At the Tony Awards in 2008, sound designers were among the recipients for the first time. Sound design is an art, after all, and finally, everyone knew it.
So when the Tonys decided to eliminate sound awards for the 2014-15 season, it surprised sound designers everywhere. Subsequently, an informational campaign began, and from that, a group of sound designers created an organization called Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers to educate average theatregoers, critics, award voters, and even the people who pay sound designers to do their jobs.
In April 2017, the Tony Awards Administration Committee Association announced that sound design awards for a musical and a play will be presented again in 2018.
Read the rest of the Tony Voter's Guide to Sound Design:
- Part One: But Are The Voters Ready?
- Part Two: A Subliminal Art
- Part Three: Dramaturgically Organized Noise
Suiting The Sound To The Space
Location, in turn, influences sound. “The room is a key component for us,” says Nicholas Pope. “I think it ends up driving many, many choices, whether it’s kind of by handcuffs—you’re forced into it—or by opportunities. One of the reasons I enjoy doing theatre is the real challenge of the acoustical environment, that room you have to work within and still take the audience where you want it to go.”
And of course, the design changes with the space. “If the story lives in the outdoors, you have to make the walls of the theatre disappear in order to transport the audience. If part of the story takes place in the bathroom or a cave, a delay or bounce [helps create the enclosure],” says Victoria Deiorio.
“Illyria at the Public is in a tall space that allows me to create an atmosphere and a lot of sonic depth,” says Scott Lehrer. “It’s not sound playing in the background. It comes from all parts of the theatre, immersive but not in an obvious way. Maybe in that case even more so, the visual void around the actors is filled in with the soundscape. Jennifer Tipton could have wanted light coming in from offstage, a window, but [she left] actors in a void. In this case, I wasn’t working with a composer. There are pop songs in between scenes and offstage music from the park up the street from the late 1950s.” Lehrer adds that there would have been Cuban or Dominican drummers playing outside in that neighborhood at that time.
Designing for three-dimensional spaces has helped Leon Rothenberg when he designs for virtual reality, working alongside people from the game and TV industries who are used to dealing with flat spaces. “I can create sound and ambience and place them in space,” he says. “Since game players are making choices, a sound designer also has to make sure sound doesn’t push the player in one direction or another.”
Three-dimensionality also has a downside, though. Cricket Myers says students and pros struggle when asked to put together a portfolio.
Transcending The Room
Deiorio, who created sound for Around The World In 80 Days in a 16'x16' black box, notes that sound can erase the limitations of a building. “If you have a big shipwreck in a small house or aliens landing, things that are not possible in our world, sound aids greatly.” Sound and color helped audiences know what part of the world they were in for this show.
Darron L. West directed the premiere of Kid-Simple by Jordan Harrison at the Humana Festival; at the end of the play, a series of sentences and single words allows the director and designers to define visual and auditory images. “One of them, for example, would be something like ‘The Whole World Explodes,’ which seems to be a simple description but is a very complex aural idea,” says West. “The designer has to define what that means in the context of the characters, the world of the play, for the audience and for the time in which the play is performed. For instance, that sentence in 1968 could mean something very different than in 2017 in all respects. The world exploding could be the sound of a bomb exploding or a montage of sound bites of the Trump election, for instance.”
In The K Of D by Schellhardt, characters talk about a blue heron that flies across the water. “The playwright had seen several productions and had never been entirely happy with it. The other designers before me had done their best to create the sound of a large bird flapping,” Lindsay Jones recalls. “What I realized is that the moment is less about the sound of the bird and about the magic the bird brings. It needed a cue that was more musical and abstract. What’s great about theatre is you’re not necessarily attempting to create verisimilitude. What you’re trying to do is evoke a response, a visceral trigger, just as a set design rarely is an actual functional architectural thing. You have a lot more leeway to create more imaginative soundscape ideas than if you were doing a film.”
The universe had to “crack open” in Mr. Wolf. Myers sent playwright Rajiv Joseph a thank you text for giving her the chance to do something so interesting.