Karin Graybash hails from The Sweetest Place on Earth – Hershey, Pennsylvania! Her extensive credits include designs at Berkeley Repertory, Walnut Street, Dallas Theater Center, Yale Repertory, McCarter Theatre, Alliance, Arena Stage, Portland Stage, Folger Theatre, People’s Light and Theater Company, Arden TheatreCompany, Two River Theatre Company, Olney Theatre Center, and The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Her work has been nominated for Helen Hayes Awards and she is a recipient of the Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for her sound design of Polk County at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She finds her artistic home is the McCarter, where she started her career as the house engineer, and since leaving has returned to helm nine MainStage productions. Read on to learn how she balances a six-year-old daughter, academic duties at Rutgers, and an active design life!
What are you working on at the moment?
I have two upcoming productions that I am excited about. The first one is a new musical about Nina Simone called Little Girl Blue. Personally, I think it is about time there is a musical about her – she was such a complicated and empowering woman. This is a small production in that the cast is only Nina and her three band members, but you still get a sense of how large her life was. It is a beautiful musical that takes us not only through her rich musical life but also all the dark aspects of her personal life.
The second exciting new play is called JQA. Loosely wrapped around John Quincy Adams’ life, this play imagines conversations between JQA and other historical figures. The playwright and director, Aaron Posner, has an intense theatrical style to his writing. The rest of the design team is having a fun time keeping up with and adding on to this new piece. It will be a funny and edgy commentary on our political climate done in Washington, DC this spring that everyone should check out.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Sweetest Place On Earth. With a tag line like that for the Hershey chocolate company, I can’t help but mention it whenever anyone asks me. Surrounded by lots of dairy farm communities in central PA, the town of Hershey itself was like a little oasis of excitement. Hershey Park provided tons of entertainment, about which I never thought of as a kid, but it probably contributed to me leaning toward the entertainment world.
I currently live in New Jersey. Not only are my wife and I in New Jersey because of work, but we also have the built-in babysitters here. That is really the reason why we live where we do. Having a kid can be a juggle to begin with but having a kid when both parents work in theater can be quite a stretch for time management skills. Having the grandparents close by is the key for us.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
I have had a number of happy collaborations with director Jade King Carroll and lighting designer Nicole Pearce. We have done about ten shows together, so we know how to talk to each other without really speaking by now. We just sort of know what each other is thinking or going to do next. And all of these shows are tightly synced up with midi control to get everything precise for this director with finely tuned ears who also has a fabulous musician/composer father.
But we also had one show when the set designer joined in on the choreography of the numerous scene changes. During tech she added in practicals or certain props to help emphasize musical moments in the classical/hip-hop score that excited everyone involved. Even the turntable was exact in it’s beats. It was really nice to feel the energy in the room during tech as everyone was eager to be participating.
You’ve had long relationships with both Rutgers and the McCarter. What roles have you held at these various institutions – and how have they contributed to your sound design career?
I started out my career as a sound engineer at McCarter. I had a great four years there not only learning from the sound designers that designed the theater productions, but I was also able to learn about world music and dance through all of the concert series they produce. I learned a variety of skills, from how to mic various African instruments, to recording famous (and/or infamous) actors and musicians, and also getting a better understanding of movement and dance.
A number of years after leaving the engineer position at McCarter, I had the opportunity to go back as a designer. The first show I designed was Polk County which I had previously worked on at Arena Stage. After having “grown up” at McCarter, it was a bit difficult to convince them I could design there. But Polk County offered the perfect opportunity to get me back in! Since then, I have designed about nine mainstage productions. But most importantly to me, it will always be a place that feels like home to me.
As for my career at Rutgers, it was something I kind of fell into. My first interaction was designing a show for Israel Hicks who was the chair of the theater department at the time. I had a lovely time working with Israel on that show. At the end of that season, my predecessor at Rutgers decided to retire and they kindly offered me the job. After much deliberation, I decided to take the position. At the time, I was afraid of losing the freelance momentum I was building. But over the last twelve years, I’ve learned to appreciate the steady academic world that still allows me to freelance. Not to mention, I’ve enjoyed meeting so many talented people over the years.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
My support is my wonderful wife. Luckily, she is a theater person too. She gets the crazy schedule and the even crazier desire to work and do things all the time. As luck would have it, she has moved from the sometimes-chaotic schedule of stage management into the realm of arts administration. This has created a mostly normal schedule for her in order to deal with our home life.
Name a pet production peeve.
I feel that during tech, people are infinitely willing to hold for lights while they build cues. But as a sound designer, I sometimes feel rushed by the stage manager checking in with me. If I don’t have an assistant, I will have to take off my headphones in the midst of my editing to tell them I still need another minute.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
I tend to get into a Whole Foods kick whenever I can find one near a theater. I practically buy out all of their arugula and then raid the prepared foods section for their quinoa salad to go on top. For some reason, the go-to lunch for me every day of tech is this lemony arugula salad with quinoa. But it may also go along with my “health kick” since being out of town is also the only time I seem to go to the gym anymore.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
It wasn’t until high school that I got the theater bug. And even though I had a passion for music and musicals then, I for some reason thought I wanted to stage manage. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I delved into the world of sound for real, designing sound for all of the MFA students’ theses. Once they all started coming to me, I realized this was something that made sense with my curiosity for theater.
Does your family understand what you do?
Most of them get it, or at least get some aspect of it by now. It definitely has taken some explaining over the years, but it has gotten easier since my six-year-old daughter describes it to them. I think she is even better than some of my college students at describing reverberation and other terms. She even played around in QLab with me earlier this week!
Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?
I don’t have a particular show from when I was deciding I wanted to go into theater. But I do have one that stands out to me while I was working at McCarter. It was the show that really rekindled the theater flame in me: Mary Zimmerman’s production of The Odyssey. It was such a beautiful production with all of the stylized, intricate touches that Mary and her collaborators are so good at. When I was a kid, I always thought I was going to be a literature teacher. I loved reading, especially the classics and myths, for the rich stories that made you just want to dive into your imagination. This show felt like it was diving right into my own imagination of The Odyssey and I got to live in it every day as I mixed it. It was, of course, the original composition of Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn that really submersed me in the world. Beautiful little touches of music that drew me in and prodded me to start designing more on my own.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
My four go-to audio programs are QLab, ProTools, Ableton, and Sibelius. With those four I feel I can do pretty much anything quickly and easily during tech. Oh, and Filemaker Pro too, for my cuesheets and to keep me organized.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
That is such a good question! I have a hard time trying to figure that out, but I think the answer would be something in the outdoors. Something involving hiking or kayaking. Maybe as a guide of some sort. Perhaps it is because we spend so much time in dark theaters, or perhaps it is because I just want to get away from all of the technology for a while.
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
I am hopeful that the theater industry as a whole can be more inclusive and diverse. I am glad that TSDCA is attempting to do its part in our own small section of the industry. Some steps are already being made, but much more still needs to be done. I hope that TSDCA will stay dedicated and help educate people to make the changes that desperately need to be made.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in sound design?
Introduce yourself to another sound designer. Peer designers and mentors can help you pursue sound design as a profession and continue your education in the field. In talking with fellow sound designers, I have been amazed to discover that we are all very happy to share our knowledge and experiences with others. We are very excited to find young people who are interested in observing and learning something that we also love to do. We want to share our enthusiasm with others for what often feels like a niche field and see others excel at it.