Sam Lerner serves as Sound Manager for the American Repertory Theater (Cambridge, Massachusetts). In his five years there he has been instrumental in developing new productions. Notable transfers include Waitress, Finding Neverland, All The Way and the upcoming Broadway production of Jagged Little Pill. After its run at ART, Sam served as Nicholas Pope’s Associate on the Broadway transfer of Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 1812, where they utilized Meyer’s SpaceMap technology to support complex and immersive staging.
An advocate for education at all levels, Sam hosted a Meyer Sound workshop for TSDCA members in the autumn of 2017. That October he designed Crossing: A New American Opera at BAM, directed by Diane Paulus.
Read on to discover lessons Sam learned from Jonathan Deans, what constitutes an ice cream emergency, and for the results of his trash bag listening session!
What are you working on at the moment?
In addition to my duties as Sound Manager at ART, I am currently working as Associate Sound Designer to Mr. Drew Levy on the Broadway transfer of Oklahoma! So far it’s ok…
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
Very excited for Jess (Paz) and the Hadestown team. I caught the production at NY Theater Workshop and am sure it’s only gotten cooler from there.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I am originally from San Diego and am now based in Boston.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
I am really proud of the teams I have been a part of at ART, especially when we are tackling new musicals. One of the really cool things about my position here is that I am able to help newer people develop their skills. Watching people grow and take on new challenges is always something I enjoy. While I and my team still make mistakes, a key to our success is ensuring people are heard and that there is as much democracy of information as possible. That way even when things are rough, people can take a look at the bigger picture and not just assume that someone is being a jerk.
Describe your role at American Repertory Theater. What has been the biggest surprise?
I am ART’s Sound Manager. I run a department of two seasonal staff (my assistant and our A1) and also have a relationship with our second space (Oberon), where there are three sound people. The briefest summation of my duties is that I work with designers coming in to figure out how best to make what they want work in our space, coordinate rentals, schedules and budgets and do my best to ensure my staff are set up for success. The best part of my job is the self-appointed duty of declaring Ice Cream Emergencies. This typically happens when we are at a rough point in our load in and everyone needs to step away for a break. The crew tends to be slightly less grumpy after one of these.
This job has been a huge learning opportunity for me, and I promise you that I’ve screwed things up so many times in figuring out how to do my job. My prior position was at a regional theater that had rep plots in its performance spaces, so there really wasn’t much involved in loading in a new show, even a musical. Moving from that environment to this one was a big eye-opener. I remember talking to the rental shop on our first big system show and them asking me when we were going down for the build. Of course, I had no plans to do so and said that. Fast forward two weeks to a full delivery from the shop of un-racked gear and un-labeled cable… needless to say things have improved since then!
You have assisted several ART productions in their transfer to Broadway. Any advice for other regional theaters making that transfer? Tales you can share?
I would say this to both regional department heads as well as designers working on a production that may have a future life: clear documentation is critical. One of the biggest frustrations I have is when I get paperwork from someone else that I just can’t follow. Yes, you know what your scrawled notes mean now, but will you remember three shows later? I try and ensure that I and my crew are documenting our side of things as well as possible so that the designers or staff at the next venue have the best information we can provide.
In terms of stories, there are definitely some that would get me run out of town… Great Comet is a pretty obvious transfer in which I and the ART Sound Department were critical in the success of the production, both at ART and on Broadway. It was through the work at ART that Nicholas Pope and I decided to use Meyer Sound’s SpaceMap technology for the performer localization. I ended up taking over as Associate for the Broadway production because of my involvement at ART.
A slightly sillier story involves Jonathan Deans and his desire for in-deck monitor speakers. We used d&b E5’s in the deck for the ART production of Finding Neverland and because of the need for mopping the deck nightly, I ended up buying a big roll of magnetic vinyl that we used to cover up the speaker grilles. When the show transferred, I was asked to send on the covers. I did so, but with the caveat that it was a long-term loan. The following year we did Waitress and Jonathan again wanted in-deck speakers. I ended up contacting the GM, which somehow turned into an emergency as they tried to figure out what the hell they were going to do. Of course, a roll of this stuff was a simple $85.00 purchase that they could have just made in the first place.
Things have evolved since then… for Jagged Little Pill there was meant to be rain onstage, so instead of buying the magnetic vinyl covers again, we instead had to have a listening session to figure what type of plastic trash bag was the most acoustically transparent so that we could wrap the speakers and protect them from potential water damage. For the record, name brand Hefty were the winners.
What advice do you have for a new designer coming to ART? How can designers best help you do your job?
We are always excited to work with new designers. I and my department really value the learning opportunities we get from these relationships. My request is that you work to build a relationship with us as well. I see ensuring a designer is set up for success as a critical part of my job and one way to do this is talking to us about what they are trying to achieve. We are very familiar with the house equipment and have worked on shows in a multitude of configurations in our space, so we have some real basis for our suggestions on what works and what doesn’t. We aren’t afraid to try new things, but we also don’t want every new designer to have to reinvent the wheel.
A big challenge in the industry right now is people taking on multiple projects and not being able to focus enough on each one. Please understand, I do not mean to minimize the valid reasons from the designer perspective of why this happens, but it is important to also be aware of the consequences this has for the house. If I do not have a clear idea of what you are looking for and where you need equipment to be, I can’t fight for your space in our internal planning meetings. I really do want you to have the best system you can and if I’m not in the loop on what you want and why it’s important, it really makes it hard for me to ensure you are set up for success.
Who or what makes up your support structure?
This is a really good question. At work, my Sound Department is my support structure. We trust each other and work hard to make sure that we are all set up for success. In the wider industry, I am really lucky to have formed strong relationships with the majority of designers with whom I have worked. I know that if I need advice, I am able to turn to many of them and draw on their experiences (or steal their paperwork templates). Personally, my significant other and our small dog who dresses up in silly costumes give me grounding and something to look forward to coming home to.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
I have been listening to a lot of Mexican music recently. The two album set of Musas by Natalia Lafourcade is beautiful, as is Amor Supremo by Carla Morrison.
Name a pet production peeve.
People who are seemingly incapable of advance planning drive me nuts. Of course, sometimes things take longer than planned, but I’ve been in some situations recently where people were unwilling to commit to putting anything down on a schedule. It’s impossible to collaborate with people who won’t give you any info.
Oh, also, terrible file structure. There should be a clear method to how things are organized, be them Dropbox folders or QLab workspaces.
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
Aside from the classic Ice Cream Emergency, I remain a fan of ramen and sushi. They tend to be relatively quick and a good break from sitting in a dark theater. Of course, I will always miss the amazing Mexican food in Southern California as well…
Do you play an instrument?
The apogee of my musicianship involved playing a theremin signed by Bob Moog. It’s been downhill since then…
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
I’ve done sound-related stuff since High School, but it wasn’t until midway through my college training that Sound really clicked for me.
Does your family understand what you do?
I grew up going to see shows with my parents, so I am confident that there is a decent level of understanding there. I’d say that they understand what I do about as well as most non-sound theater people with whom I’ve worked!
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
Jonathan Deans has forced me to grow in some pretty significant ways over the last five years of working with him. It definitely hasn’t been easy at times, but I have learned a huge amount from how much attention he gives to both system design and communicating with others. He is very good at forming positive relationships with everyone in the room and the importance of this skill can’t be stated enough. I’ve worked hard to ensure that I can say yes to just about any request that comes my way during tech and he has a lot to do with that. In terms of sound design as art, I also give major credit to John Gromada. I remember working with him on a show at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 or so that just wasn’t that great. Despite that, he invested a huge amount into the depth and richness of the sound design in a way I found incredibly inspiring. Credit is also due to the Sound Supervisors/Directors/other nouns who have taken chances on me in the past, especially Joe Huppert and Paul Peterson. They both have taught me a lot about working in regional theater and ensuring that you find a way to show love to all your shows.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
Most of my RAM is taken up by VectorWorks, FileMaker Pro, OmniGraffle, and Excel. After those come brand-specific software like d&b’s R1 and ArrayCalc or Meyer’s Compass, CueStation and MAPP (of course two copies of this since MAPP 3D still isn’t a thing). I guess I should also add Slack to this list, though many people would prefer that I didn’t spend so much time on it.
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
The first time I was able to use a fully digital editing and playback system on my own computer was such a huge moment. Prior to that I had to go back to the studio to make any necessary changes. I am glad that younger designers will never have to deal with some of the frustrations from this point in history, but for me this was akin to the discovery of fire.
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
I’ve always aspired to be independently wealthy, but I am starting to lose hope of being born into that life…
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
I would like the TSDCA to help clarify for the industry what the different positions within a potential sound team (Composer, Sound Designer, Associate, etc) actually are and what the expectations for each position should be. I know that there is a huge amount of gray area here, but I think this leads to a lot of unrealistic expectations from all sides. These problems do not seem to exist to this extent in the other design disciplines, so it seems conceivable to me that this is solvable, even if it is hard.
I would like this to be an organization that provides additional educational opportunities to people at all levels of experience. I know there have been some good strides made on this, but I know more work can be done.
What are your favorite Sound Design-related books?
Noises Off by Frank Napier – A beautifully written guide to sound effects creation at the RSC in the early 20th century
A Sound Education by R. Murray Schaefer – A collection of 100 exercises to help people tune into the world around them. Some very basic, but still wonderful activities.