Darron L. West is one of the busiest sound designers in New York--and one of the most creative. This spring alone, he's designed three new productions--The Misanthrope at CSC, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at New York Theatre Workshop and the Minetta Lane Theatre, and 2.5 Minute Ride for the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. He made his Broadway debut last season with his startling work on the revival of Wait Until Dark. Some of his most notable work has been done with director Anne Bogart and her company, Saratoga International Theatre Institute. These pieces integrate sound design in a way rarely seen elsewhere in the American theatre. West recently met with editorial director David Barbour to talk about his career.
David Barbour: We're here at CSC, where you've just designed The Misanthrope.
Darron West: Barry [Edelstein, the director] called me in to take care of Michael Torke, who's doing the music. It was an uncomplicated job, because I put the cabinets up a week before the lighting people got here.
DB: You don't normally get to do that, do you?
West: No, but Stephen Strawbridge [the production's lighting designer] dealt with it very well. I like to have a good relationship with my lighting designers. I like to get the light plot as soon as possible; then I start a dialogue with them about where the speaker positions need to be.
DB: We ran an article last August in which sound designers talked about their careers; a lot of them have tense relationships with lighting designers.
West: I read that article; it was like a really great therapy session. I thought, why doesn't somebody talk about working on the plays?
DB: Well, they feel disenfranchised.
West: Yes, yes, and part of me understands that, because everybody does their jobs very differently.
DB:How did you get into sound?
West: I was a broadcasting major at Western Kentucky University. There wasn't a sound department, so I did every show. By the time I graduated, I had designed, like, 45 shows. When I left, Steve Probus, the technical director there, got me my first real gig, at Williamstown Theatre Festival. That was in 1989.
DB: What was Williamstown like?
West: My first year there, I did every show, so there was no sleep--I was really cranking them out. I had a grand time--I was working with professional designers and directors. I thought, this is exactly what I want to do.
DB: You were resident sound designer at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
West: For three years.
DB: Where you met Anne Bogart.
West: During my first Humana Festival season, we did Eye of the Hurricane, the Eduardo Machado play. I didn't get to interact much with her in the rehearsal hall--not the way we do now. But when she came back, I made sure I could devote my time to her show. She helped out too, because she called Jon [Jory, the artistic director] and said, 'I want Darron in the rehearsal from the first day.' We keep kidding each other that I'm the other side of her brain.
DB: How do you create the Anne Bogart/ SITI shows? Does she come in and say, 'We're going to do a piece about Marshall MacLuhan or Andy Warhol?'
West: That's right.
DB: Does she have a text?
West: It's usually a lot of text, stuff that she's collected over a year or two.
DB: Where do you go from there?
West: We'll begin each day with viewpoints, which is music and movement training. She'll give us topics, just to find physical ideas for the show. Usually we'll have photographs of people's gestures or poses. She'll say, 'Incorporate the physical attitudes in these photographs while you're doing viewpoints today.' After 20 minutes of viewpoints, she usually has a definite idea of how to start. She'll say, 'I know Andy Warhol starts the play,' and then you go through seven different incarnations. Then she'll say to me, 'Have any ideas?'
That's how The Medium started. [Actor] Tom Nelis had a good idea to start the play. Using our research, we decided that The Medium would take place while Marshall MacLuhan was having a stroke. It was so ironic, because he couldn't speak after that, and this was a guy who was an unbelievable orator. So Tom came onstage and started doing his stuff, and Anne said, 'Go back and use that gesture from the photograph.' We looked at the photograph, and Tom practiced it a couple of times, then entered and did the gesture inside the speech. Then she said, 'Now move it to this word.' It's literally built that way--brick upon brick upon brick.
DB: How much time do you spend on a piece?
West: Six weeks, usually. Sometimes more, sometimes less. What's great is that when they're doing the text work, making the scenes of the play, the designers are in on it, too.
DB: So while you're watching rehearsals, you're planning your design.
West: I might be building it in the moment. There's such a fear of being wrong, especially if you're a sound designer, because you're competing with the actors' text. When I worked with Anne on [a revival of William Inge's] Picnic, I had these little-bitty speakers, and she kept saying 'Bring it up! I can't tell what you're thinking if I can't hear it!' Now, when we do a scene, I'll ask the actors to go back and try a different musical idea or entrance cue. Sound in the theatre scares lot of directors, because it's powerful. It isn't like any other design principle; you have to address it like an actor.
DB: Not that many sound designers get to work this way.
West: I used to read a lot about Hans Peter Kuhn, Robert Wilson's sound designer. I envied the hell out of him. But then you have to make the effort to put yourself in the position to have it happen. When I came to New York, I wasn't interested in assisting anybody. I wasn't interested in hooking up microphones. I waited until the jobs I was excited about came along. I'd work at The Gap before I'd do a play that didn't interest me.
DB: Is it less interesting to work on another director's productions, where your contribution might not be so central?
West: No, because if I can add something to the show that I feel is important, or that I don't initially see in the text, then I'll do it. The Misanthrope is a prime example. Michael Torke is doing the music, and this adaptation [by Martin Crimp] is amazing. It's a joy just to sit and watch Roger Rees and hang out with Michael. With every show, you've got a different perspective about what your job is.
DB: Last season you designed Wait Until Dark, which had extremely creative sound for a Broadway show. You and [lighting designer] Brian MacDevitt worked closely to heighten the tension with certain effects, like strobe flashes combined with unnerving camera-clicking sounds
West: Brian and I had a great time; he's a fabulous collaborator. I'd been working on this photo flash idea. When I played it, he said, 'Oh, my God!' and set up some strobes. We ran back and forth between each other's tech tables, working on it.
DB: Was Leonard Foglia [the director] open to this kind of work?
West: In the beginning, I don't think he knew what to do with me. It was the first show in three years where I wasn't in the rehearsal hall with the actors the moment they started working. So I gave him my stuff on a cassette, which is a really old-fashioned way for me to work. When we got to Boston [for the tryout], I played him all these wild ideas, but he said, 'I don't know if we want to make that show yet.' Then one night, after a preview, he said, 'Go home and make that show.' I spent our first day off in Boston putting together all these metal-grinding samples and location recordings that I had done in New York. It was a good learning situation for both of us. He never really explored sound that way before.
DB: On the Anne Bogart shows, you work with the same group of designers.
West: Neil Patel, James Schuette, Mimi Jordan Sherin. Mimi stays away from the rehearsal process. She wants to be completely objective. She's counted on, by the designers, and the actors, too, to be the outside person. She's the one to come in and say, 'I'm not really getting this; explain it to me.'
DB: So she functions as a kind of dramaturg?
West: Good designers should function as dramaturgs. You're trying to tell the story, too--you're just using a different tool. The best designers can carry on a conversation with the director about the play, not about whether you should use a clarinet or not. If you're talking about the play, then the play will tell you musically what's it's supposed to be. If you're doing a Tennessee Williams play and you narrow yourself into a certain time frame because the costumes are supposed to be from the 1940s, I think you're limiting your ideas.
DB: Do you compose music or play instruments?
West: I play percussion. I have composed on occasion for shows, but I find I like dealing with what we already have. I like the idea of taking a really great Duke Ellington piece and putting it up against what's happening onstage--and then all of a sudden the piece of music means something different.
DB: What Anne Bogart shows are out right now?
West: We just got done with Gertrude and Alice, which is brand new. That's why I was in St. Louis. We had a house filled with people who are 'Steinites'--I guess that's what you call them--so they got every laugh. Then there's Bob, about Robert Wilson, which was at New York Theatre Workshop last fall; it just got back from Minneapolis and then we're going to Paris and Prague with it. Also, we're starting work on Cabin Pressure, for the Humana Festival. We're also supposed to do Bob in Amsterdam, but I'm not sure when.
DB: It must be fun to travel so much.
West: It's great. It makes you a better artist. You never get more in touch with who you are than when you're away from your own country. You know, there are effects that happen at the beginning of Bob, because the last time I was in Prague, I took a walk on Sunday morning when the bells were ringing and there were crowds of people. In every city I visit, I usually go for a walk with a recorder. I really love Prague; it's a fabulous town for art.
He spent a year working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival; he admires Ken Burns and would love to make a documentary about John Cage; his musical tastes range from Cage to the Afghan Whigs (with many stops in between).