Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association

Joe Payne has designed more than 200 productions in theaters throughout the country, including eighteen seasons at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. His designs and compositions have been heard at The Clarence Brown Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Round House Theatre, Pioneer Theatre Company and Milwaukee Repertory Theatre among others. Joe is Associate Professor of Sound and Digital Media The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and proud to be the bass player for Marvin Payne and the Gifted Seed – a band comprised of his father and three brothers, playing music primarily written by his father in the 1970s and 80s. Joe Payne was a member of the TSDCA Executive Board 2016-2018 as the Central Region Representative and is currently the Commissioner of the USITT Digital Media Commission. Read below to discover Joe’s clear love of his family and dedication to pushing the boundaries of art for himself and his students.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on King Charles III for my home theatre, Clarence Brown Theatre. Most of my career has been in Shakespeare. Treating modern kings and queens with the epic qualities of Shakespearean language and style has been a lot of fun.

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

A few weeks ago I saw The Band’s Visit, and was hugely inspired. I loved the music, pace, storytelling, and of course the sound. It was beautiful. Kai Harada’s work was delightfully natural and dynamic.

Where were you born? Where do you live now? 

I was born in Alpine, Utah, the son of a local celebrity singer-songwriter and a violinist. Alpine was a farming community just south of Salt Lake City that became an artist haven in the 70s and then a bastion for fleeing rich Californians in the 90s. I am now at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Never thought that would happen. It turns out, when the position opened up, a number of designer and director friends I worked with at The Utah Shakespeare Festival, and The Virginia Stage Company were all faculty here. It’s all in who you know.

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

A decade or so ago, two dear friends, Kyle Lewis and Larry West, and I took over a summer Shakespeare company at the University of Utah, called Salt Lake Shakespeare. Designers, directors, and performers all creatively focused, and actively in the thick of creating art. I was proud of the dynamic productions with clear storytelling. History, trust, and similar aesthetic were what made it successful.  Regretfully, it didn’t last long. After a few years one of the team moved and then it all fell apart. It was definitely the chemistry of the team that made it work.

You are Head of Sound and Projection Design at the University of Tennessee. What is the most important lesson you try to impart to your students?

My mantra is simple. Make work you can be proud of and be proud of the work you do. We seem to be in a strange state of the world right now where we are seeing an odd mix of apathy and entitlement. I often get students who are just trying to meet the requirement, just getting the job done, or conversely spend their time telling me how great they are. Show me the work. Show me the excitement for the work. Show me what excites you about the work.

Who or what makes up your support structure?

Family. My wife is a saint. I am the flighty artist, and she is the rock. She’s an Equity stage manager, and company manager as you might guess. My fifteen-year-old daughter is a rock star. She literally will be some day. She plays guitar, uke, bass, and drums at the local School of Rock. My students comment that they wish they could be as cool as her. My thirteen-year-old son plays too many video games. He’s a fireball. He loves to ride his bike. I could go on for hours and hours about my brothers and sister who are all musicians. The youngest, my sister, collaborated on a song with Idris Elba, next, my brother has a viral jazz YouTube video called Jazz for Cows, and now plays concerts in the LA river. My older brother has a radio show featuring storytellers called the Appleseed. Lastly, my younger brother recently bought a minibus from the Utah Transit Authority and outfitted it as rolling video arcade to accompany his rock and nerdcore concerts.

What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?

My daughter has begun writing pop songs. For months I had been telling her to record one. There’s something about your first recording that can’t be replaced. I remember mine. It was about a girl. It was terrible. Hers is fantastic. I play it for everyone. It’s also about a girl. But it’s really good. She hates it. She hates her voice. I love it.

Name a pet production peeve.

I really dislike the expectation for perfection the first time anyone has heard the sound in the space. And I hate giving the speech to avoid the expectation.

What is your favorite meal during or before tech?

Diet Coke. And until this past year, cigarettes.

Do you play an instrument?

I play a mean one-handed piano and a fair amount of guitar. I play bass for the family band, Marvin Payne and the Gifted Seed. It’s a band comprised of 4 brothers backing up their dad, playing music he wrote in the 70s. It’s fun. Think Neil Diamond and the Osmonds.

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

Speaking of the Osmonds, my dad was co-owner of the studio that recorded Donny and Marie Osmond back in the day. He also wrote some music for them. He had a shelf full of real-to-real tape that was labeled for his kids to play with after school and on weekends. By the time I was in high school, without knowing anything about design choices but knowing how to splice tape, I began designing for theatre. At the same time, my dad wrote a one-man play based on an album he wrote (think Harry Nilsson’s The Point) and toured it throughout the west. I ran sound and my older brother ran lights. Neither of us was very good. I got better. He became an actor. My dad still writes music and acts in plays.

Does your family understand what you do? 

I’m the only one in the family who has a “real” job. They are thrilled with what I do. The rest are starving artists and flighty musicians. My wife’s family, on the other hand, are farmers and industrial workers. They don’t get it at all. Mostly, they just don’t understand why we can’t take a day off tech when we want.

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

I was a board op at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in the early 90s. James Capenos and Steven Klein were the first professional sound designers I had ever met and was hugely influenced by their work.  By seeing their work and watching their process, I learned detail, layering, space, and how to talk to directors.

Where do you find inspiration?

I am mostly inspired by the scenery. Regretfully, I have a hard time creating a score or a soundscape without seeing the set. I write music that is an extension of the visual world.  The scale, instrumentation, and style is always a response to what I see.

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

My first composition for theatre was as an undergrad. It was a post-apocalyptic Macbeth, scored by my grunge band, Oobleck. It was 1994. We improvised and recorded late nights in the theatre.

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

Reaper. Yeah, I know. Kontakt, Photoshop, Premiere, Aftereffects, MuseScore, Vectorworks, Firefox.

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

Sonic Foundry’s Acid Loops. Definitely. I had a band in college, and have been writing tunes all my life, but never wrote anything for theatre (except for the aforementioned grunge Macbeth) until I discovered the use of loops to create beds of music and orchestration, leaving me to write a simple melody over the top. Over the years, as my skills improved, I removed the loops and replaced them with my own playing.

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

I renovated 2 houses before my kids were born. I always thought I would like to build furniture or cabinetry. I am too old and fat for manual labor these days. But, I really do I like working with my hands.

What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?

I think we are accomplishing it – Community. Even though theatre is collaborative, sound designers often create in isolation. Unlike seeing a scenic designer’s or lighting designer’s work in pictures, the only way we can see other sound designer’s work is to be in the space, and even then, we rarely know how they specifically did it. This organization is helping to make us all better by creating community and talking about what and how we do it.

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