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 Part One and Part Two of this Tony Voter's Guide to Sound Design.
Dramaturgically Organized Noise
“The way you define space sonically is integral to the story,” says Scott Lehrer. “The lighting and set would not look the same if the sound were not what it is. In 1984, the lighting would look overly expressionistic without the sound motivating it. With sound, it becomes a complete event, and the lighting makes sense. The dynamics that get created by the way sound builds to that moment make it a horrifying experience.”
“I feel like sound design is a field that almost encompasses all the other design fields,” says Nicholas Pope, explaining that scenic design defines setting, lighting design creates mood, and costume design provides insight into character. “If I play a recording of crickets at night, I’ve given you setting. If I put an underscore of tone under those crickets, I’ve given you mood, and if I play a piece of music we’ve come to identify with the character, I’ve given you characteristics. That’s from a real love of dramaturgy and really wanting to artistically inhabit that play.”
“To add to that, it’s in support of all those other fields,” says Victoria Deiorio, explaining that, when a character walks into the cathedral, and you add sound to what it looks like, it becomes more powerful. “When you match the aural to the visual successfully, it’s a really rich experience.”
“The magic of what happens in the theatre is we build this dramaturgically organized noise, making choices,” says Darron L. West, adding that his primary relationship is with the actors and the play, even more so than with the director. “You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes, both as an actor and a character, to be able to do the job. We’re telling the same story the playwright is telling. We’re just using different tools.”
“I find sound designers to be some of the best dramaturgs out there. We have to have a total understanding of the environment and the mood, the arc of the play,” says Pope. “I think that surprises people who think sound design is a technical skill. In truth, you have to love to dive into the bones of a play and learn all about what that show is, so you can reflect it properly.” Pope keys in on what actors are doing in rehearsal and when that collaboration gels, he says, “That’s when you get theatre magic.”
“When I sit and talk with the director, I talk about the plot and the story, and my sound has to relate to that as well as to the location,” adds Cricket Myers.
Lindsay Jones says it’s the sound designer’s job to translate the director’s vision into music and sound. “Occasionally, you’ll have a director who’ll say, ‘I really think the show should be in E-flat.’ I try to discourage that kind of thinking. We’re storytellers, just like everyone else working in the theatre. What I say to directors is to just tell me the story you want to tell and the feelings you want to evoke, and I’ll help you figure out how to do that with music and sound,” says Jones.
Sound sets location, too, of course. John Tiffany’s Let The Right One In at St. Anne’s “has a very subtle ambient soundscape that lulls you into a particular place before it gets terrifying,” says Lehrer.