[Full article published in Dramatics Magazine April 6, 2020. By Martha Wade Steketee and Anita Martin.]

palmer hefferan 2 (tess mayer)
Sound designer Palmer Hefferan working on The Lifespan of a Fact. Photo by Tess Mayer

SOUND DESIGNER Palmer Hefferan has noticed that, when watching a theatrical production, people have a hard time understanding things they don’t see. As opposed to visual design fields such as sets, costumes, or lights, she said, “They often don’t realize that there was a whole creative process and a person behind what they’re hearing.” For Hefferan, sound can feel “like the underdog of the design world — which is exciting. It allows you to invent things and explore and make history.”

Hefferan made history in 2018 when she joined Broadway’s first all-female design team in The Lifespan of a Fact. In doing so, she also joined a historically small group of women designing sound on the Great White Way. Among other Broadway pioneers are veteran designer Joanna Lynne Staub and Jessica Paz, the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical for 2019’s Hadestown.

Staub points out that “women have been front-of-house audio engineers and mixers on Broadway for more than 30 years. Cindy Hawkins, Beth Berkeley, Karen Ford, Karen Zubinsky, Valerie Spradling, and Ilene McDonald were the women a generation older than me who, when I first came to New York, were mixing Broadway shows. When I transitioned from engineer to designer, they said, ‘Go for it.’”

Dramatics reached out to Hefferan, Paz, and Staub, as well as three women thriving in sound design off-Broadway and in regional theatre: Victoria Deiorio, Beth Lake, and Jane Shaw. They acknowledge that sound design can be difficult to talk about, as it’s not easy to capture in words and images. As designers, their only viewable product is the cue sheet, which Deiorio describes as an exercise in “spatial dynamics … a kind of graph.”

As we focus on the women behind theatrical sound, we’ll rely on their words to graph the dynamics of this evolving field.

HOW DO WOMEN ADVOCATE FOR SOUND DESIGN?

Until recently, sound design has been a siloed and often-overlooked field. In June 2014, the Tony Awards Administration Committee announced it would eliminate awards for sound design, prompting national coverage in The New York Times, an online petition garnering more than 30,000 signatures, and the coming together of sound designers across the country to advocate for the field.

“We were all isolated from each other. On the regional level, you had a mentor or two. But other than that, it felt very proprietary, and everybody kind of kept information to themselves,” said Deiorio, a Chicago sound designer and composer who developed and now heads the sound design department at DePaul University. “When this happened, it hit everybody universally. My students asked, ‘What’s the point of doing this if we’re not valued as a collaborator on the team? How can we educate people; what kind of outreach do we need?’”

Deiorio and other sound designers arranged town hall meetings — in Chicago, on both U.S. coasts, and online. “Everybody said we needed an organization to create a network.”

Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association was incorporated in 2015 and began holding annual meetings in 2016 to educate, advocate, and set industry standards for the next generation of sound designers. The Tony Awards for sound design were reinstated for the 2017-18 season, and the TSDCA continues to grow. In 2019, Deiorio, a founding member, stepped down as co-chair, handing stewardship of the organization to Paz and Lindsay Jones.

“Although when this group first came together it was in reaction to the Tonys being taken away, I think immediately it was like: ‘How cool is it that we’re all sitting together in this room?’” said Shaw, a Drama Desk Award-winning sound designer who works closely with New York’s Mint Theater Company.

Staub reflects that this organization “created out of frustration” has become a source of mentorship and networking for women in the field, especially younger designers. “It’s a place where a lot of the female sound designers from all over the country can talk together as a group.”

TSDCA nurtures ongoing dialogue, collaboration, and mutual support surrounding industry issues, including union negotiations and defining the duties, expectations, and compensation for an associate designer, both on and off-Broadway. Additionally, Paz said, the group serves to connect “students who are graduating sound design programs with people currently working in the field.”

WHAT IS SOUND DESIGN?

Deiorio described sound design as either prescriptive or creative, depending on the director. “You’re either told what to do — ‘I want this kind of music, this exact piece of music, I want this here’ — or you’re allowed to do it on your own. It depends on who wants to drive the sound journey.”

As something “hitting the audience on an emotional level,” Deiorio said that “sound is very directorially influenced.” When she recruits student assistants at DePaul, she seeks storytellers who appreciate the emotional impact of audio. “If [students] have done anything in sound that’s affected an audience and realized they did that, that’s a big part of what I look for. I can teach the [technical] skills.”

Lake works closely with directors to effect transitions and mood through “soundscapes and tonal shifts, finding music that fits a piece, editing it and mashing it up with other things, and manipulating it to fit exactly what we need it to be.”

Like all theatrical designers, Lake and her colleagues need to understand both the director’s overall creative vision and the minute details of each scene. “My usual process with a director is to talk about the world of the play and how it needs to function, and then the mechanics of quick changes or a scenic shift,” she said.

Next, she collects a sampling of melodies, sounds, and tones to piece together. “I call it ‘swatching,’ like how a costume designer gathers bits and pieces of material. Do they fit together, have the right feel, the right look, the right texture? I worked in a fabric shop in high school, and that opened my eyes to the breadth of fabrics you can interact with. Is it cotton based; is it a poly-cotton blend? This relates to music in the same way. Are they string instruments, woodwind or electronic instruments, or all-natural sound effects?”

Beyond their theatrical craft, Shaw added, designers often dabble in other sound-related fields, thanks to the versatility of their skill set. “I see sound designers around me wearing many hats: education, sound studio, scoring things for short films or videos, or writing jingles. It lets them work in different ways with music, collaborators, and sound, so they can come back to theatre with new tools.”

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