A successful sound design can create a deeper connection between the play and its audience: defining environment and emotion, clarifying voice and intent. With subtlety and psychology, sound design is the creative and technical process resulting in a complete aural environment. Theatre needs sound design to focus the ears of the watcher just as acutely as lighting design focuses their eyes.
Over the last twenty years, the sound designer has become a critical collaborator in American theater. It would be difficult to find a theater company these days that doesn’t recognize the need for modern sound design. However, the relative youthfulness of the field and its intangibility often lend themselves to the entire artistry being overlooked and misunderstood by producers, critics, and audiences.
In the most public and recent example, the Tony Awards’ decision last year to eliminate sound design as an award category has added to the frustration sound designers feel. After six years of distributing awards for Sound Design (Play and Musical), the Administration Committee decided that it is no longer appropriate for the Tonys to acknowledge those artists on a regular basis. Some anonymous members of the Committee reported that the decision was driven largely by three factors: Lack of relevant expertise, a disinterest in edification, and a belief that sound design is more technical than artistic. The outrage from the national sound designer community—and their allies in other theatrical disciplines—has been vocal and aggressive.
If this ignorance has invaded even the top echelon of New York theater, what does it say for regional theater scenes, including our own? What is the state of sound design in the Twin Cities?
In the pursuit of creating a sonic experience for audiences, Twin Cities’ sound designers can often find themselves stymied by a series of hurdles: paltry budgets, sub-par equipment, a dearth of skilled labor, and a generally unsteady system of artistic support.
“If there is a weak spot in the sonic capabilities of our community it’s the fact that sound systems and sound budgets at some of our smaller theaters and universities have been completely neglected since the twentieth century,” said composer and sound designer Michael Croswell, who notes that he often finds himself donating the use of his audio equipment. “[They] simply do not have the resources, expertise, or administrative/political will to keep up with what is happening with emerging audio technology.”
A recent Pioneer Press article discussed a growing trend in Twin Cities theaters of all sizes to produce musicals, however there was no mention in the article of whether the producing venues are equipped to support the acoustics that performers need and audiences expect. The condition of a theater venue’s audio equipment speaks volumes of the value that theater places in sound design.
“I don’t think there is always an appreciation of how important technological upgrades, and consistent funding for them, could improve the state of sound and give designers a chance to expand upon and improve their final product,” said designer and University of Minnesota theater instructor Montana Johnson.
An informal survey of theaters with permanent homes in the Twin Cities examined the state of sound equipment and budgets around the metropolitan area. Twelve of fifteen theaters replied and, of those twelve, eight theaters have knowledgeable, if not dedicated, audio staff on hand. However, only five have made major audio improvements or upgrades within the last five years. (Five-and-a-half if you count Park Square Theatre’s new sound system for their new stage). Overall, only two of the respondents have a yearly budget for sound, while only two others regularly set aside money for maintenance. All theaters, thankfully, run current versions of show control software, QLab or SFX.
When equipment, staff, and money is scarce or unreliable, as this survey indicates, designers are forced to balance artistic demand with technical capability. This means that the time it takes to fix problems, and acquire and set up gear (often times with no added compensation), takes away from time spent improving the design.
For some theaters there is often an ignorance of the upgrades and maintenance a sound system needs. For others, it’s a straightforward budget issue.
Penumbra co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy explains that her theater attempts to focus first and foremost on the designer before the equipment (which is regularly maintained by production manager Allen Weeks). However, “I don’t think we’re where we’d like to be,” Bellamy admits. “[Equipment] is not where we’ve invested most heavily. And that’s part of the issue of having a budget that’s to the absolute limit and even beyond. We’re trying to do so much with so little.”
In fact most theater technical directors and production managers admit that budgets for audio upgrades are often inconsistent, many times sourced from grants acquired every few years.
“We do budget for technology upgrades and repairs in our annual budget, though it's a small theater with a small system and a small budget,” said Ryan Ripley, Associate General Manager at the Playwrights’ Center, which upgraded its sound equipment thanks to a grant from the McKnight Foundation. “Since most of our PlayLabs and Ruth Easton writers choose sound design as their production element, this budget has been a little more skewed toward sound in the last four years.”
Park Square Theatre Technical Director Rob Jensen explained that equipment is expensive and difficult to justify when faced with income projections in an overall budget.
“It’s the big ticket items that are easy to remove when it’s crunch time during the budget process,” he said.
Yet Jensen is cognizant of the need for improvements to Park Square’s sound system, including the possibility of creating a position for an in-house sound supervisor to oversee implementation of audio equipment (thereby freeing the designer to concentrate on the design).
Veteran sound designer C Andrew Mayer simplifies the situation. “All it takes is a small investment and the quality goes up,” he said. “For instance, having subwoofers is the difference to me between a professional situation and [an amateur] situation. Theatres need to have gear and they need to commit to having people around who know how to work the gear.”
DECIBELS TO DOLLARS: MAKING A LIVING
If the budget money isn’t being spent on equipment, are sound designers rewarded for the extra work they do? Can an artist afford to design sound full-time, as a primary source of income?
“There are plenty of opportunities to work, but as a full time gig it’s very tricky,” said Johnson. “Locally only [a few theaters] pay design fees of the kind of numbers that make doing less than 20-plus shows a year possible.”
And while sound designer and teaching artist Peter Morrow, a recent transplant to the Twin Cities from Dublin, Ireland, has been impressed with the amount and quality of work the area offers, he says, “I don't think working exclusively as a sound designer for theater is a realistic thing in the Twin Cities,” he said. “It does seem like, apart from a few jobs in larger institutions, it’s pretty hard to do just sound design and pay the bills. Without [teaching] I'd be struggling much more financially.”
A survey of local sound designers found there are few who are able to make a living solely off design alone. Of the survey responses, over 80% consider themselves freelancers, with half of those balancing the demands of at least a part-time job in addition to designing. Sixty percent of those that identify as freelancers have been designing in the Twin Cities for five or more years, but only half have received a stipend increase (from any theater, of any monetary size) within the last year.
Despite the growing presence and recognition of sound designers in the American theater, we continue to lack a consistent vocabulary for evaluating and discussing sound design outside the field. There seems to be a perplexity about how to get audiences, critics, and producers to notice, evaluate, and appreciate sound.
“There is a huge lack of education about the complexity and artistry of the work,” said Bellamy. “I don’t know that theaters - institutions - do a good job of helping audiences value all the elements that go into a play. And that’s a space where producers and theater companies could be better advocates.”
So could designers themselves. Though a successful sound design usually maintains a low profile, that shouldn’t necessarily mean the same for the designer.
“Within the community itself, we as a group don’t do a lot of saying what we need. I would argue that it would enrich us all if the relevant people were better educated,” said lighting designer and theater educator Wu Chen Khoo, who recently created Technical Tools of the Trade - an education and outreach program that aims to bring the public and artists together through the technical and design aspects of the performing arts.
There is no official body representing sound designers in the Twin Cities, however many theater designers of all disciplines believe there needs to be a closer-knit, more unified local community with a louder collective voice. Were a guild or association to be created, designers (sound and otherwise) may find strength in the necessary numbers to effect change in equipment upgrades, budget, education, and stipends.
It’s difficult to create an immersive theatrical experience when you don’t feel artistically supported.
By giving sound designers the tools to truly participate in a production, on par with other design elements, the total theatrical performance and all of its elements is elevated. In order to create the best production for our audiences, theaters need to examine their budget planning in every season and examine if they are doing what they can to support their sound designers. Critics, producers, bloggers, and Ivey Award evaluators should educate themselves on what makes a good sound design, and recognize the impact a design has on a story and its audience.
Designers themselves could also stand to speak up and do that educating. The artistry and careful craft that we constantly create is undeniable, but we do ourselves a disservice when we steadfastly remain quiet about our work and its importance. By shunning the spotlight, we risk devaluing our craft.
When we brush off the collaborators who make theater happen, we betray the principles the very audiences for whom we create value in us. Sound design is a valid part of the performing arts landscape and it should be valued. The Twin Cities theater community respects its designers better than what’s currently occurring on Broadway, but we’re never far away from falling into the same trap.
No, not that kind….no Honey Boo Boo here.
Article by Laura Wilhelm
Wilhelm is Properties Master at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Artistic Director of Mad Munchkin Productions, Project Manager for Tech Tools, and a freelance designer. She knew a thing or two about balancing a busy schedule as a theater-maker even before the birth of her daughter only a short year ago. It's a challenge many women in the arts come face-to-face with, so we asked her to shed some light on her first year as a different kind of stage mom.
I’m a theater mom. To be more clear- I am a mother working in the theater. If you come to my prop shop there is a sign on the door that reads:
Breastfeeding/Pumping Mama’s Lactation Station
Please knock and/or Announce Yourself
This is mostly to prevent others from embarrassment. I’ve heard the gamut of timid “h-h-hello?” to “HEY, LAURA! CAN I COME IN?” Everyone has been understanding. Everyone has given me space. No one has seen more of the propsmaster than they bargained for. Considering that the technical theater world is still predominately male, I feel lucky that the arts world is so open and flexible compared to my perception of other fields. That is not to say it is all easy.
When I found out I was pregnant, I hesitated telling the theater world at large. I didn’t want to get passed up for any opportunities. My own mother actually had to delete a Facebook post where she was accidentally letting the cat out of the bag before I was fully prepared to do so beyond family and close friends. Becoming a parent is a completely different physical navigation as a woman working in the technical theater realm. While it is true that I had to limit my climbing and carrying and be aware of toxins and fumes in the shop, on the whole I was able to do my job and worked all the way up to my daughter’s birth. All of that was the easy part. The hard part comes afterwards - now you have to go back to real life in the theater world with a baby.
I came back from maternity leave after six weeks straight into tech rehearsals for a show. The break had been as long as we could afford and I had no paid leave. I was sleep deprived, had mommy brain fog (it’s a real thing), and was trying to figure out how to pump. Details got dicey…that I can’t deny. I had much less patience for the quirks of the cast and the needs of the production that I normally would have handled with a smile. Nothing seems as important as the infant life you are supporting. But the show opened and nobody died.
My husband is a technical director, so after that first show there have been many many more. Both for our full time gigs and the extra gigs that we both pick up to make ends meet. In addition, we run our own theater company (what the heck are you supposed to do when you are both supposed to be in at the same tech?). There are techs back to back, there is solo parenting for weeks on end, we do trade outs and hand offs, and baby juggling, and sheepish pleas for babysitters who do not charge. Oh, and sometimes we like to take a night off…and go out together…without our bundle of joy. It is hard to ask for help. You want to think you can do it all, but the old saying “it takes a village” is no joke.
Our kiddo turns one in mid July; I can’t believe how fast it has gone. Last week she got a tour of the Rarig Center as Tech Tools prepped for classes. She came with me for stint at the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival in Omaha, where I negotiated housing with a full kitchen and time off of rehearsal to take her to the zoo. Mad Munchkin Productions, our other baby, produced a show this spring with great success with us at the helm as parents for the first time. It’s true, mommy brain still rears its ugly head every once in awhile. I completely blanked on our moderator’s name while making introductions for a Tech Tools panel discussion, but remembered just in time to save myself (Leah Cooper!). And the baby seems to have survived my dropping a roll of gaff tape on her head at 7 weeks old. A full roll. Oops. But the bottom line is this - she has a village of brilliant theater people surrounding her (and her parents), and this backstage mom wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Personal Memory
by Mike Wangen, Lighting Designer
For as long as I’ve been in the industry, Mike Wangen has been regarded as a pillar and fixture of the lighting community, and a frequent name around town, most recently (and very commonly) at the outstanding Pillsbury House Theater. An experienced and very skilled designer, he is a prominent member of a generation of theatre professionals that served as mentors and role models for me and my peers. Like most great designers, Mike is also a great storyteller, and I knew I wanted him to write a piece for this column. - Wu Chen Khoo
I was raised in Albert Lea, MN, about 90 miles south of Minneapolis and attended a very progressive High School. It had a college level Humanities program which I was a part of, and, in my senior year, we took a class trip to the Guthrie Theatre to see Michael Langham’s landmark production of Oedipus, the King. It was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre that I have ever seen and it still resonates with me today. At the time, I had no inkling that 28 years later, I would be designing the lighting for a production of Fences on that same stage. I am living proof of the profound effect that live theater can have on young people.
When I moved to Minneapolis in the fall of 1972 to attend the U of M as a History major, my friends and I discovered a vibrant and burgeoning theatre environment. Rarig Center, a state of the art, 4 theatre complex on the campus was nearing completion. The west bank was a hotbed of theatre activity centered around Theatre in the Round (still there), Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop (the current Town Hall Brewpub), the Guthrie 2 (at the Southern Theatre) created by the Guthrie Company to do experimental work, the Guild of Performing Arts, located next to Palmers Bar, and numerous clubs and coffeehouses which presented an eclectic mix of music, poetry and performance art. The Cedar Theater showed classic art films from the 20s and 30s. In 1975 Mixed Blood opened as well. At the Foot of the Mountain, a woman’s theater collective begun by Martha and Paul Boesing had gained national attention and worked out of the Cedar Riverside People’s Center.
By the mid 70s a number of theaters still in existence had opened. Penumbra in St Paul, Illusion in downtown Minneapolis, the Cricket Theater performed at the Ritz in NE Minneapolis, Chimera Theater had a space in the old Science Museum (now History Theatre), Jeune Lune appeared on the scene; and, of course, the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre which were both nationally prominent and have been written about before.
The warehouse district on the west side of downtown Minneapolis was a thriving mix of cafes, artist studios and small theatre and dance companies. It was a melting pot of creativity and a time of trying out new ideas and pushing boundaries.
I stepped into that world in the spring of 1978. I had dropped out of school and was doing lighting for a local rock band, but wanted to be more creative. There was no internet then, so theater auditions and job opportunities were placed in the want ad section of the Sunday papers. One day I saw this ad “lighting designer needed for small theatre company, no experience necessary”; that was me!
The theater was on the second floor of the Harmony building on 3rd St. and 2nd Ave. north in downtown Minneapolis. It was a 100’ by 60’ empty space with west facing windows and a 12’ ceiling, the most beautiful loft space I’ve ever seen. As I walked in I saw a beautiful, blond woman speaking with a short, dark haired man wearing a black beret and chain smoking Pall Malls. The woman was Mim Solberg, one of the finest and most powerful actors I’ve ever known (she played Lady Macbeth opposite Jim Stowell’s Macbeth in a beautiful production directed by Bain Boelke at the Southern Theatre in the mid 80s). The man was Peter Scangarello, a transplanted Sicilian from New Jersey who became my best friend, mentor and teacher. What I learned about theatre and art from Peter and Mim laid the foundation for everything I have accomplished since. They had established a group called the Olympia Arts Ensemble (named after the Olympia Theater in Paris where Edith Piaf had performed). It had splintered off (along with Jim Stowell’s Palace Theatre) from the Minnesota Ensemble Theatre which had formed in the late 60s and performed at the Firehouse Theatre (now Patrick’s Cabaret) and the Walker church (which also housed a puppet theater company which would become Heart of the Beast). All these groups had been heavily influenced by Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theatre” and did very powerful, raw, physical theatre.
After I explained that I had answered their ad and had no real experience, Peter looked at me with an impish smile and a gleam in his eye and said “the show opens in a week, anything you do will be fine.” I looked around at the 60 old seats on portable risers, the homemade lightboard with 6 household dimmers, and the 15 coffeecan spots (for those who don’t know; paint a 3 lb. coffeecan black, cut a hole in the back and attach a cliplight socket with coat-hanger wire, cut small holes for ventilation, screw in a 150w spot or floodlight and tape a gel to the front. I eventually made about 40 of these things.) and I intuitively made a decision which changed my life and set me on my 37 year path to today: I said ok.
Olympia was a loose collective of visual artists, poets, dancers, and musicians as well as theater artists. It was there that I discovered the secret of collaborative art that is theater. We had no money and shared everything, including the chance to both succeed and to fail, brilliantly. It’s a luxury I don’t often see in today’s world. My first show there was Yerma by Garcia Lorca. Over the next 4 years we produced work such as The Firebugs, The Chinese Wall, The Balcony, and Happy Days. We did a production of Antonin Artaud’s The Cencii which began with all the actors crawling into the theater on their bellies, like snakes, accompanied by a live soundscape by free jazz percussionist Milo Fine and guitarist Steve Gnitka.
We never could make the rent on the space, which led to having fundraising parties. This, in turn, evolved into a concert series, which included shows with new bands such as The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs, Curtiss A, and others who had very few outlets to perform in at the time. We also began monthly jazz concerts with local artists called “Jazz on Sunday.” I found out years later when I worked at Penumbra that many of the artists there used to attend those shows.
The world is full of circles within circles and the 70s were a time of great cross-fertilization among artists here. There was a strong current of creativity, openness, and experimentation in all the arts; a current that I see strengthening again in many of the performances of the young artists that I see today. It makes me very hopeful for the future.
The current was strong then and there are many of us from that time still creating. I personally feel that I am doing the best work of my life right now. However, it will soon be time to move on and I hope that those to come can build on the foundations we laid down and can understand our reluctance to leave.
I love learning how other people think. How someone comes up with an idea, how they learn, experiment and explore is one of life’s great fascinations. There’s so much to be learnt from how other people approach problems (and life in general). You may learn “My oh my, I would never want to look at the world that way!” – that’s still something learnt about someone else, and also yourself, by the way – or you may find yourself blown away and whole new ways of thinking, being and acting open to yourself.
So it’s little wonder that I’m going to recommend The Mind of a Chef, a PBS TV series produced by Anthony Bourdain (it’s also available on Netflix). Each season follows a chef or two and really explores, well, their mind: their whys and hows and what-ifs.
It’s a fascinating journey down a rabbit hole of creativity, inspiration and brilliance, and I recommend to anyone involved in creative endeavours.
If you’ve been around me much, you’ll know that I’d argue that category includes everyone.