Design Perspective: An Evocative Soundscape

by Michael Eddy
Denzel Washington and David Morse in The Iceman Cometh (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)
Denzel Washington and David Morse in The Iceman Cometh (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier talks The Iceman Cometh, Mentorship and Early Days

For the recent Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier created a historically-accurate sound design for director George C. Wolfe’s production. The play received eight American Theatre Wing Tony Award nominations, including all four design categories; it was the fifth Tony nomination for Schreier. Stage Directions spoke with the designer on his creation of the sounds of 1912 New York for The Iceman Cometh, including some research for period-appropriate songs and sound elements as well as his thoughts on mentoring and advice for someone considering a career in theater.

Talk about your approach to your sound design for The Iceman Cometh and ensuring that you’re supporting the narrative.
It was really a continual dialogue with George Wolfe from pre-production until almost the day that we froze the show. The sound design started with an idea that in Act Three when Harry Hope, the bar owner, finally goes outside of the bar. The thing that has been keeping him from going outside was the fact that there were now automobiles on the street; there was this new world of the industrial age. This was something that this guy could not grapple with. He was a horse and buggy guy, and he was afraid to go outside because he’d get killed by an automobile.

George thought that that was a good starting point for what the soundscape should be, something about how the external world outside the bar has now entered the industrial age, and it’s just forcing its anti-humanist qualities onto these guys in the bar. So that was the initial discussion I had with George. What I brought in—from my research—to George was the Eugene O’Neill Songbook. O’Neill himself put it together of the songs that are sung in all his plays. There are a bunch of songs that are sung by the different characters in Iceman Cometh, so I went through that list of songs. Also George wanted to really keep the idea of it being 1912, 1913, which is when the play is set. We wanted to keep that time period alive in the sound design of the show.

From a music supervisory role, I wanted to make sure that any music that we selected had great resonance to the play and to George Wolfe’s version of the play. So, I found all the original Edison cylinder recordings of the songs that Eugene O’Neill mentions in the songbook for Iceman Cometh. I was actually able to locate them all. We used three of the original Edison cylinder recordings of these songs. They are some of the only recordings of the songs because they were popular songs from the 1910s but didn’t have much life past that era. It was so much fun doing that, I can’t tell you. Finding these collections of Edison cylinders and getting a taste of what people were listening to, what was on people’s minds, and really getting a little bit of a zeitgeist of the era; it was a real fascinating thing to undertake.

How did you find the Edison cylinder recordings?
The actual cylinders are extremely fragile, and they are hard to find. With the advent of the Internet, people and collectors have begun digitizing the collections because the originals are degrading. Some of the digital files are now available online. The Library of Congress has a collection, and a couple of universities have online collections. It took research, but it was so interesting.

Is there an audio moment in Iceman Cometh that you are particularly pleased with?
The top of Act Four is stunningly beautiful. You hear the recording of the Edison cylinder of the song “Curse of an Aching Heart”. Here’s the chorus:
You made me what I am today,
I hope you’re satisfied.
You dragged and dragged me down until
My soul within me died;
You’ve shattered each and ev’ry dream,
You fooled me from the start,
And though you’re not true,
May god bless you,
That’s the curse of an aching heart.
George staged it as a pantomime. So, the curtain comes up very, very slowly, and you see all the actors slowly dragging their chairs or walking to their chairs in this very severe cross light with very blank expressions on their faces as they move to their positions in the bar, which is now very abstract. The combination of very dark lyrics—it’s sort of completely related to Hickey and what Hickey has done to these people. You hear the recording that sounds like it’s 1913, and you hear them as they move to their spaces. I think it’s sort of a stunning and beautiful moment in the show.

What’s some of the gear you used in your system? Also, how did you deal with miking the actors?
As this play is a classic, the sound design has kind of a classical approach to it, too. In some ways it’s a very straight forward design. We’re using a Meyer Sound system for the show and Sound Associates was the audio vendor, and their support was fantastic.

For the reinforcement side of the design, I wanted it as crystal clear as possible but not obviously reinforced. Actually, the actors are not wearing wireless mics; there are microphones hidden all over the stage. Those microphones are primarily the DPA 4061 microphones. They were used with DPA’s BLM Mount, which is a disc-like rubber mount that’s flat, so it’s easy to mount the small mic head into something that, one, if it gets walked on won’t get destroyed, but two, the BLM Mount can be painted. You can almost do anything to it, so it completely disappears on stage. If you were looking at the stage, you would not be able to find a single one of these microphones; they’re all completely camouflaged into the set. Technically, you’ve got this very large cast, and you’re actually in a very open set, so finding the position for these microphones was relatively difficult to make that work. It took a very long time to get the reinforcement side of the show to come together. Timothy Riggs is the production soundman and he is doing an excellent job mixing that show for four hours every night. It is a very active mix and he’s really following the actors around the room; they cover a lot of space. I have to thank my associate sound designer for Iceman Cometh Josh Reid, with also special thanks to Phillip Peglow and Daniel Erdberg, both helped out when Josh had to move onto another project.

I know mentorship is important to you.
Mentorship’s a very important thing and I really believe in my role as a sound designer, or a composer, of trying to be a teacher of young people who are coming up in the theater, who want to learn about the craft. Otts Munderloh was an amazing mentor to me in terms of teaching me about sound design. He’s really taught me a lot about how to navigate work in the theater. He’s still a great man in the theater and just a great guy.

How did you start?
I studied music my freshman year at the University of Michigan. After my first year, I got a job that brought me to New York; I took a year off and worked professionally as an assistant to composer Stanley Silverman. He wrote a lot of music for the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center where he was the resident composer. That was at The Vivian Beaumont when it first opened. He taught me a lot about how music can support a text, and how you collaborate with the director making choices about music.

Stanley wrote a musical with Arthur Miller that I was involved with, Up From Paradise. Then he became the music director for the production of The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center that was directed by Richard Foreman and produced by Joe Papp. That’s how I met Joe Papp and also how I became very close with Richard Foreman. My first five or six sound designs were for Richard Foreman’s plays at The Public Theater. From my own experiences, I believe that mentoring people is one of the greatest gifts you can give to other people. Not only is it great for me to be able to pass on information to these young students, but they also bring something to the table that I learn from too, which always surprises me, and pleases me. Really, mentoring is a two-way street if you’re open to it.

So, what advice would you give to someone in the early stage of their theatrical career?
Do whatever you need to do to get into the theater, to work in the theater. Be open to all possibilities. Just because you want to be a sound designer doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go in and be on an electrics load-in crew or be involved with assisting people. Work with producers, work with directors, be open to all the possibilities. The more that you are open, going into the theater world—which it seems like has grown a little bit smaller over the years in New York—I think the more chances you’ll have for finding your way into it. There’s no single path into making yourself have a career in the theater. There’s so many ways it happens. Just be open to all the possible ways it can happen.

What surprised you most about your career path?
That I’m still doing it! The thing that’s been the most surprising to me is I’ve had the great fortune of being able to collaborate with some of the greatest artists of our time, and it’s been nothing but a true pleasure. In starting with Richard Foreman and eventually writing music for one of Arthur Miller’s plays on Broadway. I’ve done a number of productions with George Wolfe. I got to work with August Wilson on the last two plays of his Century Cycle. I’ve just had this great fortune of working with these great artists, and that is something I would not have seen at the beginning of my career, that great fortune.