As a sound designer born and raised in America, I'm angry about the British. Not at the British, about the British. Don't get me wrong: I love the accent, the castles, high tea, and last but not least, the literature. Last time I visited I had a fabulous trip to Bath as a day trip to my lengthy visit to London, ate wonderful meals, and only experienced a bit of stormy weather. I've even assimilated a great deal of the Queen's English. I'm constantly fighting my computer's word spell-checker over the proper spelling of words like “realised” and “theatre,” and my day-to-day use of words like “cheers,” “bloke,” “bloody,” “chaps,” “crisps,” and “chips” are more suited to a West End designer than my own New York City roots. I love working with the Brits who come to Broadway, and have literally years of work resulting from collaborations with UK-based sound designers.
So what's there to be angry about? Not the shows themselves, though I am getting frazzled by American producers bringing “guaranteed hit” shows over instead of developing decent plays and musicals here in the States. But that's a rant for a rainy day. No, today I'm angry about the Brits because I am working on a show that is directed and designed by a British creative team, and I'm insanely jealous. I'm green with envy because they are actually spending time and money to play in rehearsal. Imagine having piles of props, costumes, projections, video, and sound in the rehearsal hall along with your actors, dramaturgs, designers, and stage managers! Imagine a sound designer hanging out with the director, sound engineer, an entire sound system, and piles of effects and machines just to play during the process, while the stage management team watches and takes notes! To me, this is the very ideal of collaboration: playing with ideas as they ebb and flow, developing and creating conceptual sights and sounds in the milieu of action.
This rare process is evidently a concept unknown in American commercial theatre. I haven't actually sat in on most of the rehearsals for a show's development since graduate school. Sure, you might find a play in such development at the Goodman, Arena Stage, Actor's Theatre of Louisville or another LORT theatre that has the luxury of a salaried designer, on staff, in-house. But alas, American producers can't afford these extravagant luxuries, I've been told. Directors can't have time to play, to develop, to create in rehearsal with the entire creative team, because it costs them serious money that is needed elsewhere — usually that evil money pit called advertising.
Raise your hand, every one of you designers who has received a note about some new concept of an irritating, impersonal rehearsal report instead of from meaningful collaboration within a production meeting. If we're not in rehearsal witnessing the birth of the idea and communicating about it immediately, we are cut off from the creative process. I'm sick of seeing rehearsal reports that read, “We need an underscore for the monologue pg. 64.” Harumph. Like that small sentence can tell me anything about what needs to be done? The detective work I have to go through to have any idea of the actual need of the show is insane, as is the list of people to consult — the stage manager, dramaturg, playwright, director, and the affected actor all have important points of view. Once I've contacted each of these people and deduced what happened in rehearsal, how the idea developed, what the gestation was, and then finally figure out what is actually needed soundwise, I'm several steps behind the rest of the creative process.
If I were present in the rehearsal hall, I'd witness the moment first-person and perhaps be involved in the initial interaction, having the ability to discuss the moment: Does the text need to evoke something emotional that scoring could help achieve? Would music interacting with the text ruin the current moment? Is there something amiss with the scene that sound has nothing to do with? Is underscoring the perfect idea, with Shostakovitch, John Cage, Peter Schickele, or the Ramones? A designer with some passable tools — a piano/keyboard, some effects libraries in the rehearsal hall — would be able to create something on the spot in rehearsal to see how the moment works with underscore. I simply adore the idea of being able to do this. Is it so foreign an idea for a producer to spend a little extra money to afford the creative team in rehearsal? Sure it costs more, but think of the cohesiveness of the production! Imagine the possibilities and potential. OK, so we know it could be phenomenal for process, if expensive on the production. And a producer and GM will immediately point out that no one has the designers in rehearsal all the time. Well, now I'm angry, because all it took was a British director to convince an American producer to use his team and do it.
So if directors want us in rehearsal (and they do have to want us there and be willing to fight for us — sorry if I burst someone's bubble prematurely) and if producers are willing to cough up the additional dough for our gear and time (whoa, just imagine the people who will never speak to me again for suggesting such a possibility), then why can't we get back into rehearsal to develop and create our cues in the mis-en-scene? I'm not suggesting that every piece of theatre requires this level of attentiveness, but certainly many do; perhaps even half of today's modern theatrical productions could benefit by having more interaction and a greater presence by the daily design interaction in today's rehearsal hall. Is that all it takes, willingness, available time, and money? Oh wait, money is time, and I can only design one show at a time if I'm in the rehearsal hall, so I have to charge double, triple, or quadruple my usual fee depending on the length of rehearsal time. I know my lawyer would love that, but is it too early to ask for that kind of luxury? I mean, we got sound designers represented by the unions, LORT has finally recognized sound designers in their contracts, and the design fee minimums, while ridiculous, at least start the ball somewhere.
Or is the reality that too many people still have ancient concepts of audio and simply possess no idea what sound design really is? Maybe I should forget this whole column and discuss the fact that sound designers should be paid extra to design and implement com and video systems instead, or lament the demise of Napster in finding and researching source music. Maybe I should just forget the idea of getting back into the developmental process and be livid about the fact that after all this time, there is still no Tony Award for Best Sound Design. Nah. That'll have to wait for someone else to write it; it hurts me too much to even think about it. Let's see if I can pretend to stay angry about the British for a while as I head off for afternoon tea — a much more civilized activity than ranting about the woes of the theatrical sound designer. Cable lists and scones with clotted cream — now that idea is much better than being stuck in a stuffy rehearsal hall all afternoon! I'm off to Brown's for a quick production meeting, care to join me?
Jim van Bergen's engineering and designs have toured five of the world's continents and have been extensively broadcast on television and radio, including the BBC. Go figure.
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