A Conversation with Distinguished Achievement Award-winning Sound Designer Eileen Smitheimer

by Michael Eddy
Erik Alberg, the USITT Sound Design & Technology Commissioner, presents Smitheimer with the USITT 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award in Sound Design and Technology Award. She is the the first woman to receive the award.
Erik Alberg, the USITT Sound Design & Technology Commissioner, presents Smitheimer with the USITT 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award in Sound Design and Technology Award. She is the the first woman to receive the award.

Eileen Smitheimer is a theater professional and educator focusing on sound and lighting design. She has been designing and assistant designing for more than 30 years across the United States and Europe. Smitheimer served for 22 years as the head of audio for the Professional Theatre Training Program, the former graduate theater conservatory at the University of Delaware (UD). Currently, she is an associate professor in UD’s Department of Theatre, as well as resident sound designer and sound supervisor for the Resident Ensemble Players, the university’s professional theater company. At the 2019 USITT Conference in Louisville, KY, Smitheimer was honored with the 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award in Sound Design and Technology. She is the first woman to receive the DAA in sound design. The DAAs honor individuals who have established meritorious careers in specific fields of expertise in any area of design or technology in the performing arts. Smitheimer, who received her B.A. and E.E.T. degrees from Purdue University, has been an active member of the USITT Sound Commission for 35 years where she is a vice-commissioner. She is a member of TSDCA and the OISTAT Sound Design Group and was also part of the planning and staffing committee for the Sound and Lighting Design Exposition at the 2003 and 2007 Prague Quadrennials. We caught up with Smitheimer at USITT 2019 for a brief conversation:

Who influenced your career and who were some of your mentors?
It was mostly, sound designer Rick Thomas who also teaches at Purdue, and then being a part of USITT. There weren’t that many sound designers when I started out in 1984, when I also started at USITT. 35 years ago, the only people sitting in the room for USITT was Charlie Richmond and John Bracewell. I knew of Otts Munderloh, Abe Jacob, and Tony Meola, who at that time was an engineer and not a designer yet. When I got out of school, I ran into Tony at a show and was able to ask him questions; then I was able to work for a short while with Otts; then I went on to start my career. My mother was also an influence, she was a speech pathologist, but also studied theater when she was in high school and college, so I would say the two largest influences would be Rick Thomas and my mother.

You mentioned Tony Meola, he brought along a lot of women into sound mixing for his shows. You’ve worked with him, what’s your take on his attitude?
Yes, Tony believed that a woman has a good ear; that we could do anything. He still does. He’s a great man who just said, ‘Okay, you are as capable as I am, and it’s all about hearing. If you can hear what I’m looking for then why wouldn’t I want to hire you?’

How did it feel to be honored with the USITT DAA for sound design?
It was amazing to me that I was nominated, especially being the first woman. I look at the list of the previous winners, going all the way back to Abe Jacob, Tony Meola, Dan Dugan, Jonathan Deans, etc. The Sound Commission has grown over this period, from me standing in a room with four other people, to me standing in a room with 100 people; that’s just an amazing thing how much it’s grown. It was amazing to see how many people—because I didn’t realize it until I was in the room with them all—how many supported this nomination and wanted me to receive this award. 

What has surprised you most about your career in theater?
It’s not a job for me; it’s my life. I just enjoy doing theater; experiencing it in different places, with different people, and how they work on it. Then how the audience experiences that work. Whether I’m the one designing or somebody else is designing, it doesn’t matter. Whether it be the little moments when they’re laughing at a comedic part, or they’re tearing up because of the emotion that has been created for them in the theater.

What have been some milestone points along the way in your career?
I don’t think of my career as having milestones, I would say just the different experiences. I’m both a teacher and a designer and being able to experience both of those sides has been extraordinary. Being able to go out and do shows in other places. Also, I’ve been able to go to Prague three times for the Quadrennial. That was just an amazing event for me, just being able to experience and work with both international and American theater artists; that was just incredible.

Talk a little bit about the importance of mentorship.
Well, both as someone who was mentored and has mentored many, I really do believe that having the experience of being able to make a mistake while being able to be taught about those mistakes is good for any person trying to get into the field. 

Is there is a piece of advice that you got that you still find applicable today?
Rick Thomas told me to “Put the work in.” Do the work, putting yourself outside of what might be normal. Do the work because if you do the work and people see that, it will be noticed. Another piece of advice that someone had given me was that it’s all about who you align yourself with. This is especially true of the directors that you align yourself with; if you don’t align yourself with the right director, you won’t get ahead in design.

What advice would you give to someone in the early stage of a career in theater?
It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you are interested, you should go after the work. In this day and age, being a female or person of color should not matter; just because you don’t have some of the experiences that others have does not mean that you shouldn’t go after your life of learning and being intrigued and doing theater; and doing sound design. 

Have you seen improvement in the increase of women in theater sound roles?
I have, but I’ve also been in it a very long time. Having been in the room—and being the only woman—I’ve been sitting there for 35 years, I would say that it has changed tremendously. First of all, not only the growth in the number of sound designers out there, but also the number of women sound designers. I find that it’s even more interesting, that as a community, we actually don’t necessarily know everybody who is a sound designer or a sound engineer; that there are people that I have met now that I didn’t know were doing design when I was younger. So, I would say that a lot of things have changed since I started doing sound design. I think it’s hard for a woman or person of color to actually be the lead in the design. In sound design, there are way more specifically women; I do not know near as many people of color in the field. And yes, they have been brought along, but they’re not near as many as should be or they are associates or assistants that have been working on Broadway or in regional theaters, they are not the lead in the design.

You’ve been doing research into women sound designers. Please talk about that.
I have a list. I actually started doing some research, and Joanna [Lynne Staub] and Toy [Victoria Deiorio] at the TSDCA have helped me out. This is information that I have gathered for a while. In 1996, Freya Edwards designed sound for Skylight on Broadway; she also designed Stanley in 1997, but I never heard of Freya until now. [Edwards was a member of National Theatre’s resident sound design team.]

Then they did some more looking around, and from 1996 to 2019, there are eight named sound designers in addition to Edwards that designed for Broadway shows. I’d never heard of Janet Kalas for 2003’s Take Me Out, or Carolyn Downing, who co-designed All My Sons with Christopher Shutt and was solo designer on the 2016 Les Liaisons Dangereuses revival. I do know of Jill DuBoff, who has done numerous shows from 2000 to 2018. And there was Ashley Henson, sound designer of a musical, Everyday Rapture, with Brian Ronan and Kurt Eric Fischer in 2010. Cricket Meyers was a co-designer with Acme Sound Partners. In 2018, The Lifespan of a Fact was sound designer, Palmer Heffernan. This year, Jessica Paz is co-sound designer with Nevin Steinberg on Hadestown. So, you can easily count the number of women sound designers, but like I’m saying, there are many designers that we don’t actually get to see, or that we’ve never heard of, or didn’t know about. 

Do you see it improving more in academic and regional theaters?
In the sound world? No. There are many more, but I still think it’s hard for them to get in. I have met many more. I know that I have pushed for it in my own theater, but it’s still about who they know, who’s the artistic director, who’s the production manager, and who they’re going to suggest to come in.

What are some ways to get women and people of color into people’s hiring thought process? 
For me, and this is not across the board, I would say that it’s just a matter of people having a conversation; a good conversation about what the world is they’re trying to create. Part of it is reputation, but how do you create a reputation if you’re not being given the chance. I think bringing people to the attention of the world; highlighting different women and people of color. The whole USITT women on stage; just saying that these people are out there. This is a technical director; this is our lighting designer; she is a sound designer. The fact is, the more we portray a woman in the field—the more that there is a, I’ll just throw out names, Jessica Paz, Cricket Myers, Jill DuBoff; that we point out that these people exist, and that they were on Broadway, or that they were at a regional theater—the better. I’m surprised at the number of females in the TSDCA. I’m also surprised when I start looking through the numbers of how many designers, and technicians, and other roles, that are female or people of color. People need to know about them, they are there, they are ready to work.

For years, as I said, I was the only woman in the room with what was maybe 10 or 15 men, and every time they would say, “We have to do a focus on women panel, we have to have all women.” And I was like “Why? Why aren’t we just designers?” So I’m so glad to hear you say that. Yet we know we’re not getting diversified enough so it’s kind of like, okay fine we’ll do that panel again to say, ‘Hey we are here’, but then we need to get to, ‘Do we really need this because we are all just designers?!’