Joe Huppert began his career as a piano player, working in clubs in France, Germany and the US as well as touring and recording with rock bands. Two musicals followed, The Angles of Angst and The Eight Hours, which were produced in Chicago and Scotland before he settled in the former to become a music director for The Second City. While scoring improvised and scripted shows with live piano, Joe started incorporating sound effects, samples and pre-recorded sequences into Second City shows, which led to developing sound designs for local Chicago area theaters such as Organic/Touchstone, Remains, Curious Theater Branch, Apple Tree and many others. A graduate of Theater School at DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, Joe now lives in San Diego.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing sound and video for a cool new musical, The Geeze and Me, sound designing the exhibit Living with Animals at the San Diego Museum of Man, playing piano in a new comedy sketch show, General Assembly, and thinking about the future as ten years of working at La Jolla Playhouse and UCSD have come to an end.
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
I guess, selfishly, Des MacAnuff’s Donna Summer musical at La Jolla Playhouse. Working with Des has always been an inspiring experience, and I’ll miss him.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in San Francisco, raised in Chicago and Paris, and have been living in San Diego for the past ten years.
You have had an interesting career path; can you summarize the various steps and in hindsight what may have been important turning points?
Since childhood, I wanted to play piano for silent movies. After several years of composing, performing and recording with rock bands in Chicago, I suddenly found myself being a music director for The Second City in Chicago, which is about as close to being a silent movie piano player as you can get these days. After a decade of playing with Second City, Annoyance and ImprovOlympic, an old injury to my arm eventually forced me to give up performing, so I moved into sound design and composition. Major steps in my career always seemed randomly lucky to me, like being hired at Second City and La Jolla Playhouse, though going to school late in my career gave me new skills and connections. The key to it all was doing everything all the way, and being open to what the Universe offered.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was the most fun I ever had in a theater, even though (or maybe because) I wasn’t a designer on that show. My team and I were intrinsically involved in the sound, video, music and show control, even inventing a new system for locking video to moving scenery. Working with Des MacAnuff, Steve Kennedy, Sean Nieuwenhuis, Bill Brendle, Eric May, Walter Trarbach, Chris Luessmann and the rest of that incredible team to create the most beautiful theater spectacle I’ve ever been a part of was pure joy. I think Des’s charismatic vision inspired everyone and made that successful. And, the Flaming Lips! Come on!
As a sound designer, Extraordinary Chambers with Seema Sueko directing, a long time collaborator. It was successful because Seema had a strong vision and the play was compelling every single time we did it. And, Chinary Ung’s music! Come on!
As a composer, recording the record A Diamond in the Dumpster while writing and premiering the musical The Angles of Angst early in my career was one of those swirling, slightly crazy collaborative vortexes you never forget – successful because we all had no idea what we were getting into and just did it full tilt.
You spent many years as a sound supervisor for both student and professional productions. What advice would you give an incoming designer?
Do everything all the way, don’t bail and do things halfway if you aren’t happy. It will end (perhaps my favorite thing about theater). You’ll move on to something else, so get the most out of it you can – even a bad experience will teach you and show you off to people, but an uncommitted experience is pretty much useless and bad impressions last a long time. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
What is the best thing a visiting designer ever did for you? the worst?
John Gromada had an uncanny knack for doing sound designs that were exactly in line with what I had been playing with in my own designs. I think he and I collaborated wonderfully, and it was delightful to be able to hear him do something similar to what I was working on – like getting an outside view of your own progress (not that your work isn’t original and amazing, John!). And Gareth Owen brought new techniques, intense preparation, and joy to every show. Stealing my best engineer hurts a little, but I’ll forgive him for taking him all the way to Broadway!
The worst thing, and I won’t mention names, was designing a huge system that I pointed out wouldn’t work, insisting on having it installed as designed, and then revising major, labor intensive chunks of the system on a daily basis, exhausting my crew and making the experience all about stress instead of the show. Totally unnecessary and unpleasant – a little trust would have gone a long way.
You have mentored many young sound people of the year – including Chris Luessman who is currently mixing on Broadway. What do you see as the most important responsibility of a mentor? Any stories you can share?!
As a mentor, you try to both be an example but also to assess and draw out a person’s strengths, which are often not your own. Imposing your view isn’t the goal, helping them find theirs is. Sometimes things that you do are examples to them of what NOT to do, which can be hard to take, and sometimes you have to push them to do things they don’t want to do, to shore up a weakness. Certainly, getting them work that will help them is vital, like with Chris Luessmann, and I’m glad I could create opportunities for so many people. In the end though, it’s up to them to succeed.
My favorite story is Melanie Chen, who came to me as a quiet, science oriented undergrad and discovered a passion for theater sound. I was terrified that I was ruining her life by helping her explore theater instead of a lucrative career in the sciences, but she persevered and is making a name for herself as a designer. She assisted me at school and professionally, and then took over shows that I was passing on. It was both funny and delightful to see her “steal” my gigs and kick ass at them. I have many, many people of whom I’m incredibly proud that found their way in the arts after working with me, like Eric May who came to us as a high school kid to do sound but turned out to be really good with visuals, so I pushed him into video and he became a successful video guy and artist. But Melanie is so kind, so thoughtful, and so different in many ways from a lot of theater people (importantly but not only because she is a woman) that I feel I really helped change her life and am grateful for that experience.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
I’ve been lucky to be married to Maggie Carney, a fantastic actress and uncompromising partner, for twenty years, and to be best friends with my dog Grady. I also depend on my little brother Jake, who is a sound guy too, and on so many great friends in the business who are up for a beer and a chat when needed.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
Whatever the heck I played in that improv set last night that no one will ever hear again. I really should record those.
Name a pet production peeve.
Stage managers who think that holding for lights is fine, but holding for sound is unnecessary. Production managers who don’t think sound and video designers need any technical support.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
I eat a lot of trail mix, water and Dr. Pepper during tech. Pre tech, ideally a salad but it’s usually whatever presents itself. With varying results.
Do you play an instrument?
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
I knew I wanted to do sound design when I was 16. I went deaf for about a month, and when I could hear again, the world was so beautiful, everything sounded like music. I realized that car tires, or grass blowing in the wind, or a fire engine passing in the distance was at least as musical as my piano. It took another ten years to figure out that sound design was where I could put that into practice.
Does your family understand what you do?
Well, my dad thought I was a drug dealer for years because he couldn’t figure out how I made a living, but in general, they know what it is, though perhaps not why I choose to do it.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
No, I just made it up as I went along. The Internet was very helpful for techniques, school was useful but I didn’t go until late in my career, I’ve stolen a lot of ideas from a lot of people and I have heroes like Monk, Beethoven, Morricone and Burtt, but no mentors: never even took piano lessons.
Where do you find inspiration?
Work and my environment. A lot of my ideas come after slogging away at something for a long time and then going for a walk, so just sitting down and working is important, not waiting for inspiration. For music, playing the piano for a while starts to generate new ideas, and much of what I do as a sound and video designer I discover in tech, influenced by the lighting, the set, the actors, so I value a flexible and collaborative tech environment a lot.
Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?
As a composer, I saw a musical as a kid, I have no idea what it was, something bawdy involving feathers and lots of disco lights in Paris that I probably shouldn’t have seen, and I wrote most of my first musical after that, in 6th grade.
As a sound designer, honestly and this probably sounds terrible, my wife won a Jeff award, and I said that looked like fun, I wouldn’t mind winning one of those. I’d been doing music and sound design for videos and short films and performing on piano, but she pointed out that I would have to work in legitimate theater to get a Jeff. Two weeks later I got my first call to design a play. Never did get that Jeff though…
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
Logic, Qlab, Photoshop, After Effects.
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
My first computer, a Bondi Blue iMac with the neat handle on the top. Loved it, carried it around to theaters so I could edit IN TECH, changed my life.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
So many fields are related, but probably computer programming would be the farthest nearest thing I can think of.
Where do you see the future of sound design?
I think AI (Artificial Intelligence) will affect all areas of our lives faster than we expect. As usual, sound will be late to the party, but I see a day when mixing and engineering will be heavily automated, and designing will have less technical distractions from the main goal of imbuing art with personality.
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
Get other disciplines, like stage managers, production managers and critics, to be more aware of and helpful to the contributions of sound people, and help young people make new paths for sound in theatrical entertainment.