How do you describe what it means to be a resident sound designer? I think the job description varies with each theatre. I have been resident at two different theatres in my career so far, and each has had a very different view of what they wanted from me, a view that evolved and changed over time.
The job description tends to fluctuate with the needs of the moment. At South Coast Repertory, I was hired as the sound engineer and was told that I would likely not be designing any shows. I ended up designing four shows that first season, then anywhere from 10 to 13 each year after that. The plus side to that is that it was easier to make my own opportunities, especially as a sound designer, especially at that time.
At American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, I have a great engineer, Suzanna Bailey, and a full-time intern that works as my design assistant. So the work I do is much different now. I am more of a full-time designer, although there are still some management duties as well. What I wanted from the job has evolved as well, and I guess the thing I love most about where I am now is the willingness of the theatre to give and take with me, and allow me to be involved and have input in ways that freelance designers rarely get a chance to, such as season planning, capital expenditure planning, and play development.
The opportunity to work with a mixture of directors, designers, actors, staff, and crew, some resident and others freelance, creates an environment that is filled with new ideas and dynamics, while still being a very nurturing and somewhat safe environment in which to explore and create. You get to develop lasting working relationships and friendships, and you develop a shorthand working with the same engineer that allows you to work faster and do better work. The mixture keeps it interesting, but I always feel safe enough that I can try and do something different and take some risks without worrying too much about where the next job will come from.
Early in my career at South Coast Repertory, this allowed me to really work on my design skills, and with those experiences and all of that work I became a better designer, maybe faster than I could have if I had been struggling to find freelance work. When I was freelancing, I spent a lot of time and energy looking for work, and filling in the slow times with other kinds of work, like taking calls with the IA local or working for a local sound company doing everything from concerts to high school graduations.
I also love working in the same theatre most of the time. You can spend more time thinking about the show and its particular needs rather than worrying about how things sound in different areas in the theatre. I don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about where to hang speakers or EQing and tuning the system. Most of that work has been done already. There is more time to spend on detailing the design of the show and creating dynamic, three-dimensional designs. You always know how much you can accomplish in a given amount of time. You have a really good sense of how much you can throw at your engineer before they hit the wall (or you!).
You also can look ahead to what is coming in the next year or more and start working early on some idea or integrating a new technology or tool. I have a Disklavier piano onstage right now for The Dazzle, and I knew I was going to need it almost a year ago, so it was much easier for the theatre to find one we could use (and afford) and it gave me time to think through how to drive it and how to interface the sequencing computer with the Level Controls System we have so the show could still run on one go button.
I think that I get to be in rehearsal more as well. That always makes for a better design; when I was freelancing there just wasn't the time to do that. Surviving meant overlapping schedules. I see a lot of other designers flying in and out, back and forth, just to stay on top of the many shows they have in progress at one time. Not only is that tough on someone physically, I certainly can't do my best work in those conditions. Something has to give.
There are also several other local theatre companies that I can do some work for as well. Since they are local, I can work meetings and rehearsals into my schedule much more easily. They see my work at ACT all the time, and I see other designers' and actors' work; there is a lot of cross-fertilization within the community, as well as a strong sense of community. Two of the other local companies have the same wireless systems we do so when one of us needs extra wireless there is usually some available to share back and forth.
There are some downsides to being a resident designer. I have to turn down a couple shows a year that I would really love to do, but they conflict with my pretty full schedule. In fact, realistically, I can only expect to do a couple freelance designs a year. There are also some management duties that aren't always the most exciting thing to deal with, like processing purchase orders and invoices, dealing with inventory, computer systems maintenance, contracting musicians and studios for sessions, etc.
But when it comes down to it, for me, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. The largest advantages are in my life outside the theatre. I have two great little boys and I actually get to see them on a regular basis. I have friends outside of theatre with other interests. Best of all, at the end of the day, I get to go home to my bed, not a hotel. In other words, I have a life.