BroadwayCon’s “I Can Hear the Bells: Sound Design on Broadway” panel, from left to right:
moderator Logan Culwell-Block and sound designers John Gromada, Lindsay Jones and Jill Du Boff.
The annual BroadwayCon, held recently at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, is a celebration of all things Broadway, from the shows performers, writers and choreographers to the behind-the-scenes crew that makes sure each show provides its full impact, including, naturally, sound designers.
One of this year’s high-points was the well-attended panel on sound design, entitled “I Can Hear the Bells: Sound Design on Broadway,”which featured sound designers Jill Du Boff (Hand to God), Lindsay Jones (A Time to Kill), and John Gromada (A Bronx Tale). It was moderated by Playbill writer and theater historian Logan Culwell-Block.
The panel dove into the specifics of the job, the challenges faced and the large part sound plays in conveying the show’s emotion to the audience. It also revealed a need for more sound engineers to get involved in theater productions.
The panel stressed that, in addition to sound quality and designing the entire sound system (Gromada stated that every theater is essentially starts as “an empty box”), the role of the sound designer is to interface with the director and interpret their message through sound. Jones added that the “composer and sound designer are responsible for the emotional content of the play.” And, although sound designer and composer are two separate jobs, all of the panel members have been hired for both positions.
Not only do the sound designers have to interface with the composers and directors, they also need to collaborate for space with the set designers. “Set designers ‘forget’ speakers,” said Jones. If the production cannot afford a dedicated projection designer, oftentimes the sound designer takes on the role, mainly because audio and video are so closely related in the minds’ of most people.
Du Boff described the sound team hierarchy under the sound designer as “associate,” who is someone the sound designer works with often and is responsible for much of the work in bringing the system together; “assistant,” who may not be a regular staff person but someone who moves from job-to-job; and “engineer,” who is the person that is responsible for the day-to-day handling of the sound and sound system.
Engineers in the theater world are in short supply. To illustrate this, Jones told a story of looking for an engineer to run one of his shows and coming up empty. A friend suggested someone who was available who had “just dropped out of college.” Jones took him on and showed him the ropes. He was a fast learner, and did well, so Jones left him with the show. When he checked back a few months later into the run, he inquired if the engineer was working out. “Oh he left,” he was told. He had taken another job at one of the larger, more prestigious theaters in Chicago.
Perhaps this is a great opportunity for a road-weary live sound engineer who dreams of winning a TONY award. (Nevermind — unbelievable as it may seem, the TONYs don’t have a category for sound design anymore.)