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Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005

April 29, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound, Teachable Moments

So @travisbedardand @hethfenasked me the other day about blog posts related to sound design for the theater and, after slogging through my archives, I realized I had only a shameful 2 (two!) posts related to aesthetic choices in sound design. Apparently, on this site I’m a hobbyist theater marketer and cheerleader and nothing more.

The conversation has been an interesting one from there (spawing this amazing Tao Te Sound post from Steve Ptacek, among others), and to help move it along, I’m doing a series of posts on the specific aesthetic questions that have shaped me over the productions as a sound designer. One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there. When I was in college only a decade ago, the only textbook I could find was only available self-published in velo-binding from the author. (It was also as dry and academic as six saltine crackers without milk). In that theory vaccuum, I’ve been worried as a teacher about dogmatizing my current aesthetic explorations as beliefs in my students and collaborators. That’s a big trap. It is also silly of me. And it’s also no excuse to not break open the specific aesthetic challenges that sound in theater presents, because frankly the conversation can’t necessarily be only led by playwrights, directors, critics and audiences.

So, to crack this huge subject open, these are the specific central questions (and my half-baked answers from the time) that I’ve asked myself both personally and collaboratively over each of my productions in my formative years as a designer – 2000 – 2005. Each one is a post in themselves, but for now, let’s look at the whole picture.

Dr. Faustus – University of Massachusetts. How do you use a ton of pop music in a play without conjuring up all of the audience’s personal emotional associations? My answer: Embrace and then Mash all those associations into an emotionally confusing and challenging pulp that becomes something new. Mix yer Philip Glass, Shawshank, and the Friday the 13th theme together in a melange of crazy.

Reckless – New Leaf. How do you unify an all-over-the-map-story into a unified aesthetic? Answer: intuit the emotional tone and arc of the story and start from there. In this case, lonely “diner” music that has been well-absorbed into collective pop sensibility: Mamas & Papas, 70’s soul, old 45s. Anchor the emotional tone of each song with the journey of the central character, and you’re off.

Accidental Rapture – Visions & Voices. If sound can so easily overpower human-sized action onstage (by losing them underneath huge, epic sonic landscapes), how do you know when to pull back for the good of the story? Answer: When there is an apocalypse sequence offstage in your play, not then (thanks, Eric Pfeffinger). Also, death mare snorts can be made out of the sound of Walruses.

Man Who Had All the Luck – Raven. How does one achieve a naturalistic realism in sound on stage? Answer: Think through all the physical parts and sequences of that engine that gets started onstage. Yes, that’s right: Naturalism is a lot of work with very little payoff. But: You have to know how to recreate the world before you can really mash it up into fine art.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue – New Leaf. How the heck do you compose without musical training? Answer: Focus on texture. Let acting and directorial choices be your guide. Memorize and review whole sequences of stage action, and intuit a sonic layer that works with those choices. Oh, and hire a cellist who can improv – a little help from your friends. Trust that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to an audience.

Brilliant Traces – New Leaf. Does bad technology get in the way of your designs? Answer: After hearing the ugly compression on the 45 minute wind storm sound cue, I never use minidisc players again. You could use that effect, certainly… but not in naturalism.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Raven. How much should a designer pay attention to the sonic instructions from the playwright? Answer: Investigate all the big P’s choices and seek to understand the impulses that drive them. Ultimately, though, you’re communicating to a modern audience, not the audience that the playwright understood, and that means adapting. That said, no matter how much you cringe when hearing Lawrence Welk’s version, you can’t get rid of the Varsouviana in that play since it’s so tied up in Blanche’s crazy. Also, it’s in 3/4 time, which is the meter of crazy. Be respectful, young squire.

The Cherub Program. Educational theater, 10 fully-produced plays in 1 month. How the hell do you get this all done AND make the designs clear enough for student operators and stage managers who have never done this in their life? Answer: refine your paperwork, refine your process. For the past four years: teach ’em qLab. Know yourself, and get intimate with your limitations. Know the flame and the heat that gets generation from when you’re about to snap. And live there at least one month out of every year.

The Odd Couple – Metropolis. You’ve been designing for a young hipster and American realism-loving audiences. What do they like to see in the ‘burbs? Answer: Get over yourself, Arty McFarty. Get conventional, and get fun. 60’s bachelor pad music is a rich tapestry of goofy awesome, and if you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.

Hello Again – Apple Tree. Uh oh. Wireless mics and no budget. What now? Answer: Turn them down. Get transparent. Listen, EQ, Listen, EQ. Refine, Refine, Refine. Care. Sit in all the seats, and take notes through all the previews. Do. The. Work. Even when all odds are against you, and you’ll end up with *something*. Sometimes learning is survival.

Lexicon – New Leaf Theatre. What happens when sound is… all of the show? Is it still theater? Answer: I need some practice with playwriting, but a solo project is a great way to quickly galvanize your process. And what a great way to learn how to design in surround sound. And even better: easy remount for educational purposes!

Improvisation with the Vampire – The Free Associates. How do you design a show that is meant to be improvised? Do you just stay out of everyone’s way, or do you try to support their choices with a framework of underscore that focuses those choices? Answer: Work, Train, and Play with your Stage Manager. Make everything easy easy easy for them. Empower them to make split-second artistic choices within a framework that you establish. Watch them work, coach them, and adjust your design until they can play your (ugh) minidisc player like an instrument. That’s a particular kind of joy for a design team.

War of the Worlds – Metropolis – What about foley and actor-driven sound? How do you practically train and translate the language of foley sci-fi effects into flashy onstage magical trickery? Answer: Do a mix of experimenting and stacking the deck. Assemble an entire orchestra of options, filling the frequency bands (Low, middle and high) as you go. In a story like WOTW, there is a fascinating point where the narrative perspective shifts – when the invented world becomes more “real” than the “real” world – and the sound can follow that transition. Find the point when you shift the diegetic world of the foley-powered CBS radio studio into a more out-of control and non-diegetic world of the story itself with piped-in sound effects.

Crave – The Side Project – How do you do the work of a sound designer when you can’t afford to devote enough time to properly tech a show? Answer: Still figuring that one out, but short answer: be very very clear in your communication and be very very attentive and efficient in your listening. Make a bold textural choice, and then back the hell away from choices that require precise timings and levels.

Stay Tuned for part 2!

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2 Comments to “Questioning a Design Aesthetic, 2000 – 2005”


  1. Nick, this is exactly the kind of thing I think we need. I’m continually frustrated by a lack of discussion about process and aesthetic in sound design. As I said in a recent post, it’s groovy to read about speakers and $75k mixing desks, but especially at the storefront level some discussion of creative problem-solving is much more valuable. You say, “One of the underlying reasons I’ve shied away from writing about sound on this blog is that there is so little sound design in theater theory out there.” And I reply: we need to create some. Every month, “Mix” magazine has at least one article with a film sound designer about how they approached the creative aspect of a design…but “Stage Directions” just talks about wireless mic frequencies and speakers (not that those things are unimportant, certainly).

    Looking forward to Part 2.

    1
  2. Whoo, boy, did I enjoy reading this! You even included Lexicon! (BTW, the link to it is broken; you forgot your http:// :)

    I am definitely looking forward to Part 2, and whatever else you post about this topic. It’s mad interesting.

    2

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