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.

 

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I think the situation is even worse than people might realize. The ignorant dismissal of sound design as a vital DESIGN field and cornerstone of the stage presentation is accompanied by the devaluing simultaneously of a dozen of the other non acting/directing disciplines. I speak now of the process banning more and more disciplines to the kiddie table of non live, non prime-time recognition. First came the other designers: scenery, costumes, lighting. But as of last year other areas being deemed too trivial to be able to be recognized live included COMPOSERS!!! CHOREOGRAPHERS!!!! Even PLAYWIGHTS!!!! It's like a game of survivor, where one by one disciplines have been marginalized, trivialized, and finally dropped from consideration altogether. This leaves me to wonder who next will be voted off the island as the awards move ever closer to a new paradigm as "The Tony Awards for Excellent Acting"

A great article, especially appreciate the historic follow up note. A little addition: The first time electronically composed music was used in a theatrical production: Fritz Kortner's production of FAUST by Goethe, Sound Design and Composition by Herbert Brün. 1956. They who bring to the theater, something which would not happen without them, renewing the form, are artists. They deserve more recognition than the mere business people, who merely exploit and repeat!

I wanted to add something to this entry based on some comments. Here's a little historical background so that you can understand how if you look at the Tony's instating the category in 2008: that's 40 years after our first contract was drafted, 50 years from the beginning of amplification in musicals, 60 years from the influx of sound design due to the addition of movie directors, over a hundred years since the first use of recorded sound in a production, and hundreds (if not thousands of years) since the use of sound and music to tell theatrical stories.

Read on if you want to know details:From the beginning of time, human beings used sound and music to express themselves for storytelling purposes, this evolved into the art from of theatre. The basis of language comes from onomopoeic words and music comes from lyrical inflection. This is the root of human expression. Sound Design (as in current practice) is rare to be documented, but we know that someone had to do the work of putting sound together early on.

It's known that in India and China around 3000 BC there were theatre productions accompanied by music and sound. The Commedia Dell'arte style also used both music and sound effects.

Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo built mechanical sound-making devices called intonarumori, for theatrical/music performances starting around 1913. These devices were meant to simulate natural and manmade sounds, such as trains and bombs. Russolo's treatise The Art of Noises, is arguably the first written document on the use of abstract noise in the theatre, he is the first documented conceptual designer. After his death, his intonarumori were used in more conventional theatre performances to create realistic sound effects.

Possibly the first use of recorded sound in the theatre, as mentioned in Michael Booth’s book ‘Theatre in the Victorian Age’, was a phonograph playing a baby’s cry in a London theatre in 1890. Sixteen years later, Beerbohm Tree definitely used recordings in his London production of Stephen Phillips’ tragedy NERO. The event is marked in the Theatre Magazine (1906) with two photographs; oneshowing a musician blowing a bugle into a large horn attached to a disc recorder, the other with an actor recording the agonizing shrieks and groans of the tortured martyrs. The article states: “these sounds are all realistically reproduced by the gramophone”. As cited by Bertolt Brecht, there was a play about Rasputin written in (1927) by Alexej Tolstoi and directed by Erwin Piscator that included a recording of Lenin's voice.

It would not be however until the 1950s, when Hollywood directors started directing Broadway productions that sound design would start growing. Because the movie industry understood the value of sound designers and foley artists with the advent of the "talkies," these directors brought their trusted sound men and women to NY and Broadway Sound Design began to take shape. Enter Abe Jacob (affectionately titled The Godfather of Sound Design) with the rock and roll musicals, and the use of amplification in production begins.

Between 1980 and 1988, USITT's first Sound Design Commissioner oversaw efforts of theirSound Design Commission to define the duties, responsibilities, standards and procedures which might normally be expected of a theatre sound designer in North America. And our contract was born. From this point forward, sound designers have been a very focused and dedicated group of artists. Technology and show control become commonplace and we all learn to master the newest, most efficient tool to be proficient in our art.

Just because you can't see our work, doesn't mean it's not there. It's always been there. It's been a long road.

This is a great example of the shallow thinking and writing on HowlRound. Here was, at best, an opportunity to write about the pointlessness of awards and how they degrade us as artists. But you wanted to write about how sound designers are undervalued. Too bad you offer zero examples of how sound designers are undervalued other than this meaningless snub from the Tonys. So it just seems like you wanted to "big up" sound designers, but you fail because the premise of your article is confused about what is important.

Any sound designer would know exactly what she's talking about. As she said herself, "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". It's only been in the past decade or two that sound has been considered as important as, say, lighting as a design element. Some old school directors and designers still consider sound as an afterthought, and don't understand the work and artistry that goes into it and the emotional power it has, not to mention the way it can inspire new ideas and discoveries for the actors, director and designers during the rehearsal, tech and performance phases. But most folks I work with these days understand how much sound can do for (or to, if it's bad) a production. The day before this announcement, I was just remarking to a friend about how far sound has come in the theatrical world since I first started, and how it used to be completely forgotten in playbills. I guess the Tony's are even more out of touch than we thought.

I think one of the issues that allows such under-valuing of sound design is that it is the one medium that can't be seen, and one of only two that can't be touched. I think there is a sense that, if there is no tangible product at the end of the work, then you really haven't done anything. What many seem to forget is that ALL of the design elements are there to create an intended EFFECT, and THAT is the product. Just because you can't touch it or put it on a mannequin or display the model on a shelf at the end of the project doesn't mean that it didn't have a solid and equal EFFECT on the audience. I have seen some pretty marvelous shows that would have been nowhere near as marvelous if it hadn't been for stellar sound design. Ditto for lights, wigs, makeup, projection, special effects, etc. etc.

While they're at it, they should finally create an award for projection/video designers.

I absolutely would love to write that article, I have the greatest respect for all members of the team, especially projection designers. The addition of artistic projection design into a production has truly created a new form of theatricality, and is at times revolutionary. I have no doubt that you will be valued, perhaps before we are, because your work is more tangible to the visual aspects of the production. We sadly have been a part of theatre for hundreds of years... you just can't see us.

Well put, Ms. Deiorio! There are a lot of pieces that go into a successful play - many different designers and other artists who collectively but independently apply their arts to turn a script into a play. Not recognizing some while recognizing others is patently ridiculous.

As a sound designer myself, I am aware of the complexity and depth of the aural world around us, and how it can be created and manipulated to incredible effect on theater and film audiences. Sound is a rich layer of the arts that communicates story, environment and emotion through the powerful psycho-kinetic effects that it has on us. I'm truly disheartened that a pretty significant organization in our own industry doesn't recognize this, and therefore fails to recognize our significant artistic contribution to theater and other performing arts. It's a confusing message that seems to say that we are not part of the art or industry as sound designers. I mean, this is a non-issue compared to school shooting and violent foreign affairs, but for the purposes of this conversation, it's a terrible gesture of exclusion, and frankly, I'm guessing that coming out of a lack of understanding of what sound designers do, how sound contributes in a visceral, profound way to our experience of a piece of theater, and how the technology is used to create this ethereal magic.I love what I do and I think the amazing work we create deserves the same recognition as that of the visual designers.

Thanks for writing this, Victoria

I can say that the moment we were included, as artists, in the top level of NY's commercial theater awards, the way we were treated in the room changed. The real-world value of the award itself can be debated (and I would be more than willing to talk about that at length, as one of the 13 recipients so far, in another forum); but the fundamental point is that we are members of the artistic team, and the acknowledgement of our artistry is vital.

Great words Toy. My reaction is real confusion. While it may seem, to many, that sound design is more of a craft than design, I'm afraid this way of thinking is folly.Just as a painter uses paint brushes to bring their vision to life on canvas, sound designers use technology to bring our art to the ears of our audiences.Just as a scenic designer's vision is brought to the eyes with wood, metal, and paint or a costume designer's is realized with fabric and thread, sound designers use microphones, computers, and speakers to paint a theater.The failure to realize this leads me to think that sound designers have brought our art to a point that perhaps it is so integrated to the story telling of theatre that it may not be noticed anymore. Perhaps this is ultimately a compliment, but removing us from equal standing with our peers by not having regular honors for excellence feels like a slap in the face.

Well said, beautifully written. I remember the production that convinced me I wanted to be a designer. The idea that sound (and eventually for me, lighting) could be used as a paintbrush to create the world of a play was earth shattering for me. It can be difficult enough for any designer (but especially sound and video designers) to get validation from their peers - this decision is a huge step backwards. I hope the Tony awards can see that this might actually harm the quality of future sound design work by making the field less visible and less attractive to really talented young designers.