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Theatre Sounds Like This

Date: Jun 12, 2013

Of all the design elements in the theatre, sound can be the hardest to notice. Sometimes, a sophisticated cue creates a barely perceptible noise that flavors our experience without jolting us. We may not realize how we're being affected, but we're being affected all the same.

Because their work isn't as obvious as, say, a costumer's, sound designers sometimes struggle to get the credit they deserve. That's why the Brick Theater in Williamsburg is launching Sound Scape, it's first-ever festival dedicated to sound design. From now until June 29, it will feature over a dozen productions and free events that put sound at the front of the line. (Watch a short film about the Brick Theater.)

"We love to fashion festivals around theatre artist categories that are frequently uncelebrated," says Michael Gardner, the Brick's co-founder and artistic director. Previously, the Brick has had festivals for fight choreographers, clowns, filmmakers, and gamers. (The theatre's gaming festival will return in July).

For Gardner, though, Sound Scape is especially personal. "Sound design is often upstaged by other technology elements, but it has always remained crucial to my own theatre passion," he says. As a boy he had a prized cassette tape of Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a play that requires a full orchestra and an actor. "It changed the way I thought about theatre," he recalls. "Instead of squinting from the balcony of the Kennedy Center at an over-budgeted prestige play, suddenly there was theatre in my bedroom inside a pair of headphones."

Later, Gardner found himself drawn to radio drama and heavily sound-designed experimental theatre. More recently he's had a fascination with "The Truth," a podcast that bills itself as "movies for your ears." This year, he says, "it seemed time to give sound a spotlight. Or a microphone."

Moreover, an aural festival was a good excuse to upgrade the Brick's sound system. "I had the same notion when I coveted an industrial air conditioner, a recycling bin, and a spare garment rack for the theatre," Gardner jokes, "but somehow, those festivals failed to materialize."

As part of the festival, 31 Down's Ryan Hosopple will recreate Alvin Lucier's landmark 1969 recording exploration I Am Sitting in a Room. According to Gardner, "Ryan calls it the King Lear of sound design repertory." There are also audio interpretations of Samuel Beckett, The Odyssey, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and a take on Dadaist simultaneous poems.

But that's not all. "We have a play heard entirely in an elevator, a Dutch one-man sound machine, a sound exploration of dying horses [pictured above], and a meditation on the theoretical physics of procrastination by Christopher Loar," says Gardner, pointing out that some performances are heavily and technically sound designed while others are more analog.

"Maybe the sound design is the star and the performance is the supporting cast," Gardner says. "Maybe all elements work together equally, but the audience is asked to think about the work in an aural context. Maybe what you don't hear is as important as what you do hear. In all cases, the sound design is not wallpaper. It's a wall-sized, framed canvas hung downstage center, fully displayed and impossible to miss."

Tickets to many Sound Scape events are available to TDF members in the off-Off@$9 program.


Eliza Bent is a journalist, performer, and playwright living in Brooklyn
Photo from Lameness of a Horse by James Matthew Daniel