Like many of you I tune into the Tony awards every year, and every year without fail I find this celebratory evening marred by a single glaring oversight. As category after category is announced I grow bitter at knowing that sound will not be mentioned. The omission of sound designers from the table of this theatrical banquet must be reconsidered.
A conversation I had recently with Las Vegas-based sound designer Jonathan Deans emphasized this point. We are a legitimate design discipline and not merely a catch-all for facilitating the amplification of performers, the communications for the stage manager, and the video for the automation operator. Deans' philosophy suggests that sound design “functions to support the show, support the creative team who are doing the show and contribute something that will give the audience a unique experience.” He compares audio design to a perilously sharp knife that can “make an amazing dinner but it can also kill you. You just have to put it into the right hands. People are slowly finding that out as far as sound design and sound systems.”
The Oxford dictionary describes design as “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of something before it is built or made.” Merriam Webster says that a designer is “One who creates and often executes plans for a project.” This seems to fit my understanding of what it is we do and yet people persistently underestimate sound design as unworthy of the design moniker, instead merely labeling it “technical support.” The Tony committee recently added extra recognition for lighting, scenic and costume design by separating awards for plays and musicals while continuing to ignore sound design. Yes, we've all heard the argument that it took 23 years before lighting design was recognized by the Tony voters but that happened in 1970. Thirty-four years have passed since then and still no award for sound.
The Tony committee seems convinced that sound does not deserve the same degree of recognition as the other design disciplines. Fortunately, there are many other awards organizations that do recognize our contributions to the industry. In London's West End, the Laurence Olivier Awards recognize sound design. In Australia, the Helpman Awards recognize sound design. In Toronto, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards recognize sound design. Let's not forget the Obie Awards, the Helen Hayes Awards, and a myriad of industry awards such as ED's own Eddy Awards that all acknowledge sound design alongside lighting, costumes, and scenic design. Even the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards recognize that sound is a design discipline and yet, we are still misunderstood and underappreciated in New York. Some would say that in the best case, a theatrical sound design should be invisible to the audience, so why not also invisible to Tony voters?
Certainly one of the primary reasons for this snobbery in the industry is due to a lack of understanding of what is actually involved in executing a sound design. Many people have trouble figuring out their own home stereo system and a large theatre sound system is no different. So how do we go about educating people? How do we make people aware that what we do is an art and design? To begin with, we have an obligation to resist falling into the trap of re-executing our previous work on subsequent projects. We need to think freely, to innovate, and to revolutionize the medium.
It is this mindset of innovation that propelled Martin Levan to such success. Levan is credited as the person who finally permanently moved lavaliere microphones from the performers' chest to their heads, pioneered the use of open Tannoy speakers, and introduced the still popular A/B system for vocals. Deans describes his early days working with Levan as a rollercoaster ride, all at once “fascinating, exciting, infuriating… it just depended on the day… and risky… but he had the backing of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was critical.” After all, adds Deans, “It is through the support of such powerful impresarios as Cameron Mackintosh, Garth Drabinsky, David Merrick, and Guy Laliberté (of Cirque du Soleil) that a designer can truly realize his or her vision.”
Since designing the sound for Siegfried & Roy's show in Las Vegas Jonathan Deans has gone on to become one of the top sound designers in the country. In particular, he is known for his collaboration with Cirque du Soleil which has taken his use of the movement of sound to a whole new level. While taking a peek at his latest show for Cirque, Kà that has yet to be unveiled at the MGM Resort in Las Vegas, Deans spoke passionately about the art of sound design and how sound is art when you allow it to be. “You can only do with sound what you are allowed to do,” he offers. “To start off your design you should have no expectations about what you should be doing and approach it that way. Look at a blank piece of paper and be wide open to ideas. Of course, as soon as you hit certain confinements, restrictions like Broadway theatre, there are certain compromises that you must make.” He goes on to say that all of us “get used to listening to what we expect as opposed to listening beyond that… listening to something as if you have never heard it before… with no expectations.”
Deans spoke at the 2004 Broadway Sound Master Class sponsored by ED and said that he is afraid that many in the audio field are forgetting the “design” aspect of what we do. Sadly, our industry has become saddled with the burden of the high costs of working in the theatre, which translates into not only a lack of money but also a lack of time - possibly a lack of will. It is all too easy to look at sound design as a means to an end. The actors and musicians must be heard, the crew must have intercom and video, and so this becomes the template for our craft. When asked these days how he makes magical soundscapes happen on productions such as O Deans says that it happens with the support of people such as Guy Laliberté who have a vision of live entertainment and are willing to give sound design the time and position it deserves.
So what are the ingredients for compelling the Tony committee to add categories for sound design? Sound designers need the support of producers, directors, and fellow creative staff who are willing to understand not only the importance of good sound to a production but also the negative impact of bad sound. Time and money needs to be allocated so that sound is not an afterthought but instead a full partner in the creative process.
Designers need to free themselves up to creative ideas and be fearless in experimenting with new concepts. We need to be open to innovation, not bogged down with simply amplifying the band and voices. Most of all, we need to educate people to understand what we do. There are too many commentaries in the media declaring that sound is a detractor in live theatre rather than a panacea for poor room acoustics and the rigors of performing eight shows a week. Many commentators pine for the “old days” before mikes were used in live theatre and yet if it was all turned off tomorrow I'll bet that there would be a rush to turn it back on.
In next month's column, I will talk with Deans about Cirque du Soleil, Kà, which is creating quite a buzz in the industry and will set a whole new standard in the use of advanced technologies in the theatre.
David Patridge is a sound designer, production sound engineer, and audio consultant based in Toronto. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.