lifting the Curtain
Sound Designers: Robert Kaplowitz, Cricket S. Myers, and Matt Hubbs
Lifting the Curtain continues the Theater section’s new series which delves beyond writing to explore the collaborative arts that make a play come alive on stage and to give voice to the practitioners who bring it there. The series began in the June Brooklyn Rail with a conversation with stage managers. Here, Gary Winter interviews three top creative artists in sound design.
Gary Winter (Rail): What are you working on now and/or have coming up?
Robert Kaplowitz: Current projects include Kira Obolensky’s The Return of Don Quixote, Amy Herzog’s Belleville, a devised piece working with director Josh Hecht about Federico García Lorca’s writing of Poet in New York and his evolution as an artist and outsider in New York at that time, and the musical Toxic Avenger at the Alley.
Cricket S. Myers: I am based in Los Angeles, and I love it out here! I am currently working with the Celebration Theatre on a production of What’s Wrong with Angry? and with Ghost Road Theater Company on a production of Stranger Things. Later in September, I have a production of Shooting Star at the Colony Theater, and I Love Lucy Live on Stage at Greenway Court. October is filled with Book Club Play at Arena Stage in D.C., Trip to Bountiful at South Coast Rep, and Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum.
Matt Hubbs: I’m actually recovering from a seven-week European tour with my company (the TEAM) and then finishing a dance piece for the Dance Exchange at the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Upcoming will be the TEAM’s new piece Mission Drift in New York in January.
Rail: What goes through your mind when you read a script for the first time?
Myers: I just let myself be absorbed in the story being told. I am interested in emotions, themes, imagery. The next time I read it, I take note of the “necessary” sound things, like doorbells, phone rings, etcetera. I mark moments in the script that speak to me: words or images or ideas that I feel are worth noting. After reading the script, I sit down with the director. I am interested in the story that s/he is interested in telling. What ideas stand out to her/him? Where are the critical moments in the text? And how can sound support them?
Rail: How does sound design tell a story?
Kaplowitz: The relationship between sound design and story is a complicated one—we are, on some levels, directly synched (phone rings, weather, voiceovers, amplification of speech) and, on others, much more distantly related (scoring, system concepts, and often even soundscape). So, while some of the design is actively a part of the narrative (what I like to call the environmental elements), other layers are there to help complete the world of the play on more subtle levels.
I guess, if I had to define “bad” sound design, I’d say it’s either design that is not in sync with the larger world of the play (designs that just don’t make sense, dramaturgically) or is so totally in sync with what everyone else is doing that it overamplifies that work, shouting the emotions or concepts of the play at the audience.
Myers: Sound design should support the text. I like it to act as another character on the stage. Sound should never exist for its own sake. Silence is often more powerful than anything else a designer can create, and is always an option. I strive for something that helps enhance the action and story, but never distracts from it. If it stands out or if it pulls the audience out of the action of the play, then it has failed.
Hubbs: I think everyone involved in a theatrical production is helping to tell the story of the play; with sound, we do it by supporting the locations realized by the other designers, by reinforcing the pace set by the text and the moods created by the actors. My favorite design experiences are when everyone is collaborating, sharing their storytelling skills to help communicate the story of the play to the audience.
Rail: Tell me about your working relationships with the director, playwright, and other members of people involved in the production of a show.
Myers: There’s something beautiful about a group of people in a room for hours on end, telling a story together. I love to bounce ideas off the director, playwright, and other designers in the room. We all need to be telling the same story, and emphasizing the same themes and emotions. The actors and director set a rhythm for the production. It’s an energy that runs through the script, and it’s essential that sound and lights feel that rhythm and move with it together. When communication breaks down, we start telling different stories. If we can’t tell our story effectively, then how can we expect the audience to understand it?
What I need from the director is a strong sense of where s/he wants the production to go. I don’t need the director to tell me how to get it there, but we all must know what we are trying to achieve. And if I do something that the director feels isn’t supporting the text, I need him to be honest about it! I have no problem with a director having a strong idea about music or sound, but I also ask that the director listens to my ideas too. I want to feel like I bring something to the production, not just lay sounds down on top of it.
Hubbs: I like to attend as many rehearsals as possible to fully integrate myself into that process. This allows me to develop relationships with the playwright, the director, the performers, and the other designers before we get into the theater and have to all work together to finish the piece. I think that the trust that everyone is working towards the same goal (telling the story of the play to the audience) is what allows collaborators to communicate effectively and efficiently.
Kaplowitz: Every designer is something of a chameleon; we must be in order to get enough work to stay alive. So, while some directors see me as a “modern pop” designer, others see me as a “hyper-realistic” designer, a “super underscored” designer, an “urban” designer, or a musical theater designer. I think the main key to all of this is that it’s not the content I create, but the relationship I have with my collaborators.
In any style, I’m often really hired as a “sonic dramaturge”—I take part in the table work, the initial staging, and as many of the rehearsals as I can possibly attend. I’m there to ask questions, and deepen the understanding of the full world of the play—it is only out of this engagement that I can create a design that has an honest relationship to the text. I can score Don Quixote’s attack on a windmill in a half-dozen different ways (cinematic/heroic, comic, tragic, realistic, silent) —but which way is actually integral to the conceptual arc of this production?
From the writer, I’m really just looking for the shape of the play they’ve written. If they’re living, I sometimes get a chance to learn about the play that’s not on the page—the parts of the work that may not have been committed to words or stage directions but still linger in the writer’s mind. I also always welcome the writer’s instincts and inspirations—I love it when a playwright tells me what s/he was listening to when they wrote the play.
From the director, I love ideas, questions, inspirations, and concepts. I often have questions about how the play itself functions, and those questions help me to understand my role. I spend a lot of time with directors on seemingly small specifics—Anne Kauffman, Amy Herzog, and I spent a lot of time discussing the space outside of the apartment (and thus not appearing in the set) in Belleville, because understanding the relationship of the non-space to the space gave me great clarity on what’s happening on the set. The biggest thing I need from a director is access and freedom to ask questions, and I try and hope they understand that my questions don’t always need an answer—“I don’t know” can be a great lead into a conversation.
Rail: What is the relationship between sound design and the audience?
Hubbs: I think a sound design can help tell the story to the audience, filling in some of the blanks that aren’t explicitly spelled out in the text. Hopefully, a sound design is a helping hand for the audience, alongside the actors and the other designers.
Kaplowitz: As a designer, I feel I have two responsibilities—one is to ensure that this language makes the journey effectively. The other is to give the audience that plus more—to immerse them in an environment that transports them inside of a theatrical experience, and engages their senses in subtle yet challenging ways.
Myers: I think an audience should be affected by the sound design. I think it should help them understand what to feel and what is important to us, as storytellers. Sound can tell an audience where we are going and when it’s okay to laugh. It can make them feel tense and uneasy, without them understanding how. But sound should never distract them. It shouldn’t call attention to itself; it should call attention to the text, the action.
Rail: Is there any unappreciated aspect about designing sound for the stage you want people to know?
Kaplowitz: Most often, my best designs go entirely unremarked, and while this can be hard on the ego, it’s usually best for the production.
For example, if all of the actors sound like they haven’t been miked, but you can hear and understand everything they’re saying or singing, and you’re in a theater that’s larger than 200 seats, it’s likely someone’s done a great job with the reinforcement side of the design.
More subtly, if, as an audience member, you are having responses to the text or events onstage that are of an intensity or perspective that you can’t easily explain, and you don’t mind checking yourself out for a moment, stop and ask yourself what you’re actually hearing—is it just the words, or is something more happening? I’ve created entire scores out of the sounds of refrigerator motors and radiator pipes, altered to shape the moments of the play, soundscapes that subtly rise out of the world of the play and impact how the audience gets inside.
The reason Fela! was such an effective design for a musical was that without their being fully conscious of it, the audience was entirely enveloped in Fela’s world—in his passion, in his music, and in his simple conversation. And very few people were conscious of how it was happening—they were simply brought onto the stage by the design. So, unappreciated is maybe not the right word. Maybe it’s unnoticed.
Hubbs: Basically, everything you hear in a theater is the responsibility of the sound designer. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, anything that makes a sound in the theater will be tended to, so that you don’t notice anything that we don’t want you to notice.
Myers: I don’t know that there is a particular part of sound that is “unappreciated.” What I do know is that if the sound is perfect, no one notices it. But one little thing goes wrong, everyone knows it!