It's (Still) Time to Honor Sound Designers

by Jacob Coakley
SD Editor Jacob Coakley
SD Editor Jacob Coakley

Of course the Tonys know how to judge sound—why they choose not to is the real mystery

There’s an old saw—set in stone in the movie Jerry Maguire—that “It’s not show friends; it’s show business.” We may get involved in theatre because we like the community or something in the art speaks to us, but if you make your living in it—or want to make your living in it—you recognize at a certain point that money enters into the equation. It’s the same way with awards shows, which constantly straddle the line between art and commerce.

 

The point of the awards is to promote theatre—both specific shows and the larger general issue of the quality of art in a region. But, obviously, you can’t put lipstick on a pig on call it Hamlet. If a show’s no good it doesn’t matter how many awards you give it, it still won’t win over audiences. So even as awards shows rush to promote theatre, they have to know what’s artistically good in order to boost their business. If they can’t judge something artistically, then they lose any kind of moral claim to be something other than a simple business cash grab. 

Which makes the decision to take away the Sound Design Tony even more baffling. After years of campaigning, the American Theatre Wing recognized the artistry of sound design with a Tony Award in the 2007-2008 season. And then six years later decided it wasn’t artistic enough. Patrick Healy, reporting in The New York Times in 2014 about the decision to remove the award cited anonymous committee members saying that sound design was “technical” and not a “theatrical art form.” Even if that’s not the attitude of all members of the Tony Committee, the fact that some felt comfortable telling the Times about it speaks volumes about how they view sound—but it also speaks loudly about the quality and competency of the Tony Awards judges themselves. If Tony Voters can’t be trusted to understand the art of theatre well enough to understand how sound works, how can we trust them to know how anything else artistic works? And if they can’t actually be trusted to understand the artistic merits of a show, then the awards are strictly a mercenary endeavor, good for nothing other than lining the pockets of producers.

Because of course the judges know how to evaluate sound. The judges are producers, critics, directors, actors, tradespeople and more—people whose livelihood depends on them understanding how theatre works artistically. Which makes whatever rationale the Tonys trot out for not including sound design awards specious at best, insulting at worst. The American Theatre Wing’s refusal to recognize the genuine artistic contributions sound designers make to a show remains an embarrassing black mark on the Tony Awards and will continue to do so until they remedy this situation and return the category. It’s time to stop the business buffoonery and recognize all artistic aspects of a show.