The creative process that sound designer Tom Mardikes describes as “fantastic” might give some designers pause: For many years at Missouri Repertory Theatre, where he is the resident sound designer, he would follow rehearsals with artistic director George Keathley, watching the play evolve. They would eventually commit to some ideas the day before the tech rehearsal, and begin recording sessions with musicians at a time when many designers had locked in their cues. “People don't like to do that anymore, and it's a shame,” says Mardikes. “In terms of scenery and costumes the build time is so long, but with sound you've got the ability to really track the production to see where it goes in the rehearsal process.”

Working with director Risa Brainin on several Shakespearean productions, Mardikes also found it useful to sit down with the design team and read the play out loud, a short cut to hearing the rhythms within the play even before rehearsals start.

Mardikes has built an extensive sound effects library at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where he is chair of the theatre department and head of the sound design program. Students add to the collection by creating recordings as diverse as the engine roars of A10 Warthogs at Whiteman Air Force Base and 50 different door knocks. Mardikes comments that as well as enhancing the collection, “It helps students go into the sound really deeply, it really gets them listening.”

To create authenticity in the physical environment of the play using sound, Mardikes makes extensive field recordings. For a production of City of Light in Buffalo he recorded Niagara Falls; for Treasure Island, he took a couple of antique firearms on loan for the production, went off to a wooded area with the firearms coordinator and recorded them being fired to get the proper period effect.

Adding music to the mix requires a subtler approach. The designer calls music the “emotional commentary” of the play and emphasizes to students the pitfalls of the made-for-TV-movie style of musical manipulation, when you know you should be horrified at the break up/reunion/betrayal/gender swap because the music clues you in to the plot line. He is also careful not to compete with the play. “It's really risky to use music with a melodic line,” he says. “Melody is dialogue, and using it in a play can be like hearing another voice of the play and can be very distracting.”

Tailoring familiar sounds to a production can also enforce a theme. For a production of Educating Rita, he used a montage of Beatles clips to identify the industrial North of England, but recorded the music with different arrangements to create a raw, working-class pub atmosphere at first that evolved into more of a jazz feel as Rita's character evolved.

One book that Mardikes has his graduate students read is In the Blink of an Eye, by Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning film and sound editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient. Murch describes two different approaches to creating art: the block of marble, where the stone is chipped away to reveal the form within, and the ball of clay, where pieces of clay are added and refined to create a form. Mardikes likens digital technology to the ball of clay approach. “I can have a huge list of available files and in the theatre I can continue to tailor and refine” throughout the rehearsal period.

If you have any secrets you want to share with the world, contact Kinnersley at perchkinn-@rcn.com.