Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association

by Lucy Peckham

That was the name of the seminar I taught/led at the the twenty-fourth annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska.  My name is Lucy Peckham, and I’m a new member of the TSDCA.  I applied for membership after attending the meeting at USITT in Salt Lake City.  I felt challenged to offer this class by what I heard there.  The withdrawal of the Tony awards sent a ripple of shock and anger that had no problem hitting home with me even here in remote Alaska, and I am thrilled and proud to join TSDCA.

The Last Frontier Theatre Conference is primarily aimed at playwrights, directors and actors.  At this year’s conference, fifty-three brand new plays were selected and presented in the Play Lab, with fifty-two of the playwrights present to hear their plays and receive immediate feedback from the actors cast in the reading, the director of their piece, other theatre professionals and peers.  There were 157 actors reading the roles, and fifteen selected panelists divided up into three groups to hear and lead the comments on the scripts.  The play readings were open to all attendees.  But there is a general lack of input and participation from any designers. It’s as if we expect new playwrights to know what to do with the design elements.

Well, they don’t, and neither do some directors!  I’d like to suggest that, in the interest of job security and fostering understanding, the folks to educate are playwrights and directors.

You will find examples from your own work when you do this, and I hope you do, but here is what I presented to the thirty-six folks who dared come to my class.

I started with a joke you probably all know – but just in case…

What is a play without props called?  Simple.

What is a play where the actors wear their own clothes called?  Frugal.  

What is a play without a set called?  Cheap.  

What is a play without lights called?  Radio.

And then I played an audio clip ofPaul McCartney and Wings’ song“Silly Love Songs,” just the line – “And what’s wrong with that — I’d like to know.”

Before you all gag, I do know that’s hitting them over the head with a sound cue sledgehammer, but the whole bunch of them burst out laughing.  So I got their attention, and then got serious.

I discussed the elements of theatre sound design from a functional standpoint.  First, practical effects needed in the play’s action like phones ringing, a storm happening, radio playing, door slamming. Next are functional effects that set the mood and put the audience at ease like preshow, intermission and walkout music, or move the play ahead like music or effects to cover scene changes, or a passage of time.  Finally, there is the opportunity to leave space for creativity, atmosphere, magic.

I copied pages out of scripts where the playwright did an excellent job of giving the sound designer/composer the opportunity to do each of these very creatively, and gave them to attendees, so they could see how sound opportunities were written into those scripts.  Then I played music and effects I used or created for those productions.

The three examples I selected are:  Annapurna by Sharr White, for the remarkable four scene breaks in the first five minutes of the play; In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), by Sarah Ruhl, for the gift of a character who plays three pieces on the piano in the play that she has “made up,” while everyone stops to listen plus the opportunity to record and create effects from antique vibrators at the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco!;  The Voice of the Prairie, by John Olive, a wonderful story about the arrival/advent of radio in the twenties for the wonderful real sounds, early twentieth century recorded music, and many scene changes across years.

Then I addressed the directors in the room, because all designers are team players.  Though we bring our creativity to the table, the unifying vision comes from the director.  My best work has always been done for directors who push me in a direction I wasn’t expecting (usually off a cliff) and wouldn’t have considered on my own.

The examples I used were productions for which I’ve been designer/composer:

  • Leon Ingulsrud directed The Blue Bear by Luan Schooler and Leon Ingulsrud.  This play is told entirely in flashback.  Leon told me that the quality of memory is not the same as reality, and that he did not want reality, but memory.  Was that ever a joyous challenge for both music and effects!
  • Art Rotch, director of An Iliad, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.  Art put me onstage playing my own music as Muse to the Poet, actor Bostin Christopher, telling the story of the last forty days of the Trojan War.
  • Terry Edward Moore, director of MacBeth, by Willliam Shakespeare (duh!) who with his vision of the anti-liturgy, inspired me to compose all the witches’ spells as horrid Gregorian-style chants using the Devil’s Interval, the augmented fourth.  All the myriad sound effects were created live onstage with the help of actors as my foley artists, and the set designer who incorporated every noisy thing I asked for or brought to him into his set design, including a thunder sheet…

I ended the seminar by telling them, playwrights and directors, “Think with your ears.  You don’t have to show everything visually or say everything with a line.  Leave it to pure imagination.  Sound and Music… You can leave space for it.  Make space for it!  Go on!  I dare you!”

To you, all my amazing peers out there, I’m just beginning to understand that our future, our livelihood, the respect and understanding of what we do as art is in our hands.  I hope you seek out opportunities to educate the next generation of playwrights and directors, and the one after that.  I know I will…  Call it “job security!”

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