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Learning About Listening

Amy Altadonna • Feature • November 5, 2015

Amy Altadonna designed sound for Fissures (shown here in tech) but this past spring she got onto stage herself.

Amy Altadonna designed sound for Fissures (shown here in tech) but this past spring she got onto stage herself.

Amy Altadonna stepped out from behind the tech table and onto stage — and it only helped her sound design

I’m a sound designer. I love making noise, but I like doing it from the anonymous shadows of the tech table. I’m quick to jump up onto the stage to listen to monitors with my singers, and to step onto the apron to talk to the actors about underscoring, but I’ve only been on stage as a performer a few times, and never as an actor. 

Now I find myself back in college—building a new sound design program at UMass Amherst—and I am pleased to discover I’ve been welcomed into a lively and collaborative world of theatre-making with my colleagues and our students. Every day, every room is brimming with activity—swordfights, the voices of instructors, the lines of well-known texts spilling out from all around the building—and maybe that energy is what inspired me to step into a new experience alongside my students: acting. 

This past spring semester, I was doing no designing of my own at the school, and while mentoring is my passion, I think I was feeling a little left out of that energetic world of risk and learning and doing. Auditions were coming up for a series of shows directed by our Directing II students; I figured there’d be no harm in pushing myself to try something new, and so I studied my sides and gave auditioning a whirl. I was surprised and flattered to get called back, and ultimately to be cast in two plays—which is when the real adventure began. 

Over the course of the process from audition to performance, I learned and practiced many new things which are already positively impacting my work as a sound designer and as an educator. Empathy, presence, vulnerability and trust are intangibles of artistic collaboration that I always considered important in my mind, but which now spring from a place deeper in me because I practiced them every night in rehearsal for four weeks. And interestingly, so many of these lessons are about listening. Who knew I had so much to learn about listening.

Empathy

One of my breakthroughs happened not in the rehearsal room, but in my office while running lines with my student stage manager, who had generously offered his time to those of us struggling to memorize our long series of monologues. I will never forget when he leaned forward and said, “Amy, I think that maybe you’re judging Susan (my character in Ashley Montgomery’s What’s On Your Mind). You can’t do that; it will become an obstacle to playing her so that the audience can truly understand her.” That floored me. I absolutely had been judging this woman: her choices in life were challenging to me. Whereas I sometimes question whether I’m sacrificing family for work, Mrs. Susan Hope sacrificed a successful acting career for her family. The character is completely relatable, and presents a timely and salient argument for the tough choices that women face in this culture, as well as the effects of regret in our psychic life. And yet, my reluctance to really “go there”, to truly put myself in her shoes—a subconscious challenge until my SM, Ben Abel, pointed this out to me—was hindering my ability to write this woman’s story into my voice and body for the stage. I was obscuring the truth of the character.

After digesting this advice, I discovered myself able to bring my character to life more fully, in a way that even I could sense. All of the subtle commentary I was writing on top of her story was stripped away like peeling paint, revealing something more direct, more simple, and therefore more true. 

The takeaway? I am so much more aware of the running commentary in my head when I’m listening to other people. When I implement the kind of clean listening that Ben taught me to bring to my relationship with the character, I find I’m much more patient with friends and collaborators, and more able to identify the motives that people have and the manner in which they try to achieve them. I have learned that my capacity for empathy is much deeper than I had supposed.

Presence

Speaking of listening… I can listen to the same 20-second sound event in the house 20 times, and respond to incredibly nuanced changes in characteristic—musically, acoustically, in the translation from the studio to the sound system, and all manner of other details that hover on the edge of perception. But I was not listening that way to the people I work with and care about. We all listen, but we listen with our internal responses just milliseconds behind what we’re hearing. In rehearsal, you are supposed to listen. It’s all you can do. And the more I listened, the more I realized I was capable of hearing when I silenced my inner voice and truly hung on the words of the people around me. I found it surprisingly easy to do, which was fortunate because that kind of attentive listening was an absolute necessity on stage. Being that present allowed even the practiced responses I gave to feel spontaneous and sincere. It somehow took away the nerves and the self-consciousness of pretending to be this other person, of doing this difficult, artificial-feeling work (due to my lack of experience) with so many eyes on me. It really was the work of acting; what I said was so much less important than how I listened—with Susan’s ears and with a clear mind and open heart.

These lessons have impacted my mentoring dramatically one-on-one and in the classroom; I’m much more apt to listen than talk, and I’m able to mine what I hear for so many more clues to what is really happening with students, both in their work, and in their worlds. It’s made me more nimble when responding to the wide variety of students that I work with, and more responsive to their particulars when we encounter a challenge together. I have been so much better at avoiding the assumptions that their challenges are all about MY teaching and MY material, and I can connect more readily with what they are bringing to the work that is uniquely positive and also uniquely challenging for them. 

Vulnerability and Trust

The interesting thing about the experience of these plays was how much of my effort, my attempts at storytelling, my voice, and my character’s body language were annihilated when I brought the performance out of the rehearsal hall and in front of an audience. All of the well-thought out tactics I was using to bring these women to life on stage was stripped away the minute I was performing. Putting myself in a new situation in front of an audience confirmed what I had always suspected about acting—there is no stepping back and getting a different perspective on your work. As a sound designer, I can sit back and listen, I can watch as my sound and music unfold in Qlab, with discreet time and volume values that are predictably manipulated. As an actor, you don’t have that bird’s eye perspective, that ability to separate yourself physically and emotionally from the work and self-evaluate in the way that most of us are able to in the theatre. 

This shift in my positioning relative to my work was very taxing; I found at first that I was getting short with my director at times as I struggled to understand what I was doing, but over time I came to see that the only thing I had to cling to was trust. I had no choice but to listen to my director, stage manager and cast mates and to really hear their constructive criticisms, as well as their support of things that were working, which were equally hard to hear and believe. Once my sounds, my Qlab screen, my headphones, my knobs and buttons were taken away, the only thing I had to hang on to was trust in the people collaborating with me…and in myself. It was the hardest thing I had to do. (And that included fighting the nausea rising in my throat during the audition!)

This experience deeply renewed my compassion for actors who are asked to remain flexible but have so little to ground them during a production. During the process, I heard myself make statements that began with the qualifier, “I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but…” and ended with “is this going to be the actual prop!?!”; “when can I hear the music?!?”; and “is someone going to fix this wobbly chair?!?!” It’s shown me that the things I used to roll my eyes at in rehearsal are completely understandable, that the vulnerability which acting demands really does leave the actor exposed and asks them to take a leap of faith each time they step into the play. Throwing myself fully into the audition process, the rehearsal period, tech and performance as an actor taught me so much more, and allowed me to truly practice a new and full-bodied approach to theatre-making. With this insight, I can focus on facilitating playmaking and collaboration in a more supportive way, not just as a sound designer but as a member of the company.  

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