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Sound Designers are not Foreign Monsters—They are Us

After six years of distributing awards for Sound Design (Play and Musical) as a part of the Tony Awards, the Administration Committee has decided that it is not appropriate for the Tonys to acknowledge those artists on a regular basis. The outrage from the national sound designer community—and their allies in other theatrical disciplines—has been vocal and aggressive.

It has come out, from some anonymous members of the Committee, that “the decision was driven largely by three factors: Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor.”

Having administered the Ovation Rules Committee (for Los Angeles’ Ovation Awards) for a decade, and having consulted with several other prominent theater awards programs across the country, I have heard these exact concerns many times. They are, unfortunately, tied to an undercurrent of negative behavior when it comes to design awards, and when it comes to sound design awards in particular. How many of us have heard a producer, whose show has just received nominations for several design categories, curse and frown, as if their show had been completely shut out? “But you’re nominated for scenic, lighting and sound design!” you might say to them. With furrowed brow and pouty lip, the producer responds, “Yes, yes, but those are just design categories!” 

Perhaps this distancing of the designers from the rest of the theater artists has to do with the nature of the rehearsal process. The producers, directors, playwrights and actors come together on the first day of rehearsal, and a level of relational bonding—or at least, familiarity—occurs as the play is rehearsed. The designers, crew and technicians, on the other hand, aren’t generally seen much at all until tech begins.   And even then, the tech process doesn’t provide much opportunity for relationships to build with the designers and the rest of the team. This may explain the ease with which designers are often dismissed by other theater professionals.

Let’s address the Tonys’ primary reasoning for eliminating these awards: “Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it.” This isn’t unusual—it’s a concern for all theater awards. 

Theater is inherently collaborative. There is simply no way to remove the impact of one artist in the theater from another. You didn’t like that actor’s performance? How much of it was the actor’s choice and ability, and how much was direction? Or the choice of shoes from the costumer? Or just bad writing? The magic of the theater is that we all have to work together. In the best cases, our artistry builds on the artistry of our fellow artists to reach great heights. But this inherent collaboration makes giving discipline-specific awards a massive feat. Anyone who has ever been an awards voter can tell you the complications of trying to pick out who is responsible for something great or something terrible in a given production. 

This complication is especially hard when it comes to sound. How many aural/audio artists are working on a show when you see it? It’s not just the sound designer. There’s also the sound mixer and/or operator. Often there is a composer—for plays and for musicals. If it is a musical, there’s now a music director, band leader/conductor, and orchestrator. And, of course, the stage manager, who has ultimate timing control and authority over the execution of lighting and sound cues. All of these artists have to work seamlessly together to give a perfect auditory experience—and do so in a specific technical way that untrained people in the audience have no hope of picking apart just by listening. Even experienced theater professionals in other disciplines often have no context for evaluating the complexity that is the sound for a stage production.

So this is a problem. How can you have an awards program of integrity if the voters don’t know what they’re voting on? The dirty secret is that in many awards programs, the voters don’t know what they’re talking about in terms of lighting design or acting or writing either. But they think they do—that’s the difference. The most valid awards programs have some way of determining a voter’s ability to actually evaluate work in all categories—and a few even have discipline-focused voting pools (designers voting on designers). But most award voters nationally are chosen for status and position rather than evaluation ability—including Tony voters.

So how should an awards program address rewarding the great artists who do sound design, when the administrators and voters freely admit they don’t have any idea how to evaluate it? 

The cheap way out is to just kill the category and try to ignore those artists, as the Tonys have done this week.  A better answer is to take a hard look at the way your awards program is structured, and see if there’s a way to more appropriately and effectively evaluate the work of the artists through a different voting process. The best answer of all is to recognize that many of us in the theater industry are just ignorant of the complexities of sound design, and start a campaign to change that. Change how rehearsal and creative processes work so sound designers are integrated more fully and treated as equals. Change how sound designers are recognized—by awards, yes, but also in the press and in systemic discussions of the broader industry. Give the designers awards, even if the process is flawed, and raise the profile of the designers when they accept, so more people know that there are such things as sound designers and what they do.

The answer is not to sweep them under the rug, refuse to acknowledge their contributions, and hide from our own lack of understanding. And we especially cannot do this when our industry already fails in so many others ways to support the artists who make the magic happen.

Once we’ve overcome our horrible treatment of sound designers, then perhaps we can take a second to talk about the way we treat our stage managers, prop designers, puppet designers, video/projections designers, hair/makeup designers, fight choreographers, and all the other artists who do fantastic work and who are regularly pushed into the background and remain unacknowledged.

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Sound design is crucial to everyone in the theater. As a lighting designer, I know that the sound designer helps me constantly. Much of the modern lighting equipment needs fans, motors etc. These things are far from silent. Knowing then the sound designer is going to have a loud cue is a great time to move all my scrollers quickly to a new position. The best sound design is often invisible to the audience. The simple solution for the Tony's would be designers vote for designers. Actors vote for actors. Directors for directors. Writers for writers, producers for producers. (My scheme would require them to split best script from best play since best play is really a producing award). The Tony Award Committee's decision was short sighted and ignorant. Ignorance can only be fixed with teaching. The theatre artists of the world need to go on an assertive teaching campaign to the Tony Committee.

I think almost every single sound designer (Myself included) can attest to the whole "we've been fighting the 'we're important too' battle for so long" because people simply do not understand what we do, why we do, what we do, when we do it, and how we make it all happen, to them, it simply is "magic". I've heard many a director and colleague say "What you do is simply beyond anything I can wrap my head around," fairly so, we are allowed to think that of each other's work. I think what it comes down to, is the refusal to understand, or learn what others do through experience. I'm not asking everyone to sign up to do our job, but take an "off day" and shadow someone, I know plenty of folks who are willing to be shadowed. If we can't support each other and be the true collaborative teams that this industry calls us to be, then we will all fail at producing the top level of theatrics and our industry will fail as a whole. We cannot be for ourselves without being for each others' success too. SOLIDARITY!