It is an extraordinary thing to commit yourself to work in theater despite the long hours and low pay. Why do people do it? This is the first in a series highlighting this year’s Helen Hayes nominees: their work, their life, their art, their passion.
Matthew M. Nielson has received four Helen Hayes awards for sound design, more than any other human. But he started out as a performer.
It was a long time ago.
A very long time ago.
He was in the fifth grade.
“The first production I was ever in was Taming of the Shrew,” he tells me now. “I was Gremio” — the elderly gentleman who courts the beautiful Bianca. A 5th-grader who can play Gremio must show considerable range, don’t you think? And this was no ordinary school-auditorium production. “We got to perform at the Folger as part of a Shakespeare in the Schools type of thing.”
The Folger! The Globe-like structure, the magnificent acoustics, the hallway full of ancient manuscripts under glass, with more hidden away in locked vaults. The ten-year-old Matt must have decided this was the life for him, right?
“I never really thought about theatre again until high school,” and then for the usual reasons, at least for guys. “I had a huge crush on a couple of seniors who were auditioning.” He won a role in Oklahoma! as Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s dad (“Oh, the farmer and the cowboy should be friends…”). Then he got some big roles: Abner in Li’l Abner, Baron von Trapp, Otto Frank.
He went on to Montgomery College, where it was more of the same: Curley in Oklahoma!, Orin Scrivello, the insane dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, Maximillian in Candide.
Then he got off the train.
“At some point I started drifting away from performing (and college), and followed some good college friends to Round House Theatre when it was at its old location,” he says. He built scenery; he was on run crew. And then he discovered sound.
“The first show I ever ran sound for was Three Days of Rain at Round House, and the sound designer was Tony Angelini. I was hooked,” he says. “I started mixing sound for some of my friends’ bands, and getting more and more involved with sound technology in theatre. Things lined up for me pretty quickly and definitively once I realized how much I liked working with audio and music.”
Theaters noticed his work. Wolf Trap engaged him, and then, to his astonishment, the Public Theatre in New York made him the head of its audio department. “I went from running sound and assisting designers occasionally to managing the department for five spaces in the theatre plus the Shakespeare in the Park productions.”
It was too much. When Round House moved to its present Bethesda digs, it started looking for an Audio Master. Matt let them know he was interested, and they gave him the job.
It was there that the education of Matt Nielson, sound designer, really took off. As the Audio Master at Round House, he met “pretty much everybody that I would consider a mentor.”
Some he assisted; some he only observed. “I assisted Tony Angelini on a few of his shows and learned a great deal from him about audio technology and being a strong contributing member of any design team. I ran one of Scott Burgess’ shows at Round House and ended up assisting him on a couple of shows elsewhere. He’s a brilliant sound designer and taught me to think outside the box and be inventive in my designs. I always loved running a Neil McFadden show. From him I learned how to keep a level head in tough situations throughout the tech process, and that the more simple solution is often the better one.
“And I never got to assist Marty DesJardins, but it was clear that he was one of the best designers around, so I soaked up as much as I could when he designed at Round House. He taught me the importance of having a strong voice as part of a design team, and putting that voice into a cohesive sound design that helps and adds depth to whatever story we’re trying to tell.”
Helen Hayes judges started to notice his work, and then other theaters did. He received the Helen Hayes for Round House’s A Prayer for Owen Meany in 2007, and then was nominated twice in 2008 — for Signature’s Nest and for The Unmentionables at Woolly Mammoth. He won it again in 2009 for 1984 with the late, lamented Catalyst Theatre. He was nominated again in 2011 and won again in 2013, for The Illusion at Forum Theatre. He was working all over town. Constantly.
“I was starting to get burned out in DC. I was working non-stop, going from tech to tech and double and triple booking myself constantly to make ends meet and out of fear of saying ‘no’ to a production and not being asked back to that theatre or not being able to pay bills.”
So, for a second time, he got off the train. It was a little more complicated than that: he was also in the process of getting married to Amy Brandenburg, who worked in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Costume Department. She was looking for a change, too.
“I have a close cousin, Adam Johnson, who grew up in Asheville [N.C.], and he grew up working in the music side of the audio world – recording, mixing and mastering bands and orchestras and choirs. Whenever I would come down to visit we would always joke around about opening up a recording studio together. Little by little, it became less of a joke and more ‘we should really do this.'”
They did do this: “Adam and I started up Sound Lab Studios with recording in mind and began to pool our resources together to open up a studio location. We quickly discovered that we worked very well together in doing music and audio post production for film and television…I write music, score and do the sound design for projects from my home studio and send it to Adam who edits, mixes and masters the projects in his home studio.”
He and Amy moved to Asheville. The move worked for Matt. “Shortly after I moved, Blake Robison took a job at Cincinnati Playhouse and started hiring me to design there, which has been such a blessing and opened my eyes to the world of regional theatre. I love working there, and it has lead to productions in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Portland, Atlanta and Memphis. As with audio post production and music work, it doesn’t really matter where you live, and I don’t mind the travel too much.”
Incidentally, the move worked for Amy, too. “Another big reason for our move was so Amy could revisit her first love before costuming; making jewelry. She decided she wanted to work with a material called Precious Metal Clay and within a year she…was displaying her work in craft shows around the area. Now, she does craft shows all around the country and is a member of the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild.” Visit Amy’s studio online.
Moving to Asheville and going national hardly cut off Nielson’s contact with DC. “Not being in the thick of the DC scene has allowed me to be more selective about which shows I take, and more careful about my schedule,” he says. The care he took in selecting shows did not seem to effect his Helen Hayes nominations, however. He (along with Christopher Baine) won a Helen last year for his work on Theater Alliance’s Wonderful World of Dissocia, and was also nominated for his sound design for Hub’s Abominable.
So what sort of shows attract his attention? Shows like Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea — the Steinberg Award runner-up which garnered him his Helen nomination this year. “It’s just one of those magical scripts where music AND design elements appeared in my head when I read it for the first time,” Nielson says. “The character of Dontrell is of African descent, and the bulk of the show is about his ancestors communicating with him. Director Timothy Douglas had this great idea to bring on a percussionist as part of the team who became a huge part of the show and performed with the cast. Jabari Exum deserves the nomination for this show as much as I do. His drumming represented Dontrell and his family. Dontrell’s love interest in the show is of Scandinavian descent, as am I, so I got to write music to represent her. A couple of times throughout the production, Jabari’s playing and my music came together, and it was just breathtaking.
“The show is packed with opportunities for some intense sound design. The entire last scene takes place above and below the ocean, where Dontrell meets his ancestors. So that last scene had Jabari wailing on his djembe, a soundscape of being submerged underwater, tones and drones played on the nyckelharpa (a Scandinavian stringed instrument), and a beautiful piercing voice singing the song of the goddess of the sea. It was a powerful moment.”
(In his enthusiastic review of the play, DCTS’ Alan Katz noted that the “theme of subtlety is carried on by Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design and the musicianship of Jabari Exum, whose presence is constant, but as an uplifting note rather than a dominant force.”)
His lifelong commitment to his art has allowed Nielson to witness a revolution in its technology, which has permitted him to become more creative. “The big technology available when I first started designing was MiniDisc. Most shows would have two or three mini disc decks running sound cues simultaneously with ridiculously complex cue sheets.”
State of the art for him is now QLab, which is a Mac-based program. “QLab allows me to do productions like The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Peter and the Starcatcher where I can split any given music cue into separate pieces by instrument that I can rout to different speakers for a fuller sound, and then split them up again so that I the first part of a song is one cue, then I can make the end of that cue vamp under dialogue and then move on to the next part of the song when the operator presses ‘Go’ again. It’s been an amazing process watching the technology advance.”
Has the plethora of Helen Hayes nominations and awards jaded him? No, but it has given him some perspective. “It’s hard to measure the direct impact of an award on a career. When I won my first one for A Prayer for Owen Meany, I was already starting to get calls from some of the bigger theatres in the area. In a couple of instances, I received nominations for shows and I didn’t hear from those theatres again for years. Theatre work as a designer is so word-of-mouth that, while winning an award may raise the winner’s profile, it doesn’t necessarily directly lead to more work. On the other hand, the awards and nominations did eventually help raise my self-confidence, but I also attribute that to being a part of some incredible creative teams.”
This is measured appreciation, but he believes it firmly. When the Tonys stopped recognizing sound design, Nielson spoke out strongly. Now, Matt says that it “was a terrible decision, especially since the trickle-down explanation for this exclusion is that sound design is more technical than creative, and nobody knows how to judge it anyway.” At theatreWashington’s invitation, he’s spoken to Helen Hayes judges at the beginning of the season to help shape their appreciation of sound design in the plays they evaluate.
As Matt Nielson, living the artist’s dream of supporting himself through his art, contemplates the possibility of an unprecedented fifth Helen Hayes Award for Excellence in Sound Design, we could contemplate the school program which landed him on the Folger stage so many years ago. It didn’t create a performer, and it didn’t create a wealth manager who contributes millions to the arts. Instead, the fifth-grade Gremio is now a man whose commitment to his art has enriched his life and enriches ours. That may be worth paying an extra hundred bucks or so on our school tax bills.