms of people or events?

NMH: Every designer and composer who I run into either online or in-person has an effect on me since everyone has such a wildly different perspective that they bring to their work. It’s also difficult to say what my main influences are, as that changes drastically for each show and in my research process. As far as people go: aside from my dad, Sun Hee Kil has had a major impact specifically on my education. I was vehemently against going to college prior to meeting her and seeing a professional signal line diagram for the first time. I would not be a college senior without her. Recently, being a member of TSDCA has also been a huge influence on me as an artist. Being an active participant in the group, joining a committee, and attending many events over the past several months has been lucrative, engaging, and quite honestly comforting.

LD: Are there particular challenges you have faced? 

NMH: As a female, I have found that some of the sexism that exists in our society seeped into my beliefs about myself. At various points in time at a venue or on a gig where I had to make a decision about standing up for myself versus standing down, I realized that rejecting my own dignity was the worst choice I could make. I have faced blatant sexism and ageism. This translates to singular uncomfortable instances as well as chronically repetitive micro-aggressions. I will likely never escape the stereotype of being the smaller, younger, female crew member or designer. Especially on crews in New York City, that is definitely the biggest professional and personal challenge that I’ve faced. However, I don’t have to let that limit myself, or my beliefs about what I can achieve, how much I can learn, or what workplaces I belong in. I have no interest in working with those who choose to put me in a box with a label that they invented for themselves.