In a career spanning 20 years, Chicago-based sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen have created music and sound for productions as diverse as A Year With Frog and Toad and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They are regular designers in regional theatres including Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre, as well as on and Off Broadway, and produce music and sound for CD-ROM titles and films. At this year's Broadway Sound Master Classes, Milburn and Bodeen prepare sound designers for the differences between regional and Broadway production in the workshop “Moving to Broadway, The Nuts and Bolts.” Here, they talk about working together, how many speakers are too many, and why they want to be paid as badly as everyone else.
LD: How do you work together? Do you have complementary strengths and weaknesses?
Rob Milburn: No weaknesses, only strengths [laughs].
Michael Bodeen: Well, we both write music, and we both design sound, sort of at the same time.
LD: So, the collaboration grew out of your musical background?
RM: We composed the music to Sam Shepard's lyrics [for The Tooth of Crime], and we were in a band that played live on stage for that production. It was one of our first theatrical jobs. We had been playing in clubs and things before that, but the notion of working in theatre came upon us during that period.
LD: How did the partnership evolve?
MB: Rob and I were both in theatre in high school and played in a band, but in the 1980s, when I left the band and got a day job, Rob continued in theatre. In 1991, I started to work with Rob, who essentially taught me the ropes of composition and sound design in regional theatre.I assisted him quite often in the early days, so I could learn a little bit about what was going on, and it was a very easy thing to pick back up because, when you are writing music together in a band, you collaborate. It just comes naturally, and this did as well, and then eventually, I got a little job here and another job there — some small theatres and small projects.
LD: Can you tell us about an early show?
MB: My first show?
RM: It might have been In The Flesh.
MB: Yeah, it was In The Flesh, a Clive Barker book that was directed and adapted by Charlie Sherman and Steve Pickering at The Organic Theatre Company in Chicago. It was a big, huge…
RM: …it was an aural blast, definitely.
MB: It was about life in a prison, among other things, so it had huge cell doors closing in this small space. It was a lot of fun.
LD: So after you read the script, but before you get to rehearsal, how do you work?
MB: When we sit down to read the text, one of us will start playing something, or there's a melody that you hear in your head, and you throw it on a tape recorder and bring it in and start working on it. It all depends on who has the inspiration.
We have a MIDI studio, and we use Pro Tools and a bunch of plug-ins that work with Pro Tools, and I'll play guitar, and Rob plays piano, and we just sort of work our way through the play.
RM: So much comes because we collaborate; we end up with things found during the process of creating. That kind of discovery is vital. Though some things are preplanned, an entire piece rarely comes whole to either of our heads.
LD: What will you be talking about at the Master Classes?
RM: We are doing an updated version of how to bring a show to New York, “Moving to Broadway, The Nuts and Bolts.”
MB: In a regional theatre, the sound department has whatever it has — you know, speakers and microphones, and maybe a few rented things — but the infrastructure is completely intact. When you go to Broadway, there's nothing there — just four walls — so you have to bring everything in to work on that production.
RM: And we speak from experience on this. It is quite a shock when you come from living in the regional world to having to do that. It is a whole different skill set, and there is a lot to keep track of. And it is every regional sound designer's dream, I would presume to say, somewhere in his head, that eventually he is going to get a show that's going to Broadway.
The first one that happened to me was a long, long time ago — The Grapes of Wrath — and we took it to London, too, which was also a real shock. Back then, they had a whole different style of equipment. We were still using microphones, mixers and speakers, and stuff, but I'd never been exposed to as many Tannoys in my entire life!
LD: Well, hopefully they are a bit more sophisticated now.
MB: It's much easier on an operator now. We've had shows in the mid 90s where Martha Wagner, the audio master at Steppenwolf, had to run five reel-to-reel tape machines and a cassette player, and we had almost 200 cues on the show. If you sat there and watched her operate, it was a beautiful, beautiful dance. But if she ever got sick, that was the end of the show.
RM: Years ago, I was working on the sound design for the national tour of Angels in America, and there wasn't a particularly big budget. Clay Taylor was the sound operator, poor guy. There were tons of cues in that production; there was a lot of sound and a lot of music, and he was running multiple reel-to-reel machines, a cassette machine, a DAT machine, and a CD player. All this was going on, and he was scrambling around in a non-automated mixing console.
Then, a producer from New York named George McPherson came in — he was a great guy and a lot of help — and he watched the show and Clay working this way, and afterward, he said, “I think it is time we moved into the digital generation.” He rented an LCS rig, which was fantastic, and then Nevin Steinberg came on as operator, and Clay was so pissed off when he came to visit to see Nevin just pushing the button. That's not to say Nevin didn't do anything — he had a wonderful touch — but Clay was sweating at the end of the show.
LD: It used to be real manual labor.
MB: There are advantages and disadvantages. Technology has improved so that you can get the fade right or get the level perfect, but there were some shows where the touch of the operator made the difference, because it depended on what the actor did that night. You miss it once in a while.
LD: The tools are only as good as the people using them.
RM: Any kind of job in theatre is an ongoing education, particularly the ones where you're dealing with technology.
LD: But the Tony for sound design is a change for the better.
RM: I spent a lot of time trying to get that process along. It is a good thing, not just for us. We don't do that many shows on Broadway, but it's a perception thing and an economic thing for our sound brothers and sisters to be treated as fairly as everybody else. Michael and I always say, “As long as we're being paid as poorly as everybody else, then we're just fine.” But it has to be equal.