Q&A: Matt Callahan


Matt Callahan's the resident sound designer at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, but he once fancied himself a pinball wizard. After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he moved to Chicago with the intention of working for a company like Bally's and designing pinball machines. But after stints as an actor at Mount Holyoke College (“They needed men!” he jokes), musician, screenwriter, and star of his own public-access show, he discovered sound design while working the box office at Steppenwolf. He spent seven years in Chicago working as a freelance designer, four years as the house engineer at Steppenwolf, a year assistant engineering with Blue Man Group, and three years freelancing in Philadelphia before landing in the Bluegrass State, designing for one of the most prestigious regional theatres around. David Johnson caught up with Callahan just before the ATL's busiest time of year: the annual Humana Festival.

Live Design: How does one go from the box office to the sound board?

MC: I got a job in the box office at Steppenwolf because I needed cash. I didn't even know a thing about the company except that they produced Frank's Wild Years, which I thought was cool. Everyone who worked there seemed to be in his own storefront theatre company, and when they found out I did music, I was asked to design shows. The first show I did was an adaptation of Red Dragon with Defiant Theatre — the design was laid off on 250 cassettes — and I won a Jefferson Citation for it. I ended up working at Steppenwolf in various capacities for 10 years.

LD: Was Steppenwolf great training ground for a sound designer?

MC: Fantastic. For the first five years, sound work was generally what I did after hours. I rounded out my theatre education in the day by working as everything from box office manager to carpenter to company manager. Then I had the engineering position and found myself in the midst of a gaggle of world-class designers, actors, and directors. The lessons and experiences were innumerable.

LD: Like?

MC: I'd run the sound for about two-thirds of the shows, which amounts to about 40 performances of a given play. The repetition, whether it was the sort of show that became a bit mundane or that surprised you nightly, gave me an appreciation of all design elements, acting, and writing — a nightly lesson on what works, doesn't work, and why some things only work occasionally.

I had the opportunity to do onstage Foley in David Mamet's radio play The Water Engine for the ArtsX program. I spent hours constructing buzzer boards, crash boxes, a heart monitor I wore with a lav and a stethoscope (the creepy low-end part of the engine sound), and studying up on old radio Foley (ie, small electric motor + desk bell + roller skate on wooden track = elevator). I loved my costume, particularly the 30s woolen slacks, got some nice press, and made it to the Steppenwolf stage.

LD: How did you end up as resident sound designer at Actors Theatre?

MC: Basically, with a resume and demo. I believe there were some personal recommendations from folks in Chicago and Philly beyond those I provided that put me here. But I'm still not sure who they were. Always be good to people; it's a small field.

LD: Describe a typical season at ATL.

MC: We produce ten regular season shows and eight festival shows in a given year. I design up to six in the regular season and three in festival.

LD: Tell me about some of your favorite shows at ATL.

MC: Betrayal, The Crucible, and Pure Confidence. Betrayal's about infidelity in London around the 70s, with an odd jumping timeline. I was initially listening to a lot of Roxy Music, T-Rex, and Bowie as a jumping off point. The intent was right, but it didn't really fit with the character's place in society. In tribute, I used [Brian] Eno-like hums combined with acid string loops. The strings placed their stature and the tempo/circularity meshed well with the non-linear jumps in time between scenes.

The Crucible was built on period hymns based on The Bay Psalm Book (the first book published in the New World), and I used Obeah rhythms for the witch stuff. It was interesting research, and I loved the vocal work that Margaret, our costume shop manager, did for me.

Pure Confidence is a story about a southern black jockey's life pre- and post-Civil War. Two scenes involve a horse race, so the perimeter of the theatre became the track. It was difficult to get the timings and particularly the turns to work with the scenes and SFX, but the end result was nice.

LD: What's the most important thing you've learned as a resident sound designer?

MC: I'm still learning how and when to think as solely a designer and when to think as member of an organization. Sometimes these things are in harmony; sometimes they're in conflict.

LD: Do resident designers get more respect than other sound designers?

MC: I don't think so. But respect is like a nickname: you don't get a say in it. I hope people respect my work and perhaps give me a cool nickname, like “Drago” or “The Iron Cardigan.”

LD: What can people expect when they come to Louisville for USITT?

MC: A good time. You know how many Bourbons come from the area? I also hope folks come by to check out the new plays festival across the street.

LD: Anything else we should know about you?

MC: I'd still like to design pinball machines.