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 Association (TSDCA) 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 announced that sound design awards for a musical and a play will be presented again in 2018. Read Part One of this Tony Voter's Guide to Sound Design.
A Subliminal Art
When Victoria Deiorio designed The Year Of Magical Thinking, a one-woman show dealing with death, she created cues she knew wouldn’t be used in the production. “In order to help the actress, I designed sound and music that would evoke different moods and feelings in rehearsal. When we got to tech, I removed it for the show and used subtle crystal chakra bowls, used for sound therapy, lightly underneath these moments. The audience hardly knew it was there,” she says. But they felt more from the actor, who had been able to develop the role because of the sound cues.
“The highest compliment I get is when I create a piece of music or sound and an actor comes to me and says, ‘I had trouble finding that moment before that,’” says Lindsay Jones.
Usually, sound doesn’t disappear this literally, but most sound designers say that, if done right, it reaches an audience subliminally. “It’s part of the experience and doesn’t draw attention to itself,” says Tony-nominated designer Cricket Myers.
“Reinforcement is especially subliminal. Some of my favorite musical designs are often the ones that are done unbelievably subtly. There are a whole bunch of technical skills that go into making the sound system disappear, so I feel like I’m listening to a human being, not a PA,” says Nicholas Pope, adding that, while audiences may not perceive changes in the acoustical space, it affects their emotions. “To have things swell is a different experience than to have things be pretty cold, harsh, and closed down,” he notes.
West points out that we’re often not aware of sounds that surround us in life either. “When you’re standing on a street, or if you’re in a library or a park or at a lake, there’s an aural world that is around the human being, and you very rarely notice it,” says West. “You don’t leave a film thinking, ‘This is the best sound design.’ We’ve always been working subliminally and under the radar, even since the days of radio plays.”
Because it’s subliminal, says Pope, “It can be incredibly hard for an audience to parse what is going on there. When it’s easy for the audience to enjoy the piece, that probably implies a great sound design. They would notice if it wasn’t there.”
“I’ve never been one to worry about getting credit, or whether we’re noticed or not,” says Darron L. West, who is wary about a review that talks about a great sound design. Did he do something wrong to attract attention?
“If audiences say, ‘That actress’ voice was so powerful that it filled the room,’ I know that’s me,” says Myers. “If I had turned the mic off, they wouldn’t have heard her, but I want the audience to believe that voice was so powerful it got over the orchestra.”
Leon Rothenberg notes that reviewers will sometimes say that the orchestra was crisp and clear and sounded beautiful under the expert musical direction of So-and-So, but they don’t mention the sound designer. “It’s not a misattribution. It’s an incomplete attribution. They create the sound, and we make sure the audience can hear it. If someone is mumbling, we can’t make them speak clearly.
“You almost never hear unmediated sound in the theatre,” Rothenberg adds. “When you hear an orchestra, even when it sounds acoustic, it very likely is not. The design makes the reinforcement of the orchestra translucent. There’s no world in which you can call that acoustic, even though it feels that way. All the sound is treated in some way. In a playhouse with no microphones, you’re hearing just the actor, but that happens less and less. Listening habits have changed; there’s an expectation of a certain kind of comfort.”
Rothenberg says his goal isn’t to convince people he’s not there but to be there in an appropriate way. “It’s not a question of not being noticed but of being seamlessly integrated. I wouldn’t want to do South Pacific and make it sound like a rock show. When you mediate the music and the dialogue, some people may notice it, some people may not.”
So how is an audience member to know if a designer has achieved “a tasteful approach to presenting the sonic world of a particular play,” as Rothenberg calls it?
Jones has been talking to people on awards committees who fear making mistakes when judging sound. “If you watched a play, and there were moments that meant something to you, that touched you, after the show, just for a moment, review in your mind the moment and what was happening and if sound was part of that moment. That’s how you know it was good. You don’t have to look for flashiest or most exciting version of it; it can be small and subtle,” Jones tells them.
Rothenberg notes that a spectator doesn’t have to know why something felt right, just that it did. “We as theatre artists are trained to unpack that, to be objective about these things that are subjective,” he says, noting that someone might find a costume gorgeous without being able to articulate what made it the right garment for a character in a given scene. “There’s nothing wrong with just being satisfied with it, to having a gut reaction. Later, the more you think about it, it can get deeper. The theatregoing public, whether professionals or not, has an intuitive sense of the dramaturgical function of visual design. The more a spotlight is shown on sound design, the more people will understand it’s a thing, and the more they can make those leaps.”