Sound Conversations at USITT 2018

by Michael Eddy

At the 2018 USITT Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Stage Directions and USITT hosted the Stage Directions Studio on the show floor. Over the three days we spoke with a wide variety of theater artisans, designers, technicians, and practitioners about their thoughts and advice on an array of topics in their respective theatrical disciplines. This month we are including some of the thoughts of two of the sound designers we sat down with during the show. They shared with us their mentors, technology, and also offered their humble advice to those starting out in a life in theatrical design. We thank them for generously share their experiences and thoughts with SD. Here are Jonathan Deans and Steve Canyon Kennedy in their own words:

Jonathan Deans
Jonathan DeansDeans is a sound designer whose recent credits include: Jagged Little Pill, The Tempest, War of the Worlds within Walt Disney Concert Hall and its neighboring streets, Waitress, Red Velvet, Invisible Thread, Kiss Me Kate, Finding Neverland, A Second Chance, The Heart of Robin Hood, Pippin (2013 Tony Nomination), Carrie (2012 Drama Desk Nomination), La Cage aux Folles (2010 Tony and Drama Desk Nominations) , Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Young Frankenstein, plus others. He has also designed sound for numerous Cirque du Soleil productions. He has been nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards and has been presented with a USITT award for Distinguished Career in Sound. Deans was born in England where as a young actor was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has taught MFA sound design students at UCLA and UCSD. 

Technology
What’s really interesting is that when a tool comes out and you just go, ‘Oh, here’s a tool. Let’s put that on the show,’ it’s deadly. So really, it’s for the manufacturer to give the designers, including myself, the tool ahead of time so that you’re comfortable with it, before you, then, put it onto a show. It’s funny, if you do a big show, everybody wants to talk to you and everything else. But the show’s already spec’ed, it’s already worked out. You’ve already planned this. So, the information or device, or whatever it is, the new equipment that they want to share with you, because, you’re the name at that moment. But the problem is in the down time, when you’re being quiet, nobody’s taking any notice of you. And that’s the best time to learn, you know. And that’s what I try and do. I try and talk to manufacturers. I’ve had consoles and speakers and processing gear come to my studio over the last 18 months, in San Diego. So I can get my head around it and say, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. Can I use it?’

Mentors
Abe Jacob. He really is my mentor, period. Abe is the person who’s always been solid, and there for me. He’s always comes to listen to my shows. He always says what he wants to—whether I like it or not. I have a huge, huge respect and love for Abe, because of the history and his consistency. He’s just a very straightforward guy. Then, it would have to be a gentleman by the name of Phil Clifford. He dropped out from the sound world many years ago. He used to co-own a company called Autograph Sound, which still exists with Andrew Bruce. And Andrew Bruce would be the next person. I’m sure there’s going to be a list of other people but those are the three main people. 

Teaching
I don’t see it as teaching as much as sharing. It’s just trying to give the information to the students or a student, because sometimes you can say something and it’s only affecting one student. And so, they don’t have to re-invent the wheel; it’s already been invented. Or, they can see that wheel and decide to change it. You know? Either way, but they just need to know that it exists. It’s giving all the information on things that exist, and ways to make it work as best we can. I just think that there’s so much information that can be given to an individual, for them to then choose how to grow on that, develop on that. Or, use that as a platform to jump off into their career, their world. I think I’m understanding myself, that I’m not academia. But I have a lot of experience that I want to share and pass on. 

Early Career Advice
Say yes to almost any job that is interesting to you. You’ve got to be interested in doing the work, no matter where it is, or what it is. I think a new person coming out, they have to understand, shall we say, selling their soul to the Devil. You are giving yourself; so if you think you’re going to be home for mom and dad’s birthday, or your partner’s birthday, or something like that, you’re not. And certainly not your own. You really are committing yourself to a career that is 24/7. If you look at it that way, then it’s okay. Because it’s not really 24/7, but you should approach it that way and make sure that you’re really committed. Make sure that you really love theater. 

Make sure that you are really happy, and you get up in the morning and you just smile. If you get up in the morning, and you don’t want to get up in the morning, change your job. One other thing, if you’re doing the same thing for more than a year, change. If you look back and say, ‘I’ve learned nothing new this year,’ then you should move on and do something else. You need to have learned something new each year. You can’t just stagnate.

It is like everything, it’s the networking. It’s the collaboration, and it’s being confident about being able to promote yourself, and having the knowledge. There’s nothing like actually doing it, and doing it with people who have done it for years. Because you learn so much. You can be there coiling a cable, and watching someone do something that you want to do. And even if they’re really bad, you can learn how not to do it. So it goes both ways. Also watch how people communicate, and what it’s like to communicate under stress, in that environment. It’s knowing that, especially in the theater, you have to know how to work with collaborators. 

Steve Canyon Kennedy
Steve Canyon KennedyKennedy is a theatrical sound designer and the president of his company, SCK Sound Design. His Broadway sound design credits include Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill (Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play), Doctor Zhivago, On Your Feet, Catch Me If You Can, Guys and Dolls, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Jersey Boys (Drama Desk Award), Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Hairspray, The Producers, Aida, Titanic, Big, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Carousel and The Who’s Tommy (Drama Desk Award). He was the production engineer on such Broadway shows as Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Starlight Express, Song & Dance, The Phantom of the Opera, Carrie and Aspects of Love. He was honored with the USITT Sound Design & Technology Distinguished Achievement Award.

Technology
It’s made leaps and bounds from when I started, that’s for sure. In regards to if it has made life easier, I think in a lot of ways harder. I mean before you had a couple of UPAs and you had an analog desk and you made shows sound great. You could do that. And now, it’s a little bit more complicated. Things don’t go as fast because it’s digital and everything has to be programmed. So in reality, I think it’s harder. I mean, you do all that for the final product and what goes on after that, and you have to still mix. You still have to be conscious every night about what you’re doing, even though it’s all programmed. So I don’t know if it helps that much.

Different Spaces
Every place is different, especially Broadway. Every show, even if it is a theater you have been in before. And on the road, every place is different. I’m not crazy about doing road shows. Because you have to create a system that kind of works for everywhere. You don’t have that luxury of making it perfect, I have to say. I always take my own system. I’ve done a lot of shows in La Jolla, and we’ve always brought in our own system, and in Berkeley when we did Ain’t Too Proud, we brought our own system in. That is a new show I am working on, we’re taking that out on the road before it goes to New York. So we’re also going to take it to the Kennedy Center, the Ahmanson in LA, and Toronto.

Mentors
Basically, everybody I’ve ever worked with is a mentor. Everybody teaches you something. But to get specific, I started at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA and my boss there, Chuck Lewis, taught me a lot of things. Abe Jacob is certainly one. Abe is the one that brought a recording studio into the theater and that’s how things started changing for theater. Abe Jacob also brought me to New York, I did my first Broadway mixing job for him, that began it all. Then I worked with Martin Levan for years, we did six shows together. Just working with both of them I learned. But yeah, all my associates I’ve ever worked with have taught me something. I always allow them to feel free to talk.  

Early Career Advice
That’s a tough question. If they’re just starting out and that’s what they want to do, then they have to love it. It’s a hard thing to break into, that’s for sure. You know, be true to yourself. Make it sound like the way you imagine it to sound. You have to have an idea going into it about what you want to do.

When I was working with Abe and Martin, on Broadway shows, I really learned how to become a sound designer, because you’re in charge of these shows that they leave you with and they trust you to keep them up. Basically, in my opinion, a mixer is a sound designer. They really are, especially touring mixers. They have to go into different venues and make it sound good. They are the designer.