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Arts & Culture

The Case of Disappearing Tony Awards: Syr Theater Group Tries to Save Sound Design Award

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John Underwood
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  The United States Institute for Theatre Technology, headquartered in Syracuse, is a leading figure in a backstage effort to bring back the Tony Awards for Sound Design in a Play and Musical. The awards were dropped by the Tony Awards committee this year, for reasons the group hasn’t publicly made clear.

David Grindle is the executive director of the USITT, a group representing the people who work in theater design and technology. He acknowledges that sound design has something of an identity problem – it isn’t usually what an audience raves about after a show, because most people don’t really know what it is. But Grindle says the sound design could be responsible for eliciting whatever feelings a show brings out in the audience.

“Many people think it’s the car horns and the telephones ringing, and that’s what it was at one point,” Grindle says. “But now it’s a much greater art form that even can drive the psychology of the audience and the actor in what you’re seeing.”

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Credit United States Institute for Theatre Technology
David Grindle is Executive Director of United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

  Grindle says many people from the theater community are currently fighting to bring the sound design Tony Awards back, because of the subtle but important role sound design plays in the telling of a Broadway show.

"If the wind is coming towards the stage, the sound design can not only create the sound of the wind, but manipulate it through the theater speakers so that it starts in the back of the theater and rushes past you,” says Grindle. “You even get the Doppler Effect of it rushing past you.”

Rick Thomas is a visual and performing arts professor at Purdue, who has been creating theater sound design since the 1970s. He argues that the entertainment experience loses an enormous amount of impact without strong sound design.

”When you go to the movies, you very rarely are aware of what the sound is doing to you, but turn the sound off for a few minutes,” Thomas says. “You can leave the dialogue there, but turn the sound off for a few minutes, and it will almost totally lose its emotional impact altogether. That’s what we do.”

Thomas says sound design is much more than just choosing sound effects – it’s manipulating those sounds along with the play or musical, in order to manipulate the audience.

”People go to the theater and people go to the movies to get their emotions exercised, we’ve known this forever and that’s one of the things we do really, really well.”

Thomas gives the example of how he might apply sound design concepts to the Edgar Allan Poe story The Masque of the Red Death.

To begin with, he says, “we pretty much know at the very beginning that it’s not going to turn out well. And we want to set up this portending, ominous sort of feeling to get people into the mood. That juicy horror-story sort of mood, where you can’t wait for something to happen, and then when it happens you just wonder why you went to the theater in the first place.”

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Listen to hear how Thomas turns a simple clock into an emotion-manipulating dramatic element of a score

Leon Rothenberg won a Tony Award in 2013 for Best Sound Design of a Play. Rothenberg says sound design doesn’t really follow one set of principles – it has to adapt to the nature of the show.

”If you imagine taking the sound design of the production of South Pacific that was in New York a few years ago, which was very natural and transparent, and you take the choices that were made in that sound design, and trade places with the choices that were made with, say, Motown, it wouldn’t make much sense.”

Rothenberg says there is nothing like winning a Tony award. He’s afraid that losing the chance to win one in sound design could turn young theater professionals away from a career in sound design.

Broadway designers recently presented the Tony Awards committee with a petition containing more than 30-thousand signatures, asking them to bring back the Tony Awards for theater sound design. The committee said it will review the decision, though it said the categories will not be reinstated in time for this season’s awards ceremony.

David Grindle of the U-S Institute of Theatre Technology is encouraged by the collaborative effort he sees within the theater community to reinstate the Tonys for sound design, noting it’s a great example of what real theater is all about.

”The entire industry coalescing and coming together to support one another and say “it takes all of us to create what you see,” that’s exciting to me, because for the majority of us, it’s that collaborative effort of the entire show together, that makes all the difference,” Grindle says. ”That’s why we got into this in the first place.”

Grindle says the Broadway experience would be a very different one without the contributions of sound designers.

”I would wager,” Grindle speculated, “that if we turned the sound designs off on Broadway for a week, [the Tony Awards committee] would know the impact these designers have, because our patrons would not be very happy.”