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Being Present with Sound Designer Darron L. West

Michael S. Eddy • June 2020Master Artist • May 22, 2020

Darron L. West is a Tony and Obie Award-winning sound designer whose work for theater and dance has been heard in over 500 productions nationally and internationally, including on and off Broadway. He was recognized with the Tony Award in 2012 for his work onPeter and the Starcatcherand has five nominations for Drama Desk Awards. He is a two-time Henry Hewes Design Award winner and a recipient of the 2012 Princess Grace Statue Award. He began his professional career in 1989 as the Resident Sound Designer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which brought him to Off-Broadway. In 1990, he became Resident Sound Designer at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, until he moved to NYC.

Since moving to New York in 1993, his designs have been heard at The Public/New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center, Theatre for a New Audience, Circle Rep, Classic Stage Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Theatre Workshop, The Vineyard, The Atlantic, The Signature Theatre, Soho Rep, Playwrights Horizons, and PS 122. His Broadway design credits include Wait Until Dark, Top Girls, To Be or Not to Be, The American Plan, The Royal Family, Time Stands Still, Chinglish, Peter and the Starcatcher, Grace,Velocity of Autumn, Misery, Fully Committed, Jitney, Six Degrees of Separation, and Lobby Hero. West is also a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop and Founding Company Member/Resident Designer for SITI Company. He graciously spent some time recently, social distanced by phone, with Stage Directions discussing his work.

Make Something
Knowing that every show requires a different approach, depending on the company, the text, and the sound requirements of the script, West embraces and thrives on approaching each project with an open mind. “I think most of the time when we start working on a play, our natural instinct as designers, is to start making something,” he explains.“To prove that we’re in the room; justifying why we’ve been hired to do it. For me, I know I have already been hired for the gig, so I don’t put any emphasis in justifying my role. I really lay back to try to figure out what my job description for that project is going to be. Because it’s different for every show; sometimes you don’t know what it is even after reading the play numerous times. Sometimes you don’t know until the second week of rehearsal. It’s that sense of just being open and aware and listening to the play and taking in all the disparate elements.”

Those elements he will take into consideration include the costume renderings, what the set is going to look like, and how the play is going to work, so that the sound design can be the element that ties the production together. West notes, “You have to see what’s out there on the jigsaw puzzleand then start helping to put it together. I think if there was any one codified technique thing, it would be staying in the grey area for a while to figure out exactly what the job description is. And as I said before, it’s different for every show. So that’s part of it. And I think the other part of it is, for me, working in the room. I was never one of those designers who could go, watch something in rehearsal then go away and cook something up, and bring it back and put it in a week before tech. I think there’s something about having to sit in the hot seat of the rehearsal room; throwing out things to see how they bounce against the play itself. What the sound does for the actors and what it does for your fellow designers. Being part of the energy in the room and learning from the feedback; basing the design around something that’s really organic, that is important. For me, the design is not something you’re putting on later, after the hard work of discovering what the piece is, is already done.”

Coal Country at The Public Theater (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Diving Deep
Research and reading; those are at the core of West’s design process. When he gets hired for a production, he dives right in, wanting to be prepared as he heads to the rehearsal room. “I’m a big researcher. I believe that you show up with as much information as you possibly can and then wipe your feet on the mat at the door before you walk into rehearsal. Trusting that you have all that information and knowledge; but knowing that now you’re there to listen, watch, and react to what’s actually happening in the room. So, to be able to do that, I want to know all the detail I possibly can. I’ll read the dramaturgy packet that the literary team passes out on the first day, and I do a lot of my own research. But my specific process starts before I even agree to do a play. I will always read the play first, before I agree to do it, to see if there’s something in there for me, or if it’s something I’m interested in.”

West is always asking himself, “can I see a place for my design within a piece? That’s one I’m always looking for show to show to show, because I think you have to figure out what keeps you in the room on a piece while you’re working on it. That answer’s going to be different from show to show, but I think the variety of it is something I really, really love. I do love the ephemeral nature of theater. I love the fact that it’s not the same night to night. That it’s living and that it’s breathing.”

West has developed a process for himself where he reads the play once in complete silence and then again with different music playing along to help him think. “During the second read, I usually allow myself to play music, but things that are tonally against what I’m reading. Nothing with lyrics; just to get a flow of the musicality of the piece that I’m reading. Then, for the third read of it, I usually read it in public someplace, like sitting at a coffee shop. Someplace that’s incredibly noisy where I really have to focus in on the play. Because by that time I’m already wanting to start having really killer ideas about what the design might be, and I have to try to circumvent that. But that will be the last time I’ll really, really dig into it before rehearsal. All the while just continually making notes; not censoring myself as to what the idea might be, whatever lateral thought that comes into my head as I’m reading it or thinking about it going about my daily life. I’ll scribble it down in a notebook or type it into my phone. Then I’ll put all those notes together along with all the rest of the research and fill up on that and then walk in the room and start making the play. That’s pretty much the only thing that’s really codified for me in terms of process.”

The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie Theater (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

Mixing it all Together
When it comes time to assemble his sound design, West likes to mix both field recordings along with pre-recorded pieces and effects. While he has assembled a vast library over his long career, he doesn’t like to reuse effects. He strives to make sure that each show is unique. “I’ve had shows where it’s all been found sound, all things that I have recorded for the show itself. And then sometimes it’s things that are manipulated and pulled from a sound effects library, like The Hollywood Edge library for instance. But most of the time I will do it on my own pending what the show needs. Also I have a gigantic library. I’ve been doing this since 1989, so I have a lot of things that I have collected; I travel with a hard drive that’s filled with sounds. I try not to reuse things, even if it’s a phone ring, or a dog bark… whatever, unless I absolutely have to. It is just my feeling that I’ve got to create what’s new for a particular piece, even if it’s a script I have done before, I want it to be slightly different.”

Learn from your Choices
Making each show unique doesn’t mean not building on lessons learned through past work and designs. West feels that it’s important to look back on the choices you made and really understand why you made them; would you do that again if given the opportunity? “I think one thing that we sometimes forget to do is analyze why we make the choices that we make. Maybe that’s because the theater process runs so fast and it’s so ephemeral. I came from the regional theaters, so when we did the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre, for instance, it was a crazy time getting all of those shows open. But one of the things I would do was, on the closing night of each of the shows, I would make sure I went to see them and try to really watch as a patron. Get a ticket, stand in the lobby, and go into the theater. I would try to watch it like a regular audience person and see what’s coming back at me. Then I’d go home and analyze what the choices were and why I made them. I think we’re learning all the time. We’ve got a pretty fast-paced world and we’ve got to make sure we slow ourselves down on occasion so that we can be able to really do our jobs.”

Old & New School Tech
Like many sound designers, West has some technology that he still relies on for his designs. Call it old school technology or just a tool that still works, he does have some tried and true standouts. “I have a tendency to really want to use old outboard reverbs when I’m working on a show,” he acknowledges. “I usually spec them and have my assistant put them in the rack because I’ve never been in love with the effects processing in some of the new digital consoles. I still miss analog consoles; I guess I’m just an old guy. I love the flexibility of the digital boards, but there was something about just being able to grab a knob and not have to page through things.”

He likes to kid around with longtime associate sound designer, Charles Coes that he really wants to do a show that’s only driven by a sampler. “When I went through my Ensoniq sampler phase I loved working in that way just because it was so visceral in the room. It was active and you weren’t having to look at waveforms all the time on your laptop. So, you felt as though you were playing in a one-man band. But each time I seriously entertain it, I just think, I’m so glad I don’t have to haul that gear around anymore. You know one of the questions I get asked a lot is ‘what has digital technology done for you in the design world?’ “My answer is, ‘I can sleep longer, and I don’t have to haul as much gear around!”

When it comes to the digital conversation for West, as he just mentioned, digital frees up time. “I feel like there’s more time to do the work that we need to do because our technology is so much faster now, we can actually really devote some serious time to working on what we’re working on. I still remember the days at ATL when I needed to make a background traffic bed for a show by making a loop on reel-to-reel tape and running it through microphone stands in my studio. And the 30 minutes that you needed for that cue; it took you 30 minutes to do it. That’s no longer the case. We’ve gained time that we didn’t have before. In the past, you would get done with tech and take your show reels home and you’d be working until three o’clock in the morning because it was all in real time. It’s not that way anymore. You’ve got additional time to do things now, or to contemplate what the cue is. You have more time for experimentation than you’ve ever had before. I think it is important to use that time to analyze why we are doing something. I think we tend to really want to get it done and not analyze what we’re doing as we’re doing it. We need to ask the question, ‘what is this doing for the play? How is this moving the story forward?’ Being deeply considerate about the dramaturgy of what it is that we’re doing; how the design works within the piece.”

The Half-Life of Marie Curie (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
When it comes to influences and mentors, West quickly cites the German sound designer, Hans Peter Kuhn who used to collaborate with the director Robert Wilson. “Back in the day, I was obsessed with Hans Peter Kuhn, the sound designer who did a lot of Bob Wilson’s stuff back in the early days. SITI did BOBin Berlin at the Hebbel theater; Hans Peter got to see the show, and I got to talk to him. I was basically doing my best to channel a Hans Peter Kuhn-style design for that show. It was one of the things that I was experimenting with—it was a one person show with actor Will Bond speaking the words of Robert Wilson on stage—so there were tons of space to make a really soundscape-driven design.”

West continues to reflect on influences noting that directors have played a big part in his development as a designer. “When I think back on being in the room with great directors over the years, those opportunities have been the things that I think I’ve learned the most from. Being in the room with Anne Bogart; she’s a major influence on how I approach things. I think if you’re participating in the world correctly, every time you work on a project, some of it is going to rub off on you from all directions. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants in some way.”

Find your Voice
“You have to figure out what your voice is as a designer,” says West. “I know they say that about musicians, but I think that you have to do the same thing for design. I remember there was a period of time where I was doing all of these super intricate, gigantic soundscapes and through-score designs and I would walk along the streets in New York and see a marquee for a show and think, ‘wow, there’s only four sound cues in that show. I want to do one of those shows! The joke back early in the day was, I should get paid per cue. Because I think back on some of those early SITI Company pieces. Like yeah, if I had been paid by the cue, wow, what a retirement I might have. I’d be living on those savings during this quarantine!”

The Guthrie Theater’s presentation of SITI Company’s production of The Bacchae (Photo: Dan Norman)

West’s approach of working to truly incorporate his design into the greater whole of a show, not impose it on top of a show makes it harder to pigeon-hole him as a particular style designer. One can’t point to, or rather listen to, an audio clip and say, that’s West’s work. “I think if the sound design is doing its job, I think it’s hard to quantify a cue without the play around it. I feel like if you’re not in the room with the piece, it doesn’t stand up. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s in relief to something else that’s happening; that is what makes both things important. There are shows that I feel maybe were bolder than others, or one’s where the stars magically align. You know that production SITI Company did of Bob, which I mentioned, we actually got to remount it at the Venice Biennale in 2016. And it was profoundly interesting to go back and dig into that design after having been away from it for almost a decade. And when you listen to it, for me, it was like listening to a different designer. You examine the choices that you made because you’re really far away from it. So again, I like to analyze the work; ask why I did certain things and stylistically how I even cued it. I think to myself, ‘I still do some of this sometimes, but I kind of went away from this style.’ And it’s really interesting because I think back on the designs of the 90s when we were really getting a grip on digital technology and samplers and the vast technology that was all of a sudden at our fingertips to really play around with. I think we all got a little crazy with it simply because of all the amazing stuff that we could do. I was constantly fighting that instinct, trying to remind myself that just because I have these tools and I can do anything doesn’t mean everything is going to be valid. But now I go listen to those early designs and think, ‘wow! Boy, this is crazy busy’, but it was also a very specific time stylistically. So, it was just interesting to go back and listen to that show, to look at it as a hopefully more mature designer and think about the choices I would make now at a different time in my career.

West is constantly surprised by his career path. He says that if you ask anybody who knows him that they’ll tell you that he doesn’t know what day it is most of the time. “I weirdly live my life just as present as I want it to be when I’m in rehearsal,” comments West. “I like the moment where you think of something and you throw it out there in rehearsal and it surprises you. It’s one of my favorite feelings in the room of going, ‘okay, here’s a really crazy idea; let’s try this’. And most of the time the big crazy idea is the one that we end up going with. So yeah, I’m surprised a lot. I guess that’s a good thing? It’s either a good thing or a bad thing, but I’m going to live and die by it. It is important, and worth the fight in this world to really listen to things, to really see things, to really be present in the world.”

 

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