- by Ross Jackson
An interview with Sound Designer Sharath Patel
Sharath Patel is an East Indian-American sound designer, teacher, husband, sound engineer, and composer based in the Pacific Northwest. While working mainly in theatre he also has plenty of television, voiceover, and film credits. Sharath works most often in the small professional theatre and LORT circuits and also has some Off-Broadway credits with transition options as well. He is a resident artist at Artists Repertory Theatre and teaches at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Sound Design from Yale School of Drama. Sharath’s work has been heard across the nation in theatres such as Westside Theater in NYC, Yale Rep in New Haven, Conn., A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, Wash., and Portland Playhouse in Portland, Ore.
Sharath focuses on advancing young professionals of color in the theatre industry and believes that the key to progress in the arts is in accessibility. By being accessible to peers and future generations, he believes conversations and dialogue can make a difference. The victim of a hate crime in 2009, Sharath uses every day as an opportunity for growth—for himself and those around him. He works hard to create spaces for social statements in response to racial inequality, women’s rights, disability discrimination and more. You can check out his personal website at http://www.sharathpatel.com/
Stage Directions: How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
Sharath Patel: What’s really funny is I didn’t really see myself as a person of color probably until graduate school. When I had graduated from Yale I always found myself as the youngest person in the room. The shows I did around New York, I was consistently the youngest guy in the room by like 5 or 10 years. So honestly, race wasn’t something that was popping into my brain. I was just so hungry to work. It wasn’t until the hate crime that I started to really, really, really think about it and really look around and realize that my experiences were quite unique because when I did regional theatre I would be the only minority in the room. It was also traveling around as a professional, being racially profiled in Virginia, in Minneapolis, in Indiana, and here in Portland. I’d like to think it’s not a factor in my career in certain ways. You know, for doing The Royale and doing Free Outgoing, yes it definitely helped, but I [also] did an entire season of Sam Shepard. I’d like to think that my standing as a Resident Artist with Artists Repertory Theatre is not based on race but based on talent.
How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
It’s definitely affected my career journey in that I actively look to hire minority assistants and engineers. I actively look to work with other people of color. I won’t turn down a show if it’s an entirely white design team or an entirely white cast. But there are shows where I… you know, if I’m going to do an August Wilson, I would like to be working with people of color with a project like that. Specifically, with the cast! Professionally, I guess it’s most directly impacted my career in the fact that I actively look to hire minority designers. Be it if they are people of color, or transgender or gay or female, it doesn’t matter. It’s the people that are lacking opportunity and have the talent to do it. Because at the end of the day, it does come down to talent. Learn from our peers that are different than us and gain knowledge of other cultures.
What would you like people of color considering—or in the early stages of—a theatre career to know?
Don’t be a sound designer because I don’t need any competition. I’m just kidding! Know what you’re walking into with open eyes. Knowing that for them to fight, the journey is going to be harder. You’re going to need to work twice as hard for half the opportunities. There are cliques and groups that tend to hire within. Breaking into those is going to be difficult. It takes tenacity, drive, and talent. I would want them walking into an experience like this with eyes wide open to what they’ll be dealing with. And hopefully they’ll be people who want to see change, who want to change our society. I truly think that the way to change this is through our art, though discourse, through discussion and communication. I always advocate for conversation over violence. Violence can change the world. War can change the world. But I honestly believe that art can do it, too. I think by expressing the stories that we have about our people and our love, of our losses, of our experience, we can make a huge difference in the world.
Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
I had two of them. One being Robert St. Lawrence at Ohio University (OU) where I did my Undergraduate. He was a very, very passionate teacher. He focused in lighting and sound. The semester I transferred back into OU he was doing a big production of Woyzeck. He had a drive and a passion and ideas and a different way of thinking about things. He was very organized and I love organization. He turned me on to other sound designers who, luckily, agreed to work with me. People like Darron West. I did one show with him at New York Stage & Film a million years ago. But the conversations we had, the impact... One thing I definitely learned from Darron was that being the calmest, most rational person in the room is a really, really good thing. It’s like being the duck. The fact that the ocean is going absolutely crazy around you, you know, waves are kicking up, things are going on in tech or where ever and that duck is going to just sit and bob and go along with things. Calm. Be the duck. Meanwhile under the water, you can see those legs thrashing around because you’re working. You’ve got to find solutions, you’re working it out. But just being rational and calm and kind.
The “rational, calm, and kind” I got from the other [role model], David Budries, chair of Yale School of Drama Sound Design Department. Another obscenely organized person. He kind of fostered my off-beat thinking. I’d get crazy ideas of like, pitch distention and this and that and he would sit and talk about them with me. The weird sounds I wanted to put together. It was great to hear “No that’s not weird, that’s interesting—go down that path.” I was just really lucky to have people like that advising me. When I didn’t want to just sit in the box and do the “It’s a transition and now play the pretty music.” The idea of soundscapes, of tonal scores, of coloring the image… Sound design to me, what I got from my colleagues was that it’s not just about the pretty music that plays to cover the transition so you can look at the stagehands come out. Sound design is about controlling the aural landscape. It’s not just going to an effects collection to create. Need a monster? Go record a cat. Go record a dog. Take those things, put them together, pitch them up, change them up. Lead the design. The idea of using sound to telescope an aural image for lighting. The idea of resonating and shaking a set. That’s actually something I did with Profile Theatre (Portland, Ore.). I worked with the scenic designer where I was putting out standing waves and resonating his set. We were literally moving a hundred bottles a little, tiny inch to the left, a little, tiny inch to the right. It is so much fun to create visceral art like that. And all of that came from conversations with Darron West, Robert St. Lawrence and David Budries.
Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
Honestly, I think it was just seeing successful people of color in the theatre. That includes the actors I saw on stage. Rodney Hicks and Russell Hornsby, unbelievably talented. There’s a reason they are on a Broadway stage. I remember seeing Rent in the ‘90s with Jesse L. Martin. Good God, that man can sing. Also, I was really fortunate that, in the university town that I grew up in, one of the professors who I took classes from was Charles Smith. I’m still friends with him to this day. Reading his plays, I had an immense sense of joy because he was writing about minorities but also it was written by a very successful minority playwright. In Appalachia of all places. I felt lucky to be educated by him and took pride in seeing his success.
I mean, the Indian film industry—the Bollywood machine—is a thing. But I’m not sure I identify with film, or at least that mode of art the way I identify with live performance. I think it’s because the filmed image can be experienced almost anywhere—a laptop, a TV, on your phone. Whereas the live, visceral experience has to happen right in front of you.
It was seeing people like Charles Smith that empowered me in certain ways. Being a minority surrounded by… I feel like I’m representing in certain ways? I have to represent my best as a sound designer and as a person of color, and Indians, and young artists. I feel like it kind of gives me the drive to do the best I can. All the time. People say that I’m a perfectionist to the point where I’m going to get sick. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to do things at the best of my abilities and never phone it in. That’s how I react to being in a white-dominated field. That and I surround myself with really good artists and people who are aware of the inequity. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here at Reed College. They’re looking to make a change. They want voices. They want the voices of people of color. They want to shape young minds with more openness, which I love.
Right now, people love lists. Can you give me three reasons you love working in the theatre?
1. Collaboration. I love working with people. I couldn’t imagine a job where I sat and didn’t talk with people and create art.
2. The idea of creating this thing—this thing that only exists in this moment. It’s very passing. It’s very transient in a certain way. One performance to the next is always going to be a little bit different. Creating this live art to be experienced, this visceral, rich experience by conversations and a meeting of the minds. Figuring out what’s in someone’s mind’s eye and mind’s ear—that’s the fun of it. It’s the storytelling. It’s the creating of this beautiful thing that only exists for this set amount of time and then it is gone forever. I find such beauty in that.
3. I feel that by telling these stories, I’m part of a process where we are feeding the soul. Feeding the soul culture and joy and sadness—and at the same time making them question. Hopefully they grow and not just passively just be there, be told the story, and walk away.
What do you think of the Tony’s decision to no longer recognize Sound Design?
[Long exhale] I think reducing what we do to a technical skill is insulting. I think it comes from a lack of understanding of what sound design is. Which is why I’m really glad to have organizations like the Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association. One of our big missions is to educate people on what sound design is. That way we can talk about and educate people about what it is and that way they won’t see it as a “technical thing.” They will see it as an artistic thing. I really think they should reinstate the award. And maybe have some conversations directly with us about what their concerns are.
What, in particular, attracted you to this field?
It was something I was passionate about and really good at. It took all the things that frustrated me in high school like math and trigonometry and geometry and made sense of them through physics. It was my senior year physic class coupled with my theatre class that really kind of woke me up. It all tied into the arts. It pulled the things I loved plus the things I knew would make me work, I think that’s what did it. That and I had a knack for it and it made me happy. I fully believe that you should work a job that makes you happy. Life’s too short to spend it miserable…
I know I’ve kind of talked around it, but I should address it. In 2009 I was the victim of a racial hate crime. I was attacked, beaten with a gun, held down and attacked for a good 18 minutes. Passed out several times, but had to will myself off the pavement and fight back and make that active choice. It affected my life terribly. I had memory problems, and was given a short survivability time. Turns out, I beat the odds and I’m alive. And I’m very happy to be alive. If you’re going to work, do something that makes you happy and challenges you. Do something that makes you grow. Every show I do, I want to learn something new. I want to do something I’ve never done before. Once you’ve been told you’re going to die, it’ll change your perspective. It’ll make you want to do these things every day.
There’s a lot of emphasis on protest these days, drawing both positive and negative responses. I feel like protesting is that “I’m going to get back up and keep fighting.” Do you feel that there is a way to protest through the lens of the American theatre?
Yes. That’s exactly the way I feel about it. The best way we can keep protesting the inequity that we’re feeling is to keep telling the stories and keep doing the job. And doing it to the best of our abilities. I still dream of a day that all of the acting and design awards, not only for theatre, go to people of color. It shouldn’t just be one year and then a return to the status quo the next year. We should highlight the people with the most talent. It shouldn’t matter the color of skin they have or what’s between their legs or where they grew up. It should be about talent. It should be, in certain words, “fair.” The best way to protest is to tell our stories without backing down. If we don’t, they will fade, but also what better way to protest then to do it artistically, beautifully, and with a full house?