I convinced him that he needed an assistant. He said, ‘I'm just starting out, so I don't know if I need one.’ I said, ‘Yeah you do, because I want to quit my job and work for you.’
A couple of vans got Jill Du Boff started in theatre sound design, and by that we don't mean the kind you use to move your gear from one gig to another. Du Boff, whose recent solo credits include The Wax at Playwrights Horizons and Hooray for Iceboy at the Adobe Theatre Off Broadway, was fortunate enough to have worked with two well-respected sound designers very early in her career: Jim van Bergen and David Van Tieghem.
Du Boff hadn't even considered sound design as a career when she first ran into van Bergen as a sophomore at Bard College. “My friend was the stage manager for a production of On the Town, and I had come backstage to congratulate everyone,” Du Boff recalls. “My friend had to call someone, and she said, ‘Talk to this guy’, and it was Jim. He said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I'm a dramaturgy major.’ He said, ‘You know, the way I got my start in theatre was that I just assisted people, so I got to know the business as well as the people.’ He said he was looking for assistants, and asked if I would like to assist him. I was just going on winter break, so I said, great. It was Booth, starring Frank Langella at the York Theatre Company. That was my first show.”
She also followed van Bergen's advice and began working in other aspects of the theatre at York, from stage management to box office to casting director. The latter job made Du Boff unhappy, however, and she decided to get more involved in sound design. Having worked with David Van Tieghem on a couple of prior projects, she pitched to him the idea of becoming his assistant.
“I convinced him that he needed an assistant,” she says now. “He said to me, ‘Well, I'm just starting out, so I don't really know if I need one.’ But I said, ‘Yeah you do, because I want to quit my job and work for you.’ So he hired me for 30 hours to start, and that was six years ago. It's been trial by fire really, and I've just learned by doing.”
Over those six years, Du Boff has worked with Van Tieghem on such projects as The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) at the Lucille Lortel, The Mineola Twins at the Roundabout, The Grey Zone at MCC, and Judgment at Nuremberg on Broadway. At the same time, she's managed to carve out her own sound credits, ranging from Tallulah Hallelujah! at the Fairbanks Theatre to Poona the Fuck Dog and Other Plays for Children at the Adobe to the first national tour of Wit. She's currently working as sound designer to Van Tieghem's composer in the New York debut of the latest Sam Shepard play, The Late Henry Moss.
Du Boff says she learned a lot about design from Van Tieghem and fellow sound designer Bruce Ellman, and a lot of the technical side of the job from David Ferdinand from One Dream Sound. She's done one musical — Tallulah Hallelujah! — but she sees herself more in the designer/composer side of sound, much like her mentor, though she admits she still has much to learn about composing.
“I like underscoring and soundtracking,” Du Boff explains. “I like setting the mood for shows, adding sound where it's not expected, and just making sounds up.”
Van Tieghem, a former TCI Award winner, is impressed with Du Boff's creativity. “I know that when I go see something she's done, she always surprises me,” he says. “She's managed to create her own individual voice, which is nice to see.”
One of Du Boff's favorite recent projects was Poona at the Adobe, directed by Jeremy Dobrish. “They let me have free rein,” she says. “So I devised the show based on the fact that it was a fairy tale, and gave every actor his or her own effect. There was one character called Suzy Cyberassassin, who discovered she could destroy the world, and at one point was going to set her brother on fire; I used the sound of Zippo lighter clicking open and the whoosh of an explosion for her. There's also a rabbit, and I made bouncing noises for him. I did 455 cues for that show.”
Poona, it turned out, was also one of Van Tieghem's favorites. “It was a funny play and a funny sound design, and I don't think I'd seen her do anything as big and a complicated as that before,” he recalls. “I felt kind of proud at what a good job she had done.”
Photo: Andrew French