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Invisible

06.12.14 | Comment?


CATEGORIES advocacy, broadway, designers, rabble rousing, sound design

It’s been said that good design is 99% invisible. Heck, that’s the title of one of the best public radio shows/podcasts out there, if you’re curious. But just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Yesterday, the Tony Awards announced that they were going to drop the sound design awards from next year’s ceremony. Not just airing them or mentioning them–that boat sailed a while ago–but dropping the awards entirely. You can read more from Patrick Healy in the New York Times and reaction from designers Victoria (toy) Deiorio at HowlRound and Megan Reilly at her blog.

You can also sign a petition started by sound designer John Gromada, a prior nominee who was instrumental in getting sound design recognized by the Tony Awards in the first place. (Full disclosure: I’m signature #10,732 there.)

Instead of writing thousands of words, I’d rather demonstrate. What would happen if we took sound design away from the Tony Awards? I think it would go something like this…

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Oh, and if it’s automatically muted, click for volume. You’ll notice a difference there, too.

I’ve always been a playwright first, sound designer second, but as I work in podcasting and radio drama, I’m finding the sound design more important than ever. This carries over to theatre in the real world. The more abstract your visual design, the more important your aural design is in terms of creating those imaginary worlds. And there are things you don’t notice until they’re missing. For a good example of that, check out another of my favorite podcast series, the Memory Palace by Nate DiMeo, about the time when Niagara stopped falling.

I understand. Sometimes, it’s hard to notice individual elements like sound or lighting compared to sets & costumes, writing & acting. Maybe peers could vote on specialized elements–it seems to work for the other major entertainment awards.

And sure, I’ve seen a lot of “who cares about the Tonys?” comments. “It’s not the best of theatre, it’s the best of a six-block radius of a single city.” Or “it’s just a regional awards show that happens to be on tv.” Which is fine. You don’t want to watch, don’t. You want to ignore them? Go right ahead.

But here’s why I watch–why I’ve always watched–and why it’s worth thinking about. Neil Patrick Harris nailed it in last year’s opening number. For the kid out in the middle of nowhere, for the kid who didn’t know there was more to theatre than getting onstage in front of a crowd and memorizing words and maybe songs, for the kid who just wanted to make some magic happen and didn’t know how, this was a taste of that. Who are those people, why are they on stage? Oh, they wrote this play, this musical, they made the actors look like that, they lit the stage, they made the sounds that transported everyone from a room in Manhattan to the South Pacific or La Grande Jatte. How did they do that? Is that something I could do? Yes it is, kid.

By shunting the design awards off to commercial breaks or pre-show ceremonies–even the best score of a musical and the In Memoriam tribute–or dropping these awards all together, the Tonys are making good design invisible for all the wrong reasons.

Since I took some liberties with the original audio, here’s the 2013 opening number in its entirety. It makes me smile and laugh and choke up at the end every damned time. Yeah, I was that kid, too.

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UPDATE 16 June 2014

If you want to take more action on social media to help, visit the Reinstate the Tony Sound Design group page on Facebook, and tweet and post using the hashtag #TonyCanYouHearMe.

One thing to remember: using any of the #TonyAwards or #Tonys hashtags or tweeting at @TheTonyAwards account is unlikely to get much attention. Hashtags tied to awards events are often ignored in the days after the event, and accounts pinned to events are often outsourced to marketing firms. The accounts you want to reach are the official American Theatre Wing account and the Broadway League account–fill their timelines with the #tonycanyouhearme tag. That would be @TheWing and @TheBwayLeague.

Also, here’s a great post from our friend Chris Ashworth at Figure 53. You might know him as the designer of the QLab software that’s become an industry standard in sound. And here’s a letter from David Grindle, the executive director of USITT, to the American Theatre Wing, decrying the decision to drop the sound design categories.

Finally, a little digging around online turned up a great quote from the New York Times in 2008 when the sound design awards were initiated:

Howard Sherman, executive director of the Theater Wing, said sound design had been under consideration as a category since he was hired five seasons ago.

“We want to reflect an evolution of the understanding of the sound designer’s role, both among artists and in the community at large,” Mr. Sherman said. “This is not an award for placing a microphone somewhere. It’s about the creation of an aural environment that impacts our relationship to a production, just like any other design.”

Now, get out there and sound off.

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David J. Loehr

David J. Loehr

Writer / Producer, The Incomparable Radio Theater :: Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana :: Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt :: Panelist, The Incomparable podcast :: Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.
David J. Loehr

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