The orchestra crescendos and the cast hits the final note. The curtain falls and then thunderous applause. After months of preparation and rehearsals and tech, the show is finally open — off to the opening-night party. At one table are the sound designer, his associate and assistant, and the engineer for the show. But how did these people get there? Was the designer ever a mixer or an assistant? Does the sound engineer want to design? What do the assistant and associate do? Is there a difference between a lighting assistant and a sound assistant? Is there a different road to becoming a sound designer than a lighting designer?
These were some of the questions that intrigued me, so I decided to talk with Andrew Keister, as he has done all of the jobs.
Shannon Slaton: What is your educational background?
Andrew Keister: I went to CCM [University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music]. I was a theatre major concentrating on scenic design. The school had a great musical theatre department, so I was exposed to sound. George Smith was the teacher who first got me on a console, and sound became more of my focus. I was very lucky to have gone to CCM because I received real hands-on training.
SS: How did you get started in sound?
AK: Smith owned a sound company, and after school I went to work for his company. I worked full-time for him for two years. We did all of the theatre in Cincinnati. I also mixed a lot of country music in Kentucky, and I learned what a slide guitar was at a gig.
SS: What was your goal: design, mixing, both?
AK: Both. I believe a good designer has to be a good mixer — something I realized at school. I also had the sense that there was a path from mixer to designer.
SS: What job do you consider your first break, and how did you get it?
AK: I moved to New York and got a job mixing Blue Man Group. That was a great group of people and great to work for. And it was a very good job for Off Broadway. They even offered health insurance.
SS: On what shows have you assisted?
AK: My first assisting job was King Lear at the Public in 1995. Dan Schrier was the designer. Then Dan went on to design Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, and I assisted him on that on Broadway.
I met Jon Weston while working on Blue Man, and he asked me to assist on On the Town at the Public, which moved to Broadway. Then I assisted on a tour of Noise/Funk for Weston. I have also assisted on Hairspray and various companies of The Lion King.
SS: What shows have you mixed?
AK: I toured with Titanic in 1998. Steve Kennedy designed that show, and I have been working for Steve ever since. On Broadway, I have mixed Noise/Funk, Titanic, Annie Get Your Gun, Aida, and Hairspray.
SS: On what shows have you been associate?
AK: I was the assistant on Hairspray in addition to mixing it. John Shivers was the original associate. As we started to build multiple companies of the show, John got very busy with some other shows and then I became the associate.
When John and I are working on a show with Steve, John is the associate, and I am the production engineer — as on Mary Poppins — because he and Steve have been working together for over 15 years.
I will only work as an associate to Steve because he has treated me so well. I am very loyal to him. Jon Weston taught me the importance of loyalty in this business and that it is a two-way street. There is not a lot of loyalty in theatre, but in sound it is a valued and rare commodity.
SS: What shows have you designed?
AK: The Blue Man actors passed my name on to design a show downtown at the Cherry Lane called New Bozena. It was a crazy clown show that got me tons of interviews. I did Water Engine at the Atlantic Theatre and Book of Dead at the Public. I also did Power Plays with Alan Arkin. It had some of the same producers as New Bozena.
When I was 28, I got my first Broadway design for Taller Than a Dwarf, an ill-fated play staring Matthew Broderick and Parker Posey that Alan Arkin directed. After that, I had a realization that I had much more to learn, so I took a couple of years off from designing and concentrated on mixing and really learning the craft from the inside out.
This year, I designed Company on Broadway.
SS: Do you think the road to designing is different in sound than in other disciplines?
AK: Absolutely — all the great sound designers were great mixers from Otts Munderloh to Steve Kennedy, Jon Weston, John Shivers, and Brian Ronan, to name a few. I think the reason that mixers become designers is because the sound of a show is interpreted by the mixer nightly, and a good designer will accommodate his mixer's needs in the design. If the designer was never a mixer, he lacks some of the basic understanding required to give his mixer the tools needed to deliver a great show eight times a week.
It is not like that in lighting. A great lighting designer does not have to be a great board op or programmer.
SS: How would you describe the role of assistant? What are the expectations?
AK: Every designer is different, and so are the expectations of his staff. But for many, the essence of being an assistant is to translate the design into paperwork. Your job is to present the design in a way so that it can be built.
SS: How does it differ as an associate?
AK: An associate is in a much closer relationship with the designer and should be able to take all of the non-artistic workload off the designer's hands. After the basic concept of the design is formed, the associate should be able to run with that and require very minimal effort on the part of the designer until you get the cast on stage.
SS: When you are the designer, what do you expect of your assistant?
AK: One of the first steps in my design process is sitting in the theatre and sensing what I want to do with the space. I want my assistant there for that process so he or she understands where the concepts are coming from. After that, we will pass drawings back and forth with the assistant detailing the design and me refining it.
When I started as an assistant, I was given a template of paperwork from another show so I knew what was expected. I try to do the same thing. When I designed Company, I gave Michael Bogden paperwork and drawings from a show I assisted on so he could see what I expected.
SS: Do you have trouble relinquishing your assistant duties when you are wearing the designer hat?
AK: Absolutely — having worked as an associate for so long, doing the paperwork has become part of my design process. It's only recently that I have been so busy I've been forced to pass more and more of the load to assistants. It's been hard, but ultimately it's good for me. I've also been blessed to have some really good people work with me. Younger designers are at a disadvantage because they don't yet have long-term relationships with assistants. It takes time to build a comfort level with an assistant.
SS: What is the craziest thing you have been asked to do as an assistant?
AK: Well, you have to do the things that the designer doesn't want to do. You have to go to the star and tell him he's wearing the microphone in the wrong place — things like that.
SS: What was the first job you had as an assistant that made you feel like you were in over your head?
AK: On Noise/Funk, when it moved to Broadway, the designer trusted me and a lot got dumped in my lap. I was young, and I made a lot of mistakes. I had been working at the Public for a while, and when I did the paperwork, I based some things on the way I had seen it done at the Public, and some things didn't match the way everyone else did it. For example, I gendered the entire Com system backward because that is the way it was at the Public. I had the shop build all of these custom tails that were completely backward.
SS: Did you have anyone mentor you to help you become a better assistant?
AK: To an extent, my designers — they all showed me their paperwork and taught me how to do things. But Jon Weston really took me under his wing and taught me a lot, not just about the business but about life. Steve also takes good care of me. When I'm working on my own projects, I'm always calling him for advice.
I had been assisting for a while when I got together with Pete Hylenski, who was also assisting a lot at the time. We started showing each other our drawings, and we were amazed at how similar they were, even though we worked for different designers. There are really no standards in sound, but everyone has been taught what to do by designers that were taught by other designers, and it is surprising how things have been passed on.
SS: How well did your educational background prepare you for being an assistant?
AK: It taught me a lot less about paperwork than lighting does. I was fortunate because I got a good education, but the real world is different.
SS: Was there a project that you consider a turning point for you?
AK: About a year-and-a-half after Noise/Funk opened, Weston was brought in to redesign the system. I assisted him on it. It was an unusual situation: I assisted on the original design, and then I got to go back and see everything I did wrong and fix it. Also Taller Than a Dwarf — I learned that just because the director and producer like it doesn't mean it is done. Looking back, I think I could have done more with that show.
SS: Which hat do you enjoy wearing most right now?
AK: Associate — I don't have the experience as a designer to command the bigger jobs. I enjoy working on the bigger shows, but I am lucky as an associate because I get to work on shows with $2 million sound systems. And when some political BS comes up that I don't want to deal with, I can pass the buck to my boss!
SS: What is the one assistant job you hope you never have to do again?
AK: I have always loathed taking pictures of the cast in mics. Actors are so weird about having their pictures taken. I even feel bad as a designer asking my assistant to do it.
SS: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AK: I'd like to design a little more on my own, but I wouldn't want to get too far away from working with Steve and John. I also hope to still be mixing a little. I only mixed for about six weeks last year because we were so busy with new productions, and as I got back into mixing a little more this year, I realized how much I had missed it. I guess it's about finding the right balance, much like the rest of life.
Shannon Slaton is a sound designer and engineer living in New York and currently mixing Jersey Boys, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Spring Awakening on Broadway. Other Broadway mixes include Man of La Mancha, Sweet Charity, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Bombay Dreams. He designed the current national tours of Hairspray, The Producers, The Full Monty, Contact, and Kiss Me Kate.