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Alex Hawthorn: A Passion for Sound Artistry

Michael S. Eddy • Design InsightOctober 2020 • September 30, 2020

A Strange Loop at Playwright’s Horizon (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Alex Hawthorn is a sound designer, composer, and technologist for theater, film, and digital media. He recently received a Special Citation Obie Award as part of the creative team for his sound design for A Strange Loop. He trained at NYU and started working on Broadway as an assistant and associate quickly after graduation. Regionally he’s worked as Sound Designer with Baltimore Center Stage, Geffen Playhouse, KC Rep, Ordway, People’s Light, and Portland Center Stage. He’s also an Associate Artist with the Brooklyn-based company Theater Mitu. After years of living in New York, Hawthorn relocated to Los Angeles in 2019 and this fall, is attending the MFA program at CalArts. When the COVID-19 pandemic intermission hit, Hawthorn was slated to be working on Our Brother’s Son and then designing Arcadia. We appreciate him taking the time to speak with Stage Directions about his work and career. 

Sound Designer, Composer, and Audio Technologist Alex Hawthorn

Tell me about your approach to sound design and how you work to support the narrative.
As any artist being involved in a project, the idea of course is that I’m being involved for my point of view. I see my role as illuminating what the sound of the show could be to a director who maybe hasn’t thought too much about sound, or maybe has, and there’s discussion to be had in all those situations. I also have conversations with the other designers, and with the cast, about what is the world of the show that we’re entering. I try and get involved as early as possible; I enjoy being a part of those initial conversations talking about what the world of this play or show is going to be. I join in and share research imagery or make a Spotify playlist to start sharing conceptual artistic elements. Any conversation about the visual on an artistic level can affect the oral. If I’m part of those conversations I can also keep those things in mind moving forward and help shape the world of the show.

Sometimes it’s a very clear, purpose-driven conversation from the beginning. That was true at the initial conversation sitting down with Doug Hughes, the director on Key Largo at the Geffen. It was conversation about the storm being a character in the show. We always needed to feel its presence while still telling the story. My goal there was clear. Put the audience in this storm while also making sure they can all hear the words being said by the actors.

Talk a little bit about your process as a designer.
I think you can split up a design, for any discipline, between the practical and technological and the conceptual and artistic. It’s a very yin/yang relationship; the two feed into each other. Certainly if I’m working on a musical, the technology, the system design is my way of getting into the piece. If it’s a new musical, obviously there aren’t usually recordings, but maybe there’s been a workshop and there’s some idea of orchestration. I see from the scenic design the band is going to go here; what sort of problems—or potential opportunities—does that present? How can I work with that? Then it’s a lot about communication with the other departments; about reading the scripts; and hopefully listening to some workshop recordings or talking to the composer.

The first step is making sure that you create a nicely balanced, good-sounding show where everybody can understand all the words. Beyond that it is about what can the sound add to the experience of this story? I designed A Strange Loop at Playwright’s Horizons, which was a fairly incredible piece of theater to be a part of. I spent a lot of time working on the reverbs for the show, changing the vocal reverbs even within one song to give a sense of isolation to a character, or a sense of community, and moving between these moods trying to just evoke some minuscule, emotional reaction out of the audience through my work without obviously getting in the way of a very powerful piece of theater that leapt off the page. The primary goal for the entire design team on that show was, ‘Do no harm. This is already fantastic. If we can just stay out of the way and support the work, it’s going to do great.’

On a new musical, the goal is to work with the music department and the composer and look at this thing that we’re creating and make sure that it operates as best it can from both a sound standpoint and music standpoint. It’s about approaching orchestration from a sound standpoint as well, and it’s important to build good relationships within the music department so that you can have those conversations without people feeling like their toes are being stepped on.

Theater Mitu’s REMNANT

What is a particular production that really stands out for you?
There was a Theater Mitu show, REMNANT, which was the show that opened our artistic home in Brooklyn in August 2018. It was primarily a headphone piece, where the audience all wore headphones, because there were three performance spaces occurring simultaneously. The audience would move between these three banks of seating on these 20-minute intervals and in doing so would cycle through the entire performance. It was a meditation on, and then inspection of deaths, and of people who traveled towards death and then returned, people who travel with other people to the precipice of death. We were interviewing doctors and end of life nurses. We were interviewing soldiers that had returned from war, artists, philosophers; this very wide range of sources, then we amassed and organized it into these three different performance pieces. 

In terms of an integration of technology and sound and performance, it feels the most successful out of anything that I’ve done; I still think it’s one of Theater Mitu’s best pieces. We’ve had a chance to tour it, which as a technologically involved piece is not easy, but in this strange moment, since it was already so audio and video heavy, we’re in the process of adapting it to a purely remote experience. REMNANT is a piece that I think was incredibly successful.

What’s a show you’d love to design?
I’ve always wanted to do some sort of wacko production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I feel like maybe Key Largo was the closest I’ve gotten yet in terms of storm creation, but there’s such an interesting mixture of natural elements, but also magic in Tempest. It’s often a play that has been scored. With the right director and design team, I think there could be an interesting melding of modern electronic elements with a classical form.

Who have some of your mentors been; who has influenced your work?
I stand on the shoulders of giants. I would say that Ken Travis and Mark Bennett were the dual genesis of my career, for sure. My first Broadway experience was as Mark Bennett’s intern on The Coast of Utopia. That was certainly an introduction into working in a union house and working on Broadway; what was expected of you and how that system operates. That was also a master class in composition; getting to listen to Mark craft those pieces and button those scenic transitions so perfectly and elegantly was incredible. Then on the musical side of things, working with Ken Travis really introduced me to simplicity as a key element with system design. These are the basic building blocks. You can do something fantastic with very simple, tried and true methods. Which then leaves you an opening to experiment with certain new technologies, new techniques on a controlled and per project process. 

I would certainly say that Rubén Polendo, who is currently the Chair of NYU Tisch [Department of Undergraduate Drama] and is also the founding Artistic Director of Theater Mitu. Being brought into the fold with Theater Mitu and being asked to interact with other theater makers, not just as a sound designer, but as a whole artist. Bringing in elements of performance and video design into my sound design and thinking about performance in a more holistic way, I think has also increased my ability to interact with other designers on collaborative systems that are less experimental. It’s just made me more willing to jump into the deep end with people and try and figure out how do we best present this work of art on a stage.

Is there a piece of advice you got at the start of your career you still find applicable today?
I don’t know if anybody ever actually said it to me, but I realized early on that I would rather work with somebody that I liked than somebody that was excellent at their job. You can learn a lot from people who excel at their craft, but with the sorts of time commitments we’re asked for on projects, I would rather be with people that I like. I certainly strive in my own work to be as good as I can as a sound designer, but also I want to be as kind as I can be as a collaborator. I have heard that people think that I’m nice to work with and if that ends up on my tombstone, that’s not so bad. I would certainly say, just be nice; life’s too short to be mean to people. Like with A Strange Loop, I would certainly be excited to get back into a room with everybody, they are all so talented, but more so because everybody on that team was really nice.

Hawthorn working on REMNANT

What do you enjoy most about your career?
I’ve been able to travel the world in a way that I never thought I would. As the Associate Sound Designer for Aladdin, spending three months in Australia and going to Germany and England, has been wonderful and eye-opening. Then with Theater Mitu, we have toured shows to Egypt and the Middle East. We took Remnant to Sarajevo last year for a festival. The downtown can-do theater spirit taking you to other experimental downtown scenes around the world and then the more commercial Broadway stuff that takes you to London and the various other more commercial outlets around the world. I’ve really enjoyed the travel aspect of my career, but honestly, I love my job. Especially in this moment of massive unemployment, it’s crazy to look around and realize that I have a career doing what I love, and knowing that for some people their career, their job, is simply one aspect of their lives; my career, my job is my passion. I’m not terribly good at life/work balance, which is okay to me because I am so passionate about sound, about art, about music, about collaboration, and about performance. When even at the sixth 10 out of 12 of a week, you watch a moment on stage where everything aligns perfectly and you go, ‘Yeah, that’s why I do this’. It’s for those magical moments. That is what I love about my career, my job. I am amazed that after undergrad I got to spend 10 years consistently working on Broadway. That was too big to imagine when I started school. I knew that I wanted to work on Broadway, but I didn’t realize how quickly that dream would be answered. It’s been a fantastic ride for sure. 

Learn more about Alex’s work at: www.SoundMindDesigns.com 

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