Sharing the Sound: Designer Collaborations


Here's something so new that many Broadway producers haven't heard of it: collaborative sound design. Sherman Warner of Dodger Productions says his team has only used individual sound designers; he can imagine hiring a pair only in the event that a "uniquely unique sound environment" could be developed only by someone who doesn't have adequate amplification skills.

But as far away as London and as nearby as Chicago, sound designers are sharing responsibilities, sometimes on given projects only, in other cases, as part of an ongoing team. For Paul Arditti and Richard Ryan, collaborating on the West End production of Doctor Dolittle was a first, but it probably won't be a last. "It was a joy to do," says Ryan, who believes that when a musical has a vast number of sound effects, it is the best way to work.

Arditti usually does soundscapes for straight plays; Ryan specializes in large West End musicals. But there is large, and then there is large. Some 50 performers and 100 constructed animals, created by the Henson Creature Shop, peopled the 3,200-seat Apollo Hammersmith Theatre for Dolittle (see TCI, Nov 98), and they all had to be heard.

Arditti took on the task of sound-effects design, playback, and sound score work, huge enough in itself. He recorded some real animals and miked humans impersonating animals. "There are a lot of characters in the piece, and their voices were going to all be electronic in some way," he says.

Ryan did the reinforcement. "I designed a system for the room and then we gave Paul feeds into our desk, which meant he could access any part of the system he needed at any particular time," he says. Arditti says he "threw in what I thought I was going to need in terms of onstage speakers, and Richard incorporated that into his overall design. In the theatre, he installed all of what I asked for and we had discussed and costed out."

Within the collaborative effort, the two worked independently. "Richard clearly designed that system so that I could get into the mixer and work when he didn't, and he could work when I didn't. The schedule was sufficiently long that we were never on each other's toes. We both had operators who are specialists in their own fields, mine in sound effects and playback and his in West End musicals. We were both very relieved to have the other one there, even when our jobs did overlap. I was happy to allow him to take responsibility for anything with a mike."

Although the production underwent big changes in techs and throughout previews, the collaboration continued smoothly. "We both discussed before we embarked where our responsibilities would be and where we were likely to overlap, and we respected each other's skills," Arditti notes. "[Because] we came from such different backgrounds, each of us could learn a great deal from the other, and we did."

If shows continue to become more complex, will the need for separate designers for reinforcement and effects become more common, or will it be too expensive? Not that long ago, producers rarely hired even one sound designer, and as everyone in the field is quick to note, the Broadway establishment still doesn't recognize the field with a Tony Award.

And if producers do want to hire duets, will the sound designers agree to work together? Not all of them, all the time. Tony Meola, who has designed solo for many musicals, likes "to have my hands on everything." Delegate sound effects? "Sound effects are very particular. Everyone hears differently." Delegate reinforcement? "I like to be responsible for everything that one hears in the theatre."

Although he depends on assistants, particularly longtime associate Kai Harada, to make occasional visits to a studio to pull things, Meola listens to the selections and puts them together. "I really enjoy it," he says, "and I would never let something be played back that I haven't heard."

Is Meola against collaboration? How can he be in his business? Even this self-described "control freak" embraces the collaboration intrinsic to every production. Meola, who goes out of his way not to amplify a play when possible, says the current production of Kiss Me, Kate is a good example of such collaboration. "We achieved what we set out to achieve," he explains. "Michael Blakemore and Paul Gemignani wanted a natural-sounding show. Michael would get the actors to speak up. Gemignani, the greatest musical director in the world, knows that the audience wants to hear the story, and if the band's playing too loud, they can't. Don Spebeska, the orchestrator, knows how to write for lyrics and doesn't cloud up the lines. When you hear well-orchestrated theatre music, it gets in between the lyrics to make it exciting."

Meola points out that some others try to make orchestration thick to make it exciting, but sound is far better "when the brass goes 'dot-da-not' at the end of a phrase, not when a person is singing." Even the theatre, the Martin Beck, cooperated: "It's not a big barn, but a wonderful theatre for a musical. It has a beautiful all wooden orchestra pit and an architectural acoustic shell." [For more on Kiss Me, Kate, check out the upcoming May issue of ED.]

Chicago-based Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn, on the other hand, often compose music as well as design sound collaboratively. They came up through the ranks together, beginning in high school when they formed an eclectic "arty rock band" that experimented with rock, fusion, country, and a bit of found sound. "We learned how to create using many different music styles," Bodeen says. "We ended up playing together professionally in different incarnations of the band for 11 years," Milburn recalls.

In 1982, three years before it disbanded, the duo composed music for the band to perform in Tooth of Crime at the Remains Theatre Ensemble in Chicago. "We used to go to their shows. They used to come hear us play," says Milburn. "They were doing in theatre what we were doing in music, work that was a little on the edge." That turned out to be a critical job: for both, it served as an introduction to doing sound in the theatre and doing it together; for Milburn, it was also an introduction to Amy Morton, the company member he would later marry. Bodeen married also, and both took day jobs. When Milburn moonlighted on a second show at the Remains, his boss asked him to make a choice: The job or the theatre. You can guess the end of tha t story.

By 1990, Bodeen and Milburn were collaborating regularly on sound design and original scores for theatres, often in the Chicago area. "Whether we're writing music or creating sound in the studio, a lot of the creative process takes place in the act of doing," says Milburn, the two noting that detailed meetings with the director and others have preset the stage so they know what they're going for. They divide some tasks, but they work together on most important things. "Because we worked together for so long, we can almost anticipate each other," says Milburn. Or was that Bodeen talking? The other picks up: "That makes the process flow. We can work without speaking a lot."

This doesn't mean they always agree. Nor does it mean you couldn't recognize one man's sound design from his partner's. "If you hear music that Michael composed on his own, and music that I composed on my own, you would see the difference," Milburn notes.

What they share is an adventurous spirit. "We look at our work as a way to journey past the expected. We're not trying to find the thing we've done but the thing we haven't done," Bodeen says. "That helps with the collaboration, too. We push ourselves (and each other) in the writing process: 'That's good, but what if we did this?' " "Neither one of us is a musical genius," Milburn interjects. "The collaboration allows us to stretch, because we know our partner is watching our back and won't let us go too far and and screw it all up."

The two, who have collaborated at the Goodman, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, and other first-tier regionals, have just completed work on Frank Galati's production of Valparaiso at the Steppenwolf, and have been coordinating their efforts with complicated light and projection sequences and creating a substantial amount of music and sound cues for the project.

Because every play and artistic team is different, every collaboration is different for the pair, but they always begin by discussing the meaning of a play, not by scanning for the sound cues in it. "Then the director's take on it illuminates all elements of design," Milburn says.

It's not unusual for the pair to throw ideas out at initial artistic meetings, then re-evaluate them during techs. They create charts for musicians, and record and mix early on, always prepared to rewrite at the 11th hour. "A lot of our work happens early," says Milburn, "but there's that wonderful process of discovery or rediscovery when you get into tech."

Maybe it's a Chicago thing. Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, who have been moving their sound design for Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses to theatres around the country lately, have been collaborating since they were students at the University of Chicago. There, they both minored in music composition and theory, playing together in the orchestra pit for shows at school, and later collaborating on projects of their own.

Pluess says it's rare to have collaborations between two sound designers who are not also musicians. "Usually one is a stronger musician than the other and the other is stronger in audio technology and technical theory." That's certainly the case here. Pluess majored in European history, Sussman in computer science, and they each came to music from a different place. While Milburn and Bodeen each do everything, Pluess and Sussman specialized, at least at first. Pluess often composed. Sussman harmonized pieces Pluess created, arranged, orchestrated, and prepared composition for playback. But even though it is Sussman who has the technical background, Pluess usually handles sound effects and sound editing.

"This is a gross over-generalization," says Pluess, explaining that the pair is always engaged in at least two projects in different stages. "When one of us is in tech and production, the other is in the studio preparing for the next show. When I'm in tech, he needs to write stuff or assemble sound."

Pluess says working with a partner means there is a second set of ears. "Even talking to another person clarifies, codifies, highlights problems or stren gths in what's being done." Are there ever disagreements? Of course, that comes with the territory. "You can have a point-blank disagreement and then you have to take time to reconcile it. But that's rare. Usually working together speeds things up remarkably."