Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz makes his debut at the Broadway Sound Master Classes, May 21-23, with a session called Speaker, Schmeaker-Conceptually Driven Sound Design. He explains what he means in a Q&A with Live Design:

LD: What exactly do you mean by "Conceptually Driven Sound Design"?

RK: I feel that it's very important for all of the choices made by a sound designer to be anchored in the ideas of the play, whether it be a musical or a straight play. Design is about making choices—these choices are easier to grasp in when you hear music I've written, collages I've created, or even the sound effects I've put together for a play, because, well, if I didn't chose or create that content, it wouldn't be there. Those choices are always fueled by my interpretations of the writer's work, in conjunction with the collaborative choices made by the rest of the artistic team about a particular production.

When it comes to musicals, there is a tendency to look at the content of the play after other considerations—what's the shape of the room? What's worked for me before? What sounds "best"? Of course, these are vital, valid considerations, but before I even start thinking about these, I need to really understand what I think of as a more central question—what is this piece of theater about, and how can I, as a collaborative artist, help to tell its story?

Now, the music is already there, and already helping to do that storytelling. But the way the music is presented, the quality of the sound of the singers, the way the sound interacts with the audience— these are all choices that I'm going to make based on the aesthetic core of the musical.

In every musical, we want the audience to connect to the performers. As a designer, I'm making choices about how that connection is going to happen. And I'm basing those choices, first and foremost, on what
this production is about.

LD: How does your process differ from a musical to a straight play; from a new play to an old chestnut? Or does it...

RK: I try and approach every project with the same mindset—I have a toolbox that includes a certain amount of experience and knowledge, and absolutely no answers. I look to the play to start providing the answers.

In a new straight play (which is really where I do most of my work), I am often involved more heavily in the dramaturgical period—design meetings, the first couple of days of table work in the rehearsal room, etc. I tend to write a lot of music while sitting in the rehearsal room, with my headphone in one ear and the actors in the other.

I like to spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room for musicals, as well, but there I'm not creating content, I'm often listening to the interplay of voices and music, or listening for what the music is telling me about how I'm going to tell my story.

LD: What is your design process?

RK: Read the script. If it's a musical, listen to the music & read the score, if those thongs are available. With Fela!, I listened to a lot of his original music, as well as the music of Antibalas. Sit with it for a while. Read/listen again. Research (dramaturgy, really) anything I can about the piece. Talk to the artistic team and look at visual ideas coming from those designers. Go to a lot of rehearsals. Put ideas on paper.

On musicals, start roughing out signal flow ideas concurrent with looking at speakers on the plot. During that process, I'm deciding how I want the sound to get to the audience; I also start picking mic types for the vocalists and orch/band.

On plays, the step after all the reading and conversations is a cue synopsis. I put down every idea I have—cue descriptions are often stream-of-conscious style descriptions of what might be. I do lot of talking to myself and wandering around my apartment aimlessly while generating this list. I'll them bring that to my director (I do it inFilemaker, so I have a more "director friendly" layout, that just includes where the cue will happen, what it might sound like, and why I'm putting a cue there. We talk it thru for a couple of hours, then I start generating content and bringing it to rehearsal to try it on—first just in my headphones, then out loud in the room. Elements that work get put into a rehearsal computer, those that don't go away for revision or get cut from the list.

LD: What do you expect the BSMC attendees will take away from the session... what do you hope they will learn?

RK: I came up learning two disparate approaches for plays and musicals. I was mentored, on plays, by Mark Bennett, who really reinforced my dramaturgical instincts and approaches; that, combined with the immense flexibility in modern technology, which allows me to be responsive in the moment and to actually write music in rehearsal or tech has led me to believe that sound design can be 100% anchored to the text and production.

In musicals, the designers for whom I worked when younger tended to have a more gear and venue focused approach; many also had found tools and techniques that they loved, and that they chose to apply across the board.

I am hoping to share my particular approach as another way of tackling projects— the idea that, in all situations (musicals and plays), the project itself can and will suggest a particular way of conceiving the design. Also, that making risky, or even wrong choices is okay—if you have the confidence, knowledge and will, you can take those risks, knowing that, if they don't work, you'll be able to make the changes you need to find answers that do.

In short— that the biggest risk of all, as a designer, is to play it safe.