Sten recently moved his family to Minneapolis from New York City, but he still returns to the Big Apple to design, this summer’s The Total Bent at the Public as an example. He has been the invaluable partner of many sound designers in the community, co-designing with Mark Bennett and John Gromada, and being the associate/assistant on shows for Rob Milburn, Lew Mead, and Simon Baker. Sten worked extensively with ACME Sound Partners, including work as an assistant/associate on In the Heights (Broadway), Avenue Q (Las Vegas, tour), High Fidelity (Broadway), Spamalot (Broadway, Las Vegas) and The Light in the Piazza (tour). He became a partner of Acme in 2009, and his projects thereafter included the designs for Hair (Broadway, Delacorte) and Hamlet (Delacorte).
What are you working on at the moment?
It has been a busy summer. I went from designing Diary of a Wimpy Kid at the Children’s Theatre Company (where I am the Sound Director) to The Total Bent at the Public Theater then on to San Diego where I designed Macbeth with my trusty co-designer David Thomas at the Old Globe. I returned to the Globe in August to design Love’s Labour’s Lost. Now I have to get the 2016-17 season at CTC on it’s feet!
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. After college I spent several years in Baltimore and a bunch in New York before recently settling down in Minneapolis.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
For reasons that are equally budget, time, and sheer number of people involved, the best collaborations often occur on the smallest stages. Early in our careers a few friends of mine created a theater company called (appropriately) DownTownTheater. We put up a couple of shows in scrappy venues but the best and most collaborative was an original script by Kimberly Megna called Mao on Line One that we presented in a 60 seat theater in Chelsea. Every aspect of the show; sets, lights, sound, costume, acting, and writing all melded into a whole. Our shoestring budget somehow seemed to be limited only by our imagination as every intention that began in one area was so fully supported and enhanced by the others. I’m still in touch with many of those artists but I’ve never matched that level of group collaboration. It was the exact opposite of design and direction by committee, it was democracy in action.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
The basic underpinnings of my life are family and friends. None of this art would be possible without them. Freelancers everywhere face the same dilemma in balancing work life and real life, I re-examine that relationship almost every day.
Professionally, every show I work on is the combined efforts of a team of talented assistants, mixers, engineers, A2s, and many more. All those people bring new dimensions, depth and clarity to every production, no designer is an island.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
I’ve been on an extended Prince kick, for obvious reasons. When Doves Cry. That is all.
Name a pet production peeve.
Long production meetings after 10 out of 12s. “Nothing for the group!”
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
Do you play an instrument?
I play piano very poorly, the theory was interesting when I was younger but practicing was really dull. I’ve found the knowledge of musical theory to be invaluable when collaborating with composers and musicians.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
In high school I started combining my love of music and my love of theater. I have fond memories of cuing up cassette decks and a very high tech CD boombox. We couldn’t yet burn CDs so I was changing CDs between each cue and advanced to the appropriate track. I didn’t realize that sound, much less sound design, was a possible career path until college – where I also upgraded to reel to reel! I don’t think I proved to my parents that it was a viable career path until much later.
Does your family understand what you do?
That’s a great question! There is definitely a generational gap. The younger people generally understand that sound is manipulated just like lights or paint. I feel like I’ve trained an older generation to be more aware of the role of sound in theatrical performance but the technical details mostly elude them. More often than not my best review is “I could hear all the words”. So, not different from most news sources.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
I have been lucky enough to work with a huge range of designers and composers, all of whom have had a hand in shaping my career and aesthetic. I simply would not be the designer I am without the influence of John Gromada, Mark Bennett, Rob Milburn, Scott Lehrer, Mark Menard, David Budries, Tom Clark and many others that I now consider friends.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
Protools, Filemaker Pro, Omnifocus, Max/MSP, Omnigraffle, Excel, Ableton Live, Vectorworks , Soundminer…
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
When Gilbert Nouno of IRCAM introduced me to Max/MSP he demystified programming for audio. Instead of being a simple end-user I could develop tools that worked exactly the way I wanted to work. Max has been my swiss army knife of problem solving and creative manipulation ever since.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
Maybe a pilot? I should ask my son, he would know.
Why is art important?
It defines who we are as a society. Why are we so fascinated with frescoes in newly uncovered Roman villas? We hope to find the soul of those ancient people in their art. What will the people of the future say about us when they uncover the ruins of Trump tower or try to recreate a performance of Phantom of the Opera?
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
I’m hoping that TSDCA can facilitate communication and coordinate advocacy. We often work as lone wolves, slinking from theater to theater without even meeting another sound designer or composer in person. It’s quite important to provide the opportunity for us to form an effective pack who can can benefit from strength in numbers. In the long run we will be able to press for recognition, parity and maybe even small statues.