Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association

Mark Bennett’s extensive Broadway career stretches over twenty years with productions ranging from The Goat to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Coast of Utopia trilogy to the recent production of Junk at Lincoln Center. Intense, sensitive, an avid consumer of cannolis and sometime rollerblading enthusiast, Mark has supported and befriended sound designers across the country. His awards include two Obies (one for the An Illiad at New York Theater Workshop), Drama Desk and Henry Hewes awards for Utopia, as well as nominations for fourteen Drama Desk and numerous Lortel awards. Scores have included eight productions at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park as well as music for theaters ranging from the Huntington to the Old Globe. Read below for his thoughts on the state of sound design, the importance of stepping outside, his consideration for his family including a long suffering cat, and a very thorough and clear description of what he looks for in an associate.

What are you working on at the moment?

Most recently I was commissioned to write a solo piano piece for Steven Sondheim’s upcoming 90th Birthday as part of the next round of the Anthony DeMare Liaisons Project. It was an honor to be asked to add a piece to this collection of “musical re-imaginings” of Sondheim songs for virtuoso solo piano. Some of the other composers are colleagues (Ricky Ian Gordon, Jason Robert Brown) and others are composers I grew up listening to (Steve Reich, William Bolcom). It was meaningful to be asked to throw my musical hat into that ring, and intimidating as hell, of course! Sitting in my family’s living room, and listening to the album of Sweeney Todd as a high school kid changed my life. It’s very satisfying to be able to give some props back to the guy who did that. Now I just gotta write the thing!

In theatre I’m composing and designing a number of shows this season and they all excite me but one I’ll mention here is the new John Guare play at LCT that Jerry Zaks is directing – Nantucket Sleigh Ride. It has the potential to be a real music/sound fantasia and I can’t wait to dive in.

What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?

My best friend’s wedding? Well there IS that, but there’s also my compadre Darren West’s BAM moment with Ann Bogart and the SITI Company’s BAACHAE. I’m really excited about that. And another pal, composer Michael Roth, has a very cool project he’s unveiling later this year that I think is a really great work. Looking forward to that arriving as well.   

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born in Stamford CT, and fled Hollywood, FL as a high school senior and have been in NYC ever since graduating college.

Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?

There are many. But I’ll give a special shout-out to The Coast of Utopia as we hit 11 years since we gathered to kick it off. Composing and designing those plays was climbing three beautiful and very steep mountains. Jack O’Brien trusted his whole design team so completely and lovingly. He never flagged. Always rigorous and always inspiring. I felt lucky to be in the room. We knew we were working on something very special and all came armed with our A-game, a healthy dose of fear, a ton of questions, and a pile of chutzpah. The three sessions where Jack and I spotted the music for each part of the trilogy – they remain three lightning bolts of the best kind of composer/sound designer & director collaborations; we both just talked and imagined, sometimes singing, sometimes riffing, and the way Jack descriptively speaks about transitions as these living breathing moments of a vista change….magical.   

You have an extensive and varied career. What changes do you see in the industry – for better or for worse?

From the late 1980’s to now? As Teyve says in Fiddler, “It’s a whole new world, Golda”. For theatre COMPOSERS I wish the Tony’s would catch up to the Olivier Awards and the Drama Desk Awards and give us a category of our own;  Music for Plays. Simple, right? That said, I’m very excited that LIVE music is returning to our plays and producers are, more and more, supporting that. Sampled instruments have certainly changed the way us theatre composers can work, but it remains very important that we continue to source, support, and lobby for live musicians in our productions. We still have a long way to go on how producers fairly compensate theatre composers across the boards, but I think we’re definitely moving forward.   

I’ve watched Sound Design go from being a “what is THAT?” career that most of my generation of composers or audio-obsessed souls kind of backed up into to now being recognized and embraced as an inevitable design element. It’s been fantastic to see Sound Design become an undergraduate focus and a graduate course of study (I’ve taught it at NYU for about 15 years). This was just beginning when I got out of school. I’m very glad we finally got the Tony and then got it back, and, for the most part, I believe our creative colleagues in other design elements, directors, and audiences really do support and get what we doSome producers and GM ’s clearly DO and I am deeply happy about that. I remember Joey Parnes listening to a request from me for additional hardware that came up while we were in the middle of The Goat and him saying “I have absolutely no idea what you just said but I trust you and if you say we need it I know we do”. “I trust you”. Not to sound like an old fogey but those words used to be the bedrock of Producer/GM/Designer relationships. Joey is still one of the standard bearers of this and I respect and admire him greatly. It’s the way the business of The Business should be done. It works. Sadly, on Broadway, we have also seen the rise of some awful souls in the GM world who want to turn the clock back on us. Some try and keep us to minimum fees, make the negotiation process far harder than ever needs to be, and they seem to demonstrate, time and time again, an appalling lack of respect and education about what it really takes to get sound and music deeply woven into a production. There’s only a few of these terrible creatures, but they produce a number of non-musical plays on Broadway every season and represent a real danger to all designers, not just sound designers, and I cannot urge us strongly enough to keep fighting the battles those few bad apples keep starting, and create a critical mass of thinking and responsibility that expects reasonable support for Sound Design in both fees and budgets.  

What do you look for in an associate?

Well, I came into this all as a composer with limited tech background in audio.  I’ve learned a few things along the digital way as our technology leapt forward throughout the 90’s and 2000’s but my primary focus has always been musical and sonic content creation and the spatialization of that content in the theatre. I look to an associate to be a proactive partner wrangling the system and concomitant paperwork. Over the years I’ve had wonderful collaborations with associates, and many of them are now also fantastic designers, teachers, and/or audio specialists in their own right (Charles Coes, Leon Rothenberg, Danny Erdberg, Michael Creason to name just a few). I look for someone who’s on top of the technical advances in the hardware and software world of our system designs. Someone who will generate paperwork on the system side and watch over the design with me from inception to the shop load-in, tech, and previews. Someone who can work with me sorting out the reinforcement needs of the show and take the wheel on the tech side as needed when I have to be hand in hand with the director and changes, new ideas and content creation on both the music and sound fronts. Someone who can anticipate, laugh, focus, and be there from the top of the day to the end of notes. It’s an essential and extraordinary job.   I ask an associate to balance initiative with support, and to go along for the ride as fully and passionately in their seat as I do in mine. An experienced soul in audio-tech, an enthusiastic problem solver, and a fellow traveller to share the day to day madness of doing what we do.

What are you hoping to see in the next generation of sound designers?

Digital technology is allowing sound designers and composers to create content and spatialization of that content in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. The next generation of sound designers is growing up in this amazing landscape. I’m looking forward to being blown away by the creative outpourings of these young sound designers.

Do you play an instrument?

Piano, at times almost decently.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?

College:  A drama professor at Vassar asked me to create the score and sound for a production of Hippolytus.  The experience of writing, recording, editing (all on tape decks), coming up with a very rudimentary hand-drawn system flow and speaker plot, treating the theatre as a 3-D playback environment with “locational playback” and finding a way for an operator to sequence the playback of it all live;  this was a revelation.  I loved it all.  I think that was the “bug bite”.

Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?

I was very lucky to land a gig as David Budries assistant on four productions at Hartford Stage shortly after I graduated college. That experience, and working with David’s early codifications of a language for Sound Design and the way in which he and Mark Lamos’ design team collaborated were major influences for me. On the music side, assisting the brilliant theatre-composer Stanley Silverman at roughly the same time was another stroke of good luck, and what I learned from Stanley in terms of orchestration, notation, scoring a play, and how to create a dynamic, flexible score under a ticking clock was also invaluable. The other mentor I had was my New England Conservatory composition teacher, William Thomas McKinley. A prolific and gifted composer, orchestrator and pianist. He saw what I was up to with music for theatre and allowed me to make my shows and the music for them the anchor of my work for him up in Boston. It was this arrangement that let me keep studying with a wonderful mentor and still stay in NYC and begin work in sound design. Like I said earlier, many of us composers backed into Sound Design and I discovered that, while I couldn’t pay my rent just writing music, sound designing plays gave me opportunities to get my own music into projects.  From the time I began working in NYC I started asking for additional fees for that and by the early 1990’s I was fully committed to “two jobs two FULL fees” as a composer/designer. Getting that, at times, was a huge negotiation, but I believe it’s essential for the field that we all stand our ground and never “throw in” our own composition without fair remuneration.  

Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?

Softsampling. Making the leap from the old Akai S6000 and Digital performer to Logic and internal sample libraries. Personally, that leap, which I made late (mid-2007) represented a whole change in both the speed of my workflow and technology keeping up with imagination. Of course, SFX and then Qlab changed us all.

What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?

Logic, Protools, Qlab, Finale, and iTunes and, ok, Chrome cause YouTube is the Devil’s Spawn; one resists, but one succumbs and succumbs and succumbs.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. NYC is one extraordinary collage of music and sound after another. It can be inspiring all the time. And also drive you crazy. Another place of deep inspiration is in hearing my fellow designers and composers’ work. As a composer and designer I tend to overwrite and then par back; when I come across something a colleague has done that is both brilliant and simple it can take my breath away. I constantly learn from my sonic brothers and sisters.  

Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?

The original B’way production (really a transfer from London) of the play Good. The play rides on the music the protagonist hears in his head and almost all the actors played instruments (along with some live professional musicians). At times it felt like there were 10 instruments up there. The music DROVE the production, and, really, the play. A revelation.  

Does your family understand what you do?

Yes, but on the longer tech/preview periods my guy and I really work to protect some essential quality time together on the weekly day-off. This understanding does not extend to the animal kingdom at home: I had a cat sound in my last play and our cat definitely did NOT understand why there was another cat hiding in my speakers. Nothing phases the dog, who has actually been with me during a few techs.  

Who or what makes up your support structure?

A VERY understanding and patient husband, awesome music and sound design associates, brilliant engineers and mixers, inspiring and trusting directors, the 70lb boxer who’s in a chair by my side as a write and the 10lb cat who clearly judges it all. Also, finding ANY physical outlet to balance the intense and, primarily, sedentary work habits our jobs demand. I can’t urge designers and composers enough to take that hour a few times a week away from the desk and screens and go run, stretch, bike, throw a ball around, ANYTHING that can pull you out of your work self and into a place where your brain, and your posture, can hit the reset button.  

What is your favourite piece of music at the moment?

Well, when I’m writing I gotta go back to Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue. The whole album but especially that title track. Lifts my soul. There are wonderful new composers working in contemporary classical, jazz, and rock, but that’s my go to. 

Name a pet production peeve.

Bad coffee in the greenroom. Surely we’ve moved past this by now, right?

What is your favourite meal during or before tech?

Let’s say “snack” instead. Cannoli. But I have to get a ton of ’em so I can share.

If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?

Lawyer. Maybe agent (sorry that one’s related). I can’t shut up and I perseverate on the minutiae all the time. I also watched my dad argue cases as a kid – talk about live theatre!

What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?

Everything we set out in our mission statement. We all have to keep working together to get there. On the composition side I’m deeply committed to theatres getting a much better handle on what live music and composition for plays require.  Supporting that with greater awareness of all the hats we wear and supporting personnel required when required.  

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