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How Fitz Patton Feels the Sound

Date: Jan 19, 2016

Inside his sound design for three major new plays


Fitz Patton hears things differently than most people do, but that's his job as a theatrical sound designer.

"There's a thing called 'reduced listening' where you just hear sounds for what they are and you don't think about the source," says the Tony Award nominee. "But after you design enough shows, you start to hear other things inside a sound that don't have to do with the objects that produce it. You start to hear the feelings inside of sounds."

Patton is conveying those feelings with a wide range of current projects, from creating the disturbing soundscape in The Humans, to composing the edgy incidental music in Our Mother's Brief Affair, to guiding Paul Simon's tunes into Prodigal Son.

In the case of The Humans — which begins previews on Saturday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, following Roundabout’s Off-Broadway run last year — Patton says playwright Stephen Karam "was fairly specific about where he wanted the sounds and what he wanted the source to be, but not necessarily how he wanted them."

Superficially, Karam's play seems like a standard domestic drama about a family gathering for Thanksgiving in a dingy Chinatown apartment, but the holiday rituals are quickly infused with supernatural dread. We have to decide if the strange occurrences are just random accidents or a spectral manifestation of the family's secrets and lies.

Much of this dread relies on sound, and Patton credits director Joe Mantello with helping shape the aural environment in "a big-picture, emotional, poetic way. I really hadn't realized what was truly there until Joe had found a way to express it with regard to the whole production. Sounds that I thought were informing became strangely unnerving, disturbing, and powerful."

Patton also learned from the actors' responses to the soundscape – the urban hum, mechanical grinds, and ambient pulse. "I knew those sounds had a muscular presence to them, but I didn't understand what they could mean until I saw [the actors] inhabit the space with them -- and it became terrifying," he says. "We listen with them, and the fear that we feel comes from our imaginations completing the story on our own terms."


For Richard Greenberg's Our Mother's Brief Affair, which officially opens tomorrow in a Broadway production from Manhattan Theatre Club, there are almost no scripted sound cues, so Patton's principal duty was setting the tone with musical snippets.

"What [director] Lynne Meadow was looking for was something to activate the space of the play and not limit the way the characters are presented, allowing the audience to just receive them. It's basically how you welcome the audience into the play so they can listen and be open."

Thus the incidental music is pulsating, bright, and urban-sophisticated, which suits this trenchant comedy about a mother (played by Linda Lavin) who startles her children with a deathbed revelation about her adventurous past.

"For me the play was about embracing the fast, complex rhythm of the language," Patton says. "But it also needed to be light and not overbearing. And it needed to be intellectually fascinating with an orchestration that evokes mystery or curiosity."

In yet another production -- Prodigal Son, now in previews at City Center in a production from Manhattan Theatre Club -- Patton is working with John Patrick Shanley, who is both the playwright and director.

"John as a director is somewhat abstract," says Patton. "We think of him as a writer as a realist. But when John, who has a very cinematic sensibility, has a chance to guide the design of a play he enjoys a presentational abstraction."

Shanley is also working with legendary pop composer Paul Simon, an old friend of his, who has written five pieces of music for the show, about a disturbed (yet possibly brilliant) student at a tony private school.

"We use [Paul Simon's] music to score the play," says Patton, who says his job on Prodigal Son is more to shepherd Simon's music in his absence. "It's about how you use the music, how you integrate it, how you design it, how you surround it and give it context."


TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available to Our Mother's Brief Affair. Go here to browse all our discounted tickets.

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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Linda Lavid and Procaccino in Our Mother's Brief Affair.