Sound design has been a part of stagecraft since theatre started, but it has traditionally been relegated to a supporting role - providing transitions between scenes in nonmusical plays or whiz-bang, hiss-whirr, crash-screech special effects. (Think thunderclaps or the clip-clop of unseen horses' hooves.) But a new University of California, San Diego program takes as its founding principle that sound can be an integral part of any production.

Launching in fall of 2006, the MFA in sound design from the UCSD department of theatre and dance aims to "redefine the place of sound in theatre," says Charlie Oates, chair of the department, which is ranked among the top three graduate programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. "The new program will be unique in that it combines an emphasis on composition with training in the latest sound technology," he adds.

Sound design graduate students will have access to some of the most cutting-edge computer and audio technology available, Oates explains, through the program's close ties with the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA) at UCSD.

The students will also have ample opportunities for practical experience. Because the UCSD department of theater and dance is set up like a repertory company, "One of the primary ways you learn is by putting on shows," Oates says. The students will work on four or five productions during their tenure in the eight-quarter (roughly three-year) program, including "at least one guaranteed professional gig" as an assistant sound designer at the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse.

The program will be headed by composer and sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari. An assistant professor of theatre at UCSD and a Calit2/CRCA affiliated researcher, Yadegari originally trained as an electrical engineer and worked in the computer industry before going on to a master's degree in media arts and technologies from MIT's Media Lab, then a Ph.D. in music from UCSD.

Yadegari believes that sound in theatre is undergoing a similar transition to that of light in the late 19th century: "The technology is becoming a new medium of expression," he says.

Yadegari envisions sound design as a kind of "auditory set" and a sound designer as someone who works closely with a director and actors to realize a production (sometimes even being part of the onstage performance in real-time). "Once you redefine sound design this way," he says, "it becomes an environment for the text to come alive in and be a vital part of a play."

Currently recruiting its first cohort of students, the new sound design program seeks candidates whose backgrounds combine theater, composition and electronic music. The program will integrate the use of high technology in order to realize new aesthetic visions. "Students will learn sophisticated computing skills in this program," Yadegari says. "But the focus of their training will be towards their growth as artists."

For more about the UCSD department of theatre and dance, go to http://www-theatre.ucsd.edu/.