A Sound Odyssey


Over the past five years, I have gone from running a highly ranked theatre school program to becoming a student in a completely different one — not the usual career trajectory. But as I approach 50 — which I've been reliably told is the new 30 — I am reminded yet again that a career in theatre is anything but conventional.

Currently in my 16th year as the resident sound designer for the Center Theatre Group — which includes the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles — it's also my 10th year heading the sound design program of the School of Theatre at California Institute of the Arts. During a 27-year career, I have designed hundreds of shows on Broadway, Off Broadway, in London and Paris, and in numerous regional theatres around the country. I'm in my 20th year of home ownership, 17th year of marriage, 15th year of parenthood, and now, the second and final year of the MFA program in Theatre Design at UCLA.

The first break in my career path came when I was asked to be the acting dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts. Suddenly thrust into an administrative role that initially intrigued me but ultimately left little time for creative work, I was forced to evaluate my priorities and goals. When the two-year appointment came to an end, I realized that it was time to “feed my head” — to get back to doing what I loved while expanding my understanding of completely new disciplines.

“Discipline” has definitely been the key word, as there have been many times over the past two years when I've questioned the wisdom of my decision to go back to school. I have not let any of my professional obligations lapse while I've been studying, and it has been a combination of fierce will and dumb luck that has allowed me to keep all these balls in the air at the same time. It's been worth it, though. Aside from the obvious benefits of adding an MFA to my teaching résumé, I have given myself the chance to pause mid-career and enjoy the process of rediscovering both the artistic and technical aspects of sound design that drew me to this profession in the first place.

One of the many benefits to being a resident designer at an organization like Center Theatre Group is that, while you spend the majority of your time designing whatever comes your way, you also get to spend a good amount of time helping guest designers fit their shows into your theatre. I've always valued this rare situation that allows me to work alongside fellow professionals in my same design category. My return to a graduate design program is a concrete extension of that guilty pleasure. After having had long professional and personal relationships with Bill Ward and Jonathan Deans, the driving instructional forces in my program at UCLA, I sometimes see a “What am I going to do with you today?” look when I walk into their classes, but there's always something new to learn. I thrive on seeing and hearing their work, learning from their craft and example, and seeing how they, in turn, learn from their students.

In the late 1970s, when I was an undergraduate at USC, there were no programs in theatre sound design. Most of what I learned I taught myself through working on campus radio and designing shows at school and in small theatres around Los Angeles. It is such a different experience now to be the one absorbing information, writing papers, considering projects, and occupying the seat as a student. It is both a challenge and a privilege to be experiencing models of instruction that were unavailable to me when I was a young designer in a relatively new field. I'm learning how to be a more effective teacher, and at the same time, I'm realizing how much of what I know I've learned by teaching — teaching myself and teaching creative young designers who continually challenge me with their desire to learn as much as they possibly can before they enter the world of professional sound design.

Keeping up with the technical innovations involved in sound design can be a daunting task. The past three decades have seen quantum leaps in the way we gather, process, manipulate, store, and deliver audio content to our intended audience. I have gone from cutting magnetic tape with a razor blade and editing block on my dining room table to manipulating digital mixing and playback systems with capabilities far beyond my wildest early career conceptions. This is such an exciting time to explore and train people in a field that has so many possible applications. I'm grateful that my educational sabbatical has allowed me to set aside substantial time to reacquaint myself with the finer points of the latest technologies at the same time that I am reminded that it's not the tools, but what you do with them that counts.

My path as a designer has been unique and rewarding. This recent divergence has been complicated, daunting, enriching, and affirming. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to continue this journey and to have seized upon it.

Gottlieb's recent design work includes A Picasso, directed by Gil Cates at the Geffen Playhouse, and Distracted, directed by Leonard Foglia at the Mark Taper Forum.

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