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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
A sound designer is both an artist and a technician, matching every aesthetic insight with a choice about how sound is produced. After all, a beautiful music cue won't reach anyone if the speakers are facing the wrong way, and a cleverly hidden microphone doesn't matter if the sound it's projecting doesn't suit the production.
Art and craft shape Jill BC DuBoff's sound design for Other Desert Cities, a new play from Jon Robin Baitz that's now playing at Broadway's Booth Theatre. A close look at her design reveals how much it takes to create a sonic world on stage.
The play, which is presented by Lincoln Center Theater, follows the Wyeths, a staunchly conservative, politically powerful family in Palm Springs. Over Christmas, daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) announces she's going to publish a memoir about the family's secrets, which leads to explosive revelations.
But at the beginning of the show, the bombs are still hidden and everything's fine. Since we hear DuBoff's first sound cue before the actors come on stage, she wants it to communicate as much of this mood as possible.
As the lights go down, a short burst of experimental rock music, sprightly and a little jagged, suggests the energy of what we're about to see. "I wanted something that was instrumental and that was setting you up for something, but not giving anything away," DuBoff says. "It gets you into this world where they've come in from playing tennis, and you don't know what's coming."
By intermission, however, the family is reeling, so DuBoff starts Act II with a different type of music, much more aggressive and frantic. "I went back to the same band [that I used for the first cue], a band called Fridge, and I remixed it to sound sort of cacophonous and to match the falling apart of Act II," she says.
The remixing highlights the craft in DuBoff's artistic vision. Once she knew what kind of sound she wanted, she scoured her collection of music to find something with the right energy. She edited together her favorite snippets and manipulated elements like reverb to give them the perfect feel.
There were other technical elements to consider. In a large Broadway house, a sound designer is responsible for making sure the actors can be heard, so along with an assistant, DuBoff decided where to place microphones and speakers throughout the Booth. She also accounted for the set design, which uses lush carpeting and a plexiglass wall to create the Wyeths' home. Those features absorb and distort sound, so microphone placement became especially crucial.
Most audiences will never notice these choices. When a sound design is working, it usually feels like a natural part of the environment on stage, so we just experience a sound cue without being consciously aware of it. But DuBoff, who has worked on dozens of shows since starting her career in the early 90s, isn't looking for glory. She says, "I love doing the research and creating that kind of world."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Top photo: The cast of "Other Desert Cities" (by Joan Marcus)
Bottom photo: Jill BC DuBoff