– Matthew M. Nielson has been nominated for five Helen Hayes Awards, and is the recipient of two. He now commutes to DC from Asheville, N.C. where he has his own studio, Sound Lab Studio. –
I’m very proud of this year’s nominees for Outstanding Sound Design. I’m close friends with a few of them and I know their work well.
Neil McFadden was one of my teachers when I was first starting to design. And it always makes me so happy when the smaller theatres like Rorschach get some well-deserved nods. It’s great that Matt Rowe is nominated for a musical — he’s one of the best musical designers in town, and that seems to be getting more and more rare.
I know Chris Baine well, and it’s good to see him on the nominee list this year. I didn’t see A Bright New Boise, but I know that he’s been making waves lately. I don’t know Tom Teasley personally, but I’m really sad I didn’t get to see The Green Bird. I heard his work, and the production in general, were brilliant.
I think sound design is a somewhat difficult and broad category to judge in any awards ceremony. Essentially, sound breaks down into three categories in theatre: Design, Composer and Musician. There are many productions in town that feature work in all three categories, but most just have one or two. And very few feature all three categories done well.
Design includes everything from making the sound system itself as top-notch as possible to creating lush soundscapes. You may only have an old stereo system with two wooden cabinets, but if you place it and tune it right, it won’t matter. And you may have a show with two cues in it, but I’ve known people who did those two cues so well that they were nominated for those productions. If the production is a musical, sound design means getting the system and wireless mics all worked out, and dealing with things like an orchestra or band onstage. Design also includes music, whether the designer finds music, composes the music, or receives music from the composer.
I’ve worked with great designers who are brilliant composers and vice-versa, but not all are both. I’ve seen many shows in DC that were brilliant musically but designed very poorly and without any nuance, so that my ears were exhausted by the end. The music might well be Helen Hayes nod-worthy, but definitely not the sound design.
One theatre where I design frequently started submitting the composer and designer as co-designers when that production gets noticed. It’s not a solution to the fact that the Original Music category is missing, which is a problem. But it’s a fair quick-fix.
The musician category is for the few folks who compose for a production and then play their music (and sometimes foley sound effects) live on stage as part of the production. I’m kind of in awe of the designers in this category. When done well, it’s just amazing to watch and listen to, and it’s an incredible “full circle” moment where contemporary theatre sound meets a format that is generations — and centuries — old. However, the problem I’ve seen with this category is that you can’t be in the house making sure everything sounds good if you are performing your design from the stage.
So it becomes frustrating at times when I see productions nominated for sound design that were brilliant in some aspects and deserved recognition, but not in the sound design category. But then, most sound designers will tell you that if patrons notice the sound design, something is wrong. This means that from an audience and/or Helen Hayes judge’s perspective, I think they don’t always know what they are listening to. Why should they be paying active attention to sound unless it has detracted from or overpowered the production?
Sound Design has been around for decades — you could argue centuries — but I can guarantee that the next time I take part in a designer discussion, one of the first questions will be: “So… what exactly do you do?”
It seems that sound and music in the theatre are becoming more and more driven by sound and music in the movies. More and more, when I start work on a production, I hear the words “epic” and “like a movie.” That’s fine for me. I love the opportunity to bring that movie sound and feel into a live atmosphere. The problem is that it’s still not quite right. We still haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Directors and audiences demand more, bigger, louder. And that does tend to be the movie way, but it’s rarely right for live theatre. It drowns out the actors and exhausts the patrons, who are already working harder to focus in the live environment than they do at the movies.
The trick, as in any design aspect of live theatre, is to make the audience believe that they are there, wherever “there” is. If you want a production to be more, bigger, louder, then you have to figure out how to get there without actually doing more, bigger louder.
That’s one of the things I love most about my job. It’s a fascinating and constantly evolving line to ride. You have to make the audience feel something without leading them, and provide support for the actors on stage.
As much as movies are impacting sound design, I think this is a very exciting time to be a sound designer in DC. Mostly because everyone is still discovering what the potential for sound design can be, and how many different ways sound can affect and be a part of any production. But also because there aren’t many of us, which means that each time a production opens in DC, the sound designer who worked on it has taken part in shaping the direction and meaning of sound design in DC theatre.
I worked on a couple of spectacular productions over the past year. I think my favorite might be Amadeus at Round House. Jim Kronzer’s set was spectacular. It made you feel reverent when you walked in to the theatre. The direction, the lighting, the costumes, the wigs… every aspect of that production was amazing. And the acting was even better. Ed Gero, Sasha Olinick, Floyd King, Laura C. Harris, JJ Kaczynski, KenYatta Rogers, Scott McCormick, Jefferson Russell… All just incredible.
I was sucked into that production every night I was there.