This week’s Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast features an interview with Nick Keenan (sound designer for Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”) and Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli (sound designers for the Goodman’s “Rock and Roll”).
I haven’t seen Nick’s “Piano Lesson” design (though I intend to) but I thought the design for “Rock and Roll” was pretty fantastic.
The three designers do a great job of taking us through some of the design choices behind their shows, and as Nick says, it’s a good piece of the aesthetics conversation we’ve all been talking about.
And since I’ve been saying that at some point I should join this discussion, I’m going to jump in on some topics they covered..
The mention of “the palette” was cool. I’d like to hear more from them about it. It’s an important facet of the way I tend to work—the musical palette especially. Drawing the palette into sharp focus (or not) gives me a very clear idea of what I’m driving towards. Frequently it’s my “way in” to the show. To wit:
• Boy Gets Girl: A stalker gradually eradicates a young woman’s identity. The palette for this show was two musical pieces, one of which gradually insinuated itself into the other until all traces of the original music were gone.
• re: Alice: this show almost had a non-palette. In Wonderland anything can happen, so the music runs the gamut from orchestral electronica to ambient acoustic guitar to screaming Minor Threat-esque punk rock.
• Macbeth: the director wanted to use Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major (the “Ghost”) but have a hard industrial edge to the music. The main music palette, then, was “Ghost” as it would appear on a Nine Inch Nails album (for lack of hipper shorthand). Every piece was based on some theme or phrase from the Beethoven piece, which tied the show together while (hopefully) not becoming redundant. Limiting the instrumentation to processed piano, low horns and drum machine helped as well. This also gave me an opportunity to find a place to break out of the palette: when the MacDuff family is slaughtered, Macbeth has moved beyond killing politicians and soldiers—men whose lives inherently carry some danger—and now we’re seeing a child butchered onstage. The heavy drums were still there, but a distorted electric guitar and a processed female wail replace the melodic instruments, and Beethoven is nowhere to be found.
The Cinematic Approach
Nick, Josh and Ray make an interesting point about the influence of film on theatrical sound design and how it pushes designers, especially their generation (and I think these guys are 5-10 years younger than me) to produce more lush, full designs. I’m very influenced by cinematic sound as well (being part of the Summer Blockbuster generation myself) and I think for me it goes in phases. I remember doing very immersive sound designs where I wanted every location to have its own signature, its own background sound, and I’d create ambient beds that would run under entire scenes. I’d do that for a few shows and then back off of it and go completely in the other direction, aiming for a more stark approach. Part of that (of course) had to do with the shows and directors I worked with. But I also know that I go through phases of wanting to try different approaches, and recently that’s involved how lush or spare I get with designs.