Tuba player, recovering drummer, teacher, designer, content creator – after thirty years in the business, Bruce Ellman continues to take on unusual projects. Now in Orlando Florida after several decades in New York, his career has included teaching at the New York City College of Technology, an off Broadway career with multiple productions at Manhattan Theater Club, and themed exhibition content and system for Madame Tussauds. Broadway designs include Absurd Person Singular and The Tale of the Allergists Wife. See below for his thoughts on dynamic range, Cool Edit, and when we “baffle them with bulls**t”! – JS
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently planning out Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” “Mass” is part of the University of Central Florida’s annual “UCF Celebrates the Arts” festival and will be presented in April at the 2800 seat Walt Disney Theatre at the Doctor Phillips Performing Arts Center here in Orlando Florida. It features more than 300 performers including soloists, adult mixed choir, adult women’s choir, children’s choir, dancers, a large orchestra, a blues band, a rock band, and lest not forget about the marching band. The real fun part is that we load in on Monday and open on Friday.
If you could talk to your 20-something self, what piece of advice would you want to impart?
Relax. Just do the best you can on every project and don’t sweat the stuff you have no control over. And remember, every show closes.
What do you see as the most surprising development in sound design since the beginning of your career?
The most surprising thing to me is how far we haven’t come in live event design. In fairness it’s not just in sound design. There’s been a virtualization of live events in every aspect from original content to design and to performance. But we sound designers have fantastic tools that didn’t exist when I started forty or so years ago. We can design PA that can deliver great, intelligible sound to almost every seat in even the largest venues. But if you have different views from different seats, why shouldn’t you hear the sound differently depending on from where you’re viewing? What happened to “reinforcement?” Why are we taking so much control of performance away from performers by reducing their dynamic range? … don’t get me started. On the other hand, there are so many of our colleagues who are doing brilliant design work balancing the needs of market forces with artistic aptitude. I just thought with our constantly evolving tools we would have gotten further by now in balancing innovative technology with dynamic live content.
Are expectations for sound designers different now than when you were starting out? If so – what has changed?
When I started out there was this view that there were two different varieties of sound designers, system designers primarily for musicals; and content developer and/or composers for plays. I like to think that both varieties have grown closer as the need grew to become more familiar with the evolving technologies. It’s the relationship between form and content and the need to incorporate both equally. Another substantial change is how the stature of theatrical sound design has grown. Sound designers are now, for the most part, seen as full partner storytellers rather than just as technicians.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
Successful collaborations fall into a few categories. The best happens when working on well written plays that have, what the 20th century aesthetic philosopher Suzanne K Langer called, great “Commanding Form.” Those are the plays that you read and you, and everyone else who is working on the play, immediately know exactly what you need to make it work. The director than just must slightly nudge everyone to keep them close to that spine. The late Nicholas Martin was a great nudger and twice I had the pleasure to have been nudged on both “Full Gallop,” and “Fully Committed.”
Another collaboration category would be of the “Silk Purse from A Sow’s Ear” variety. Not to embarrass anyone I won’t name names, but some of my proudest moments were shared with terrific designers on terrible plays doing what some unnamed 60’s rocker would call, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls**t.”
Do you play an instrument?
I played tuba in high school and I’m a recovering drummer.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
I was in my early 20’s and had started my ex-drumming rehab by majoring in biology at CCNY. The theatre department had the most attractive women, so I drifted over and took a few courses. Due to my music background I got volunteered to work on some shows. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
Any meal NOT at the theatre. It’s important to get away for a while.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
Leonard Bernstein’s MASS
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
Cool Edit version .5. Thank you, David Johnston, who, when I requested a feature in that early 1990’s beta implemented it within a day or so!
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
Teaching. I was an adjunct faculty member in the Entertainment Technology department at the New York City College of Technology for almost ten years and it was incredibly rewarding to work with those students and with that great faculty.
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
Everything! I’m a transplanted New Yorker living in Orlando away from almost all the real theatre action. Miss you guys!