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  • Sound Notes July 22 2014: In the beginning there was sound

    Like a night spent at a Punchdrunk production, this post is long, full of emotion and has the potential to reveal hidden aspects of theatre making.

    A few weeks ago something happened in the theatre industry that made me, a sound designer mainly working in theatre, quite angry:

    Tony Awards committee decide to drop sound design awards

    For non-theatre types, the Tonys are kind of like the Oscars for theatre shows. They're American, they're glitzy and glam, they're the most prestigious theatre awards show of the year worldwide and although you can be a non-American production or be working on a non-American production to win, the production has to have been on Broadway in the past year. They're also (I think, almost certainly) the only theatre award of which a non-theatre person might be aware.

    Sound design is a late-comer to the Tony awards, awards for Best Sound Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Musical being first awarded in 2008. To put this into perspective, there's been a Best Lighting Design award since 1970. So we're still pretty new to the party, and now we're being kicked out. Way to make an key element of theatre production feel wanted, Tonys!

    Understandably, there's been a bit of an outcry about this, both from the extended Broadway & US theatre community under #TonyCanYouHearMe and from us sound designers on the UK side of the pond, some of whom are Tony winners and all of whom are wondering what the knock-on effect may be to the UK equivalent of the Tonys, the Olivier awards.

    Reading the articles about the decision, the main thrust is that Tony voters don't really understand sound design and think it's more of a technical field than a creative one (quote is from the same article as the previous link):

    "the decision was driven largely by three factors: Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor."

    Amidst the excellent rebuttals of this, including Benjamin Furiga's comment from the same article that To argue that sound design is a solely technical pursuit would be akin to arguing that the musicians playing synthesizers in the orchestra pit are simply technicians,” I do admit that it's hard to assess an artform you don't really understand.

    Sound design isn't tangible or visual: unlike costumes, set and lighting, all of which have been honoured at the Tonys for decades, you can't touch it and you can't see it. It can be dramatic and impressive but it is at its best, as Brian Ronan puts it, "when the audience is unaware of our presence, when the sound complements and moves the audience without drawing attention to itself. "


    Here's the difficulty then:

    1) Sound designers absolutely deserve to be recognised at the Tonys and all other theatre awards as propagators of an integral theatrical art that works closely with and alongside lighting designers, directors, musical directors and all other aspects of theatrical productions to create moods, establish context, add clarity to the voices and sound of musicians, singers, actors and performers and bring a stage show to life. 

    2) Many theatre practitioners, including directors, producers, lighting designers, actors, musical directors, stage managers, designers and pretty much every other theatre job you can think of, don't really get what sound designers do.

    I've had to explain to directors that a sound designer isn't just a fancy name for a sound tech and if you want me to plan and source the vocal and orchestral mics and foldback and create all the sound effects, you're going to have to pay me more. I've had to point out that the work I do to create multi-layered soundscapes, choose and often compose music, record and edit voice overs and adjust volume levels of individual sounds in the theatre space does require a fair bit of skill, experience and a lot of studio time. And I've had to fight for pay parity with lighting designers on almost every job I do.

    I'm not at the level of the Oliviers and Tonys, and if theatre makers at my level aren't getting it, it's sad but not surprising that those at the committee level aren't either. Losing the Tonys is a major blow to an already unrecognised art. As David Grindle puts it: "To now scrap that category devalues sound design as an art and our industry as a whole. If the top awards in American theater aren't willing to recognize that sound designers are artists as well as technicians, it tells people their work doesn't matter."

    My work, and the work of my colleagues, does matter, and we have to make a noise about it. Sound Notes will be a regular feature of my blog, a chance for me to highlight exactly what a sound designer does. I'll be writing about productions I've worked on, showcasing the work of sound designers I admire and reviewing shows through a sound design lens (or should that be cone?) It will be my small contribution to telling theatre makers, appreciators and trainees that sound design is important and to hopefully bringing the Tony committee back on (sound)track soon.

    You can sign the petition to reinstate the Tony awards for sound design here

    More opinions on the decision:

    Why silence the Tony award for sound design?

    "An award can serve a good purpose. It can help us hold ourselves to high standards. It can help us aspire to do great work. It can help us show love to people who have given us something special. But it's hard for an award to do those things if it loses respect, or legitimacy. I humbly offer that if not reversed, the decision to ignore an entire artistic field will send the Tony in that unfortunate direction." - Chris Ashworth, one of the creators of QLab, the program that runs the sound & media playout for most Broadway and West End shows and probably most theatrical shows around the world

    Official press release from the UK's Association of Sound Designers

    "...twenty years ago I composed scores for plays and even back then theatre was thinking about these things through practice. Sonic experiment even then, occupied an increasingly prominent place within the collaborative rehearsal process. It was this that led to the rise of the sound designer. There is rarely a play produced in London without one credited these days. If, as has been suggested, the Tony committee doesn’t understand the term, the one wonders how much time its members have spent around the creative processes of theatre in the past couple of decades."Ross BrownProfessor of Sound, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

    Finally, in the words of Randy Thom, legendary film sound designer: "This is a sad piece of news for all of us in sound.  It’s yet another slap in the face for an important art form that struggles for recognition...How sad, how dumb"

    P.S. The Tony committee have magnaminously agreed that a "special award" could be awarded for sound design" when there was an extraordinary achievement". As they've agreed that they don't know enough about sound design to award an award each year for the best of the "ordinary", I'm wondering how they'll be able to spot when the sound design is "extraordinary"?

    All photos taken by me.