In the Moment: Interview with Sound Designer Justin Schmitz

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All too often the work of a theater sound designer can go unnoticed. In fact, not long ago the Tony Awards decided not to even provide an award category for sound design (now reinstated). Thankfully, the DC area’s Helen Hayes Awards did not follow the Tonys’ dismissive attitude toward theater sound design.

But, what is it that a theater sound designer does? How does sound add impact or nuance to a production? As DC area sound designer Justin Schmitz said in a recent interview, “the sound designer provides aural themes and musical nuance to characters and actions in a production.” He added that a sound designer adds “feelings” with sound, music selections, and for Schmitz, even music he composes. Sound becomes “an additional storyteller.”

If you are not familiar with Justin Schmitz, he is a multi-Helen Hayes nominee for Sound Design. He has worked with theaters across the region.

Some of Schmitz’s recent work includes Familiar at Woolly Mammoth, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Wild Party (nominated for a 2018 Helen Hayes Award) at Constellation Theatre. Add to those, The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Theater J, along with Me…Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall with the Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences. He worked on Forum Theatre’s I Call My Brothers (nominated for a 2017 Helen Hayes Award) and The Gospel at Colonus at WSC Avant Bard. His upcoming sound design work includes Raisin in the Sun at Gallaudet University, and TRAYF at Theater J.

Schmitz’s earlier sound design training included undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, the University of North Carolina School for the Arts and a Kenan Fellowship with The Kennedy Center.

So, now let’s get to the interview with Justin Schmitz.

Sound designer Justin Schmitz. Photo courtesy of Justin Schmitz.
Sound designer Justin Schmitz. Photo courtesy of Justin Schmitz.

David Siegel: What does a theatrical sound designer do?

Justin Schmitz: This really depends on the show; is it a musical or a play. I read the script twice. First to just enjoy the reading, to learn everything I can. I want to know what the playwright and the play or the musical are intending? What are the needs and opportunities for design in the text? After that, I speak with a director to understand her/his vision of the production. From there I take my approach into what I think the sound design and/or composition of the show should be and we discuss it.

Simultaneously for either a musical or play, I go into venues and measure the space to find distances and angles to hang loudspeakers that the venue might own, or determine if we need to rent more materials. After that, I draft out the layout of the space or collaborate with the scenic designer and technical director to secure venue drawings that I can use to determine where to put or hide materials onstage.

Then I begin to craft the audio components of the show. This gets split between two very different routes. If the production is a play, I go through the script, again looking for obvious cues, ones that the playwright calls for and asks specifically to be in the play. I also go through again looking for options that the playwright may not have considered, or for external design opportunities within the play. If needed, I can assign themes and musical nuances to characters or actions that are thematic throughout the production.

If the show is a musical, I gather my sound team to assign tasks to begin our work. As the designer, it’s my job to make sure that we incorporate instrument microphones, performer microphones, processing of audio, and mixing all into one smooth experience during tech rehearsals. We as a team figure out what microphones to use on instruments, which actors may need to double up on microphones or do microphone swaps backstage during the show, or even how to fix a problem during a live performance. I have to be really aware of the dynamics between my team and everyone else involved in the production. This includes when the production has extremely technical sounds needs throughout the performance.

If we’ve done our job well, an audience should only ever know that it felt wonderful and right.

I am often asked by audience members how they should listen to and assess a sound design. What would you say to them?

Jane Goodall and Justin Schmitz. Photo courtesy of Justin Schmitz.
Jane Goodall and Justin Schmitz at The Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences performance of Me…Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall. Photo courtesy of Justin Schmitz.

I think audiences need to listen with the intention of understanding; not reacting. Let a production fully immerse you. Take note of what you are sensing, whether that is sound, projections, costumes, lighting, scenery, acting, sequential execution through stage managing, just be aware of how it all blends together. If the sound design ultimately helps you to enjoy the performance or makes you lean into the story just a little bit further than you were expecting, then that’s a good sound design. If you’re hearing nothing but feedback and are continually confused throughout the production, that can either be a direct choice of the designer or the product of a bad design. Sound design is creative art. Everything is extremely subjective and is a psychological journey. More than anything, it should allow you to slip into a whole new world and help you forget that the outside world you came from exists, if even for an hour or two. It should support the action onstage and enhance your experience from start to finish.

You are working with the Gallaudet University Theater Department. [Gallaudet University teaches students who are deaf or hard of hearing.] Please tell us about your collaboration with Gallaudet.

My job with Gallaudet is as a sound designer for productions, just like I do with other design teams and universities here in DC. I am very fortunate to collaborate with the incredible artists and students on two shows a season.

When I did my first production (just over a year ago) it was Bunnicula, a Theatre for Young Audiences musical about a vampire bunny who drained the juice out of vegetables at night while the family was asleep. I was really nervous because I didn’t know exactly how my role as a sound designer for Gallaudet would pan out in a way that made sense to Deaf audiences. Ethan Sinnott, Gallaudet’s program chair, very clearly helped me to understand that my job was to do what I do for every show outside of the university; to make art. Eventually, what I needed was a conversation about the audiences that attend Gallaudet shows. What good is a sound design if folks cannot feel the components of my work at play?

I sat together with the lighting designer and stage manager and asked for feedback on my work – what could they feel? What was making sense in terms of storytelling, and what was confusing? How did my design element help them to understand the story, and most importantly, how did it aid the story’s telling?

As tech went on we figured out quickly that some parts of a script are truly written for a hearing audience, so we made changes that worked more specifically for a Deaf audience. One example was a neighbor who consistently was playing his violin and being a disruption to the family onstage. The frequencies of a violin’s resonance are typically difficult for most Deaf/Hard of Hearing folks to fully feel the vibrations because the sound wave is so narrow and small. With the playwright’s permission, we elected to have the neighbor take out the trash frequently. This was achieved by dropping stage weights into an old coal cart that was placed on the ground of the theatre. The vibrations of the stage weight hitting the floor of the cart would transfer throughout the space and be felt with our feet and in our bodies – thus the feeling of the neighbor consistently being a disruption to the action of the play sonically. Additionally, during the tech process I ended up boosting the bass frequencies in the music that we were given. This helped everyone to feel the tempo and rhythm of the music as well.

Overall, designing sound for a predominantly Deaf/Hard of Hearing audience had me think outside the box; to be creative with the experience my design will provide to the audience. What feelings and symbolic aural choices am I making that can translate well to that specific audience? Often we consider that people know instinctually what music and sound is, but this isn’t always the case. I think one of the moments that will forever stand out to me is being asked to explain music to my collaborators and what the music felt like.

I was very fortunate. I teamed up with the lighting designer and we displayed images and set colors to specific music. For slow and sad songs, we used a picture of a river that wasn’t flowing quickly and the leaves had all fallen down, while we made the lighting look blue and darker in the room. For fast-paced and energetic songs, we used pictures of spring and baby animals playing, while we chose red and orange lights to represent that. We created almost a new language together in understanding how music and sound can affect mood and experiences in productions.

This was also a great opportunity for me to re-invest in what it is that sound ultimately tries to do in storytelling. I’ve taken the lessons I learn with my colleagues at Gallaudet and apply them in my regular designs outside of campus. Here in DC specifically I will always request a subwoofer speaker (low-frequency bass) and when I have larger cues that feel more emphatic I will really drive those sounds more heavily. I also use that more with music in pre-show, intermission, and post-show so that a Deaf/Hard of Hearing audience member can know and feel the music happening when it might not be specifically mentioned through interpreters or captioning services.