[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, February 24, 2019.]
Fitz Patton is a Drama Desk and Lortel-winning composer and sound designer who has built an extensive and varied body of work on Broadway, Off-Broadway and across the country. While building his portfolio, Patton also channeled his frustration with the static conventions of theatrical production photography into Chance Magazine, a publishing experiment that he calls a “serial art book.” (Full disclosure: I was founding editor of the magazine in 2012 with Fitz, set and costume designer Dane Laffrey, and costume designer Camille Assaf. The magazine’s six print issues are now available online.)
My chat with Fitz wandered fluidly among specific productions and his life philosophy. His is, obviously, an expansive vision that offers a thrilling glimpse into a theatrical life. The following is a condensed, lightly edited version of our recent interview.
Martha Steketee: Do you have a personal or professional statement or vision for your design work?
Fitz Patton: Oslo — a play I just designed in St. Louis — is a good example of how I approach my work. In that play, Israelis and Palestinians in 1993 are litigating this very complex thing, a declaration of principles on how they’re going to resolve conflict. I learned that my role as sound designer could be to evoke the ancient tribal energy that underlies and charges the entire conversation. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is built on top of an ancient Jewish religious site destroyed long ago; you’re looking at a conflict that stretches back at least 1,500 years. That tribal energy, woven into the DNA of the people having the conversation, is profound. I underscored only the negotiations — the coming together of these people. The subject of the underscore was this tribal vibration, which I thought tensioned the jokes and worked as a salve to the more emotionally explosive moments.
For Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway this season, Beowulf Boritt designed a revolving set. I had this idea that the piece should be set and scored with a Brahms-ian orchestra, contemporary to the 1897 of the play. I thought the score should be made of things that revolve, tiny motifs that go round and round and then pile on top of each other. The set was this circular thing, so I thought it should have an aural equivalent. There was utility to that. I didn’t mix it down as one piece. The brass were in the center cluster and a little bit to the side; the strings were only in the side and the rear surrounds; the woodwinds were over here. It was like you were sitting in the pit with the orchestra, and I thought that helped unify the space.
From those examples and my sense of your work, you design as an aural element of an immersive experience.
Immersive is a great word. I see my role very much as placing the audience inside of something. It’s determining the strongest position I can take that is not simply making an aural copy of something that’s already there. For Oslo, I could have read the play and said, “All right, what’s the top-of-show cue as they enter the play?” and scored it that play. [But] that would say, “Oh, we’re watching a play.” If the actors enter in silence and go straight into dealing with the problem, then when the music emerges it can lay a tribal, timeless, spiritual space, which is both healing and wounded. Then you’re not watching Oslo, the play. You’re watching this negotiation under which this other thing happens.
The decision in Bernhardt/Hamlet was to ask: “What is the landscape of Paris?” “What kind of poetic project is this city that would produce this amazing woman and validate the profoundly impactful, spiritual capability of her voice?” The recordings I heard of [Sarah Bernhardt] — I’ve never heard anything like that in my life! She’s capable of playing four, five, six-minute arcs that are really shocking.