What it Means to Sound Designers to Take Away the Tony
Last night there was an outpouring of disgust, sadness, confusion, anger, and frustration over a decision to again treat our field as though we are not as important as the rest of the team. This rush of emotion comes because this is not new to us at all. The amount of work in order to be validated by the Tony Awards as a category, which was instated in 2008, seems to have meant nothing at all if it suddenly goes away. It’s not about an award. It’s not about the spotlight—most of us work very hard to go unnoticed during a performance (unless we need to be noticed). It’s about validation for the work that we do and how hard it is to do this work.
Some may say what right do I have to speak up against the decision to take away the Tony for Best Sound Design and Best Sound Design in a Musical. I haven’t done a Broadway show. I’m just a woman who’s been working in the field for eighteen years. But what I have is firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be undervalued and considered to be secondary to the process. This, of course, has varied throughout the years and is dependent on with whom you work and the advent of technology. Because there is misunderstanding of what we do, let me try to explain it to you.
We, as designers, work with the finesse of high art with a strong foundation of technological knowledge. We do our own research, we are our own shops and build our own cues, some of us write our own music, we determine the technological spread of sound and how it is all put together, and we are also artists in the room. We understand emotion, and how to impress that emotion to affect an entire group of people to react in the way the playwright, director, actors, and team wish the audience to feel. We do not only put together a Spotify list and just place toilet flushes and transition music into a show. We have done hundreds of shows that support the arcs of theme and character, and make people feel exactly how they should in a specific moment with adherence to genre and motivation of pacing.
With regard to designing musicals, all that is said above applies and yes it is less right brained, but add to it that we are the ones determining how to best support the dynamics that the audience hears within each moment of a production. That entails not only the artists on stage singing but also the musicians playing, how they all hear each other, and then how the audience gets the full dynamic effect. We work closely with all members of the show from the director, musical director, musicians, performers, etc. In addition to this, today’s audience is not used to hearing performers sing or speak on stage without amplification. We all try to make this sound as acoustically real as we can, but it is not done with one large volume attenuation knob. It is an intricate system of signal flow of electrical energy and the waves of sound that are emitted.
Technology has helped us greatly in our field. It makes our work look really polished. So polished that at times it gives the appearance of being easy. It’s not easy. As someone who is teaching the next generation all they need to know to be successful in this field, it actually gets more difficult to be well rounded both technically and artistically in order to appear like your work is effortless. For example, technology has made it possible for us to now work as quickly as lighting designers in tech. This means we have to be flexible, have a large volume of knowledge of history and music, and have anything anyone could ask for—on us in the room—in order to work quickly and make it look effortless. This is the hardest to teach because this is experience based. All of this is what you get when you hire an experienced sound designer to collaborate on your project.
And I must say that this cannot be done without our associates, assistants, sound techs, engineers, operators, and crews. We are the head of a large department. Our dismissal trickles down to everyone who works so hard to create the magic the audience expects. It is not just the designers who are upset today.
Because this is a world where everyone has an iTunes account, our work is also a very diplomatic one. In one small example, the diplomacy involved to help build trust when working with someone new is an art form. It is a lot of “yes” and a lot of questions to get more detail. In my particular experience, I am one of a very small group of women who many years ago decided that this was the field for us. I had the added diplomatic need of how to not be offended by sexist remarks, and how to create artistic work when I was seen as just a girl. I’m happy to say that today there are many women in the field, and all of the men that I have worked with and are my colleagues are aware of and value the input of the women in this field. The Tonys could learn a valuable lesson from these men.
I bring this up as my own perspective of what it was like to be a woman in sound design because I know what it’s like to have to prove yourself every time you walk into a room. This is the feeling that all sound designers are feeling right now. We shouldn’t need to prove that we are valid to a production. We don’t want special attention; we want to be valued for what we are already adding to the world of theater. A sound designer is a member of a collaborative team. To dismiss just us from that team is demeaning and hurtful.
There are more Broadway-experienced designers that can speak to the details of what this means to the specific community of New York commercial theater and they have been very vocal tonight. Rest assured that sound designers are a determined group. We are all in contact with each other and are very motivated when issues like this arise. Sadly because this is not new, there has been a network in place for years.
This is the emotional side of how this decision affects us—it is difficult to dedicate yourself to a selfless art and then have it dismissed in such a public manner. We are all hurt by this today.