A Tony Award-winner for his sound design of Peter And The Starcatcher, Darron L West has designed on and off Broadway, including several productions for the SITI Company. A Live Design Award is presented to West along with his frequent colleague Charles Coes, 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 of June 4 as part of the Live Design New York Master Classes.
Live Design: How do you successfully collaborate on a design project?
Darron L West: Listening is really the key to any collaboration. It’s fundamental. Personally, I’m of the belief that you should surround yourself with people that do aspects of the job better than you can. If you trust your colleagues to do their job and bring their ideas to the table as well and you help get them excited about the possibilities of what we’re all creating together, it makes great work all the way around.
So I’ll upload all the information I know about the piece and where I’m feeling the sound design may go and Charles will come back to me with ideas about the system design (along with many others) and we’ll start from there. I spend so much time in the rehearsal hall on projects that I’m his conduit to what’s happening in the room and he’s my conduit to what’s happening at the shop and at the theatre. We’ve done so many shows together that he’s become a valuable mind reader at this point. So, we’ll have check in’s early on in the process, but during the actual system build, I’ll leave it up to his expertise, and if he needs something, he’ll let me know.
The thing I love about our relationship is that he’s always suggesting new pieces of gear that I wouldn’t otherwise know about, and I also love having his fresh ears once I bring the design into the theatre. I don’t know how some designers do this job as a one man band. The job on a show especially in a Broadway situation is in no way a one person job anymore; there are just too many things to manage effectively to make it all run smooth. But, he and I both know what has to get done and we let each other do our jobs and collaborate where we need to along the way.
LD: Who have been your biggest influences and why?
DLW: My influences are really scattershot but, when I think about sound design specifically, I’d have to say the movies of Jacque Tati were a huge influence on me as a designer when I started. I was quite obsessed with his films. I confess I still carry those movies around in my computer and return to them on long plane fights and I’m still finding details in his work 20 years later. The same goes for the films of Orson Welles.
Also, when I first moved to NYC back in the early 90’s, I would obsessively try to see everything that John Gromada did, and I still think about his design for Machinal at the Public back in 1990. That show really raised the bar for me personally, and of course, Hans Peter Kuhn's work was like that for me, too. I think the common thread for both John and Hans’ work for me was that sound could be used as a very powerful storytelling tool, which is fundamental in how I think about what I’m doing when I’m working on a piece. When I arrived in NYC after working in the regionals, it was a relief to know there were other designers thinking the way that I was. I would also be remiss in not mentioning directors like Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff and Jon Jory. Anne, of course, has been a gigantic source of inspiration over the years as was Robert when I was a very young designer, and of course, the seasons as the resident sound designer at Actors Theatre of Louisville where Jon started it all for me. He hired this fresh out of college kid and let me really stretch out early on to try some really bold ideas at the time and really gave me a safe home to hone my craft.
A Huge Honor
LD: What would you say is your biggest achievement thus far?
DLW: That’s a great question. I think surviving this long is the first thing that pops into my head. I just opened my 568th show (the theatre is a blank page with Anne Bogart and Ann Hamilton at the Wexner Center in Ohio), and I still get excited with every first day of rehearsal and every tech of every show. I do feel really honored to be allowed to be doing this work. Of course, the Tony was a huge honor as well, not only for me, but the entire company of that show, which was something very special. It’s a real shame that they chose to take the award away from sound designers this year, but I have great hopes they’ll realize the mistake, and it’ll not only be reinstated next season but the categories will open up for music direction and projection design as well.
LD: What is your favorite production and why?
DLW: Well, that’s like asking to pick your favorite child, isn’t it? But, naturally, there are some that I think of fondly more frequently than others but in no particular order. Peter And The Starcatcher was just so special so that is definitely on the list. bobrauschenbergamerica at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 2003, Slanguage with Universes, and SITI Company’s production of BOB at New York Theatre Workshop come to mind as does American Night at the Old Globe. All those shows were pieces where every element across the board came together to form a seamless event for the audience. The design, the actors’ performances, and the process of putting it all together seemed to just be (to use a Starcatcher turn of phrase) sprinkled with starstuff.
I’m lucky to have as many shows as I do that I’m so proud of. I will say however, I’m really picky about what I do. I don’t do every show offered; it has to have something for me to wrestle around with every day in rehearsal so I pick them carefully. So in essence, I’m very close and deeply attached to every show I do. A show that you love and that you think loves you back can still take you out back in an alley and beat you up on occasion, but overall, I feel really fortunate.
LD: How did you get into this industry?
DLW: It started in college for me. Before that, I was playing in bands and mixing here and there, and was an AV geek in elementary school, and sang in choir and was a part of summer kids theatre company called Youth Theatre of Hardin County. All of this was back in KY. My family also saw some shows at Actors Theatre, too so it was on the periphery for me for a long time.
But a show in college came up that had a very complicated sound design and a professor asked me to "sound design" the show. I remember asking, “What’s a sound designer?” I was on the road to be a recording engineer at that point, but I think that they asked because I was the only person there who knew how all the sound gear worked in the theatre. I got hooked with that show and proceeded to design every show until I graduated, which led to spending summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. They had never given front-page billing for the sound designer in the program before so I fixed that little issue straight away; this was the summer of 1989.
LD: What is your favorite thing about your work as a designer?
DLW: It’s the variety of what you learn and what you get to experience from show to show. In one stretch this year, I went from researching and learning about Buddhist culture with Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center to cranking up punk rock classics for disaffected youth with raging hormones down at the Lucile Lortel with Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock, plus a show I sound designed and co-directed with Anne Bogart, RadioMacbeth, went to the Gift Festival in Tbilisi, Georgian Republic, and that was all in just a three-month period of time.
A Vintage Sound
LD: What’s your favorite piece of gear/software/gadget right now, and why?
DLW: I would have to say honestly right now the turntable. Yep, a record player. Some of my peers know I’m really deep right now appreciating my records and my turntable at home, but it’s probably also because I’m fresh off of this Ann Hamilton piece at the Wexner Center where the majority of the sound design for the show came from a collection of six vintage turntables with the performers playing their own cues. We also got some custom records pressed, too. It was a fantastic process to be apart of. My turntable is spinning with a Tommy Keene LP as I type this to you actually.
I’m also continuing to fall in love with QLab 3. The workshop’s last week at MassMoCA of a Memory Rings for Phantom Limb Theatre was a situation where I was working fast and under the gun, which made me realize again how much that software can do. I opened Logic maybe four times that entire week. I was tossing ideas into the workspace and doing edits and loops and adding effects in the moment. It was a very accelerated process so QL3 totally had my back all week. I was coming back on Amtrak feeling like I should send Chris Ashworth and the rest of the Figure 53 team a thank you note.
LD: How do you approach a new project in terms of research and design intent?
DLW: Every show is vastly different, but I’m a big reader and researcher going into a process. I’ll read the script many times to get a feel of the rhythm of the piece. I’ll also look at where the rest of my visual design colleagues are going, especially costumes and just bask in the show in the early days of rehearsals to find out what the role of the sound design needs to be. Every show has different needs so each process is a little different pending the director and the cast and the theatre we’re in.
It’s not a definitive process for me where I do the same process with each show. My process is redefined with every production. I also like to stay in the grey area as long as I can on a process and throw a lot of different ideas at a piece in the rehearsal to see how it’s feeling and how it’s working to assist in the storytelling. I try to go into every process with as open a mind as I can and not put the show in a box too soon or be presumptuous and think I know what it’s going to be or need. I like to discover what the show is in the process rather than come in trying to force some concept into or on it.
LD: What advice would you give to young designers just entering the business?
DLW: Do every show you can, but keeping in mind that you can devote the proper time to the schedule so you don’t half-ass it. Get as much practical experience in all aspects of designing a show. Get a wide range of experience, do a dance piece, do an avant-garde theatre piece, do a show with puppets, do a show without puppets, and challenge yourself. Keep your eye on the new young directors and find someone like-minded and work with them. The business is as much about the relationships you have as anything else, so build yourself an artistic family with directors, fellow designers, and your crews. Don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter than you.
Remember you don’t have to know all the answers and don’t feel like you have to prove how smart you are: You got the gig, now do the job, and finally, don’t talk to directors about the technical aspects of the design. They’re not sound designers and shouldn’t be expected to understand your process. What we do is magical and voodoo-like, but find ways to communicate and share ideas with them. You have to be able to talk to a director (or your other collaborators) about the art of the sound design and then translate that for yourself and your crew.