Roc Lee is a Helen Hayes Award-nominated sound designer and composer based in Washington DC. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Taiwan, Roc has designed at the Arena Stage, Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Studio Theatre, Olney Theater Center, and GALA Hispanic Theater among others. Outside of theater, his interests range from Lindy Hop to rock climbing! Read on to discover how his staff positions at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre Company contribute to his collaborations as a designer.
What are you working on at the moment?
An original children’s musical with a playwright/lyricist and Admissions by Joshua Harmon at Studio Theatre in DC under Mike Donahue’s direction.
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
Olney Theatre Center is doing Once and I’m interested to see how it translates into a Regional production.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Oklahoma but grew up in Taiwan. I live in Washington, DC.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
Successful collaboration always centers around good communication. The method or channel of communication with the director and creative team needs to flow smoothly. There is give and take. When both parties are able to respond and build on what the other brings to the table that always makes an enjoyable experience.
What various positions have you held in the theater…and how do you think each has contributed to your sound design career?
I’ve been on staff at Arena Stage as a sound engineer and at Shakespeare Theatre as the Assistant AV Supervisor. During my tenures I’ve done everything from A1 to A3, single mic podium events to large conferences, installed permanent and rental equipment, and worked with projections and learned to program WatchOut. Having familiarity with most of the roles a sound person might have to do definitely makes it easier for me to take on a variety of different gigs as well as teach or train when I need to. It makes troubleshooting and more technical designs much easier. Having experience running shows also gives me greater empathy with theatre staff and an understanding of the implications of any request I might make. Working under various sound designers has also allowed me to see a variety of different approaches and styles to sound design.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
A few close friends who I can vent with and non-theatre related hobbies I can escape to in my free time. To unwind I like to go rock climbing and have also gotten into social dancing – Lindy Hop and Tango.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Shostakovich’s String Quartets in preparation for an upcoming gig.
Name a pet production peeve.
Inefficient production meetings.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
I like to cook and I use the mealkit service HelloFresh so it varies. But a home cooked meal always beats anything you go out and buy and just makes eating something more to look forward to than a simply life-sustaining action.
Do you play an instrument?
Piano is my main instrument. I also play clarinet, percussion, and am working on improving my skills at guitar and uke. I was a composition major so have some familiarity with most major instrument families.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
I fell into theater sound out of grad school so I think I was 25.
Does your family understand what you do?
They have absolutely no idea. My parents both teach at a medical school.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
I did not have a sound design mentor. I learned it all on the job by watching and being an engineer. As for content creation, the internet taught me how to turn my ideas into reality and I’m always looking for new techniques. My background in education is all in music composition and I was classically trained.
Where do you find inspiration?
The idea of inspiration tends to overshadow the amount of hard work and craft that goes into completing the task so I try not to rely on it a lot. I like to think of finding the right sound or music to be a part of research and collaborative discussion with the director and the team. The ultimate source material is always the text illuminated by the director’s vision. That usually gives me ideas about tone, melody, harmonic content, and timbre and then I riff off the visual elements or context from the script or director. Structure is determined by plot and onstage action.
Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?
I was drawn to composition as a teenager originally by a desire to write pop songs and later film music. There was not much theater where I grew up.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
REAPER, Kontakt, Vienna Ensemble, various virtual instruments, though I lean heavily towards Spitfire Audio. SMAART, Dante apps, Console editors for all the major manufacturers, Affinity Photo as an image editor, Drawboard PDF for marking up scripts (I don’t use paper anymore). Opera browser and Chrome browser.
For notation I used to be a Finale person and am moving over to Dorico. Was an early adopter and really love where it’s heading.
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
If there was in the past it’s been so long I can’t remember. But I’ve been beta-testing Chris Baine’s AVAE Canvas program and I am excited about the possibilities of the program. What I discovered while using it is that I changed the way I thought about sound in the room which I really enjoyed.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
I’d want to design board games.
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
Increase visibility and awareness of what we do and how it’s important to the complete experience of the show. Help make mentorship and learning opportunities easier for a field where most people have had to find their own way traditionally.