Many theatre artists can recall when they “caught the theatre bug.” That moment when you realize how much you love the art form and how comfortably you fit into theatrical spaces. And then the moment that follows it, when you realize you want to create a career path out of it.

Matthew M. Nielson started his theatrical career in a rather serendipitous way. He was working at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., shortly after studying music and theatre at Montgomery College. He built scenery by day and worked on the run crew by night. And then one day, “they plopped me behind the soundboard, and something just clicked,” he says. “It all made sense to me without ever having really done anything with sound before. It was just instinctual, you know?”

Today, Nielson is an award-winning sound designer, composer, and audio producer. He works on stages across the country and abroad, at regional theaters and off-Broadway. He also works in film and television, on web-based projects, and in audio theatre and podcasts. He owns Curious Music Company, a production music company and music library, and he’s a resident artist with Round House.

He chatted with Dramatics to learn more about his career path and the tips he has for Thespians looking to make a career in sound design.

A Music Kid in D.C.

Growing up, Nielson was “a music kid,” as he calls it. His father was in barbershop quartets, and Nielson sang in the choir and chorus for several years. He recalls his first theatrical experience early on, and in some ways, it foreshadowed his career.

“My actual first experience with theatre was in fifth grade where my school did a very shortened version of The Taming of the Shrew,” Nielson says. “We were in D.C., and we got to perform a section of it at a festival at the Folger Theatre. I never realized the significance of that until I actually started working at the Folger Theatre.”

The Folger Theatre at Folger Shakespeare Library is one of several reputable theatres in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding region. Outside of New York City, D.C. is well regarded for its performing arts scene. It’s widely considered a top theatre city in the U.S., and it’s where Nielson developed his skills in sound and audio. After having been “plopped behind the soundboard” for a show at Round House, the direction of his theatrical career came into focus. The production was called Three Days of Rain.

“Honestly, I can’t remember a whole lot about what the show is about. But I just remember the designer picked some very lovely music for it, and the whole second act, it was supposed to be raining outside,” Nielson says, adding that what clicked with him was “just learning good ways to do rain.”

Nielson then became the in-house audio master for Round House and worked at such reputable theaters as Wolf Trap in Virginia and the Public Theater in New York. He eventually broke into sound design — also at Round House — and began working as a freelancer for theaters around the country and abroad, which he continues today.

A Thespian operates the light board during the Garden City (Kan.) High School International Thespian Festival production of Hamlet.

It’s All in the Details

When he’s composing and designing sound for a scene, there’s far more intricate focus than folks may realize. A straightforward scene in which two characters are talking in can be filled with sound even if there’s only dialogue, a realization he learned while composing film.

Typically, Nielson says, while scoring a film scene, a sound designer will strip away the ambient audio, so we only hear the dialogue of the actors speaking as picked up by the microphones. Then, they’ll add back sound effects to create the ambience which gives the scene a more natural feel while elevating the sound of the dialogue. After working in film, Nielson returned to theatre with a newfound approach.

He explains, “I started to miss hearing that ambiance. So I would do just a tiny bit of audio, like traffic outside, and then add room tone inside. Is there A/C? Is there heat? Is the door we hear in the kitchen? Do we hear the fridge? Just tiny, tiny little things like that.”

Nielson has amassed an extensive library of sound effects over the years, organized into a digital database he can readily search and “audition” an effect while working on a project. If he doesn’t have the right audio file, he puts his creativity to work and records his own — and that’s often where the fun comes in.

Nielson recalls a commercial project that he worked on for Delivery.com. The main character in the narrative is frantically knitting a sweater throughout the commercial. Nielson realized he didn’t have the right sound effects to emphasize the sound of the knitting needles, so he purchased three kinds from Amazon — plastic, wooden, and metal — and “auditioned” each of them.

“I would play the commercial in my digital audio workstation where I can watch and record at the same time. So I would have my knitting needles up to the microphone, and watch, trying it with all three kinds of needles,” Nielson explains. 

Years later, Nielson picked up the knitting needles again while working as sound designer on a production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The show, Summerland, was about a spirit photographer in the 19th century who claimed to take photos of the dead. Throughout the story, characters hear tapping sounds from another room (or perhaps another realm), adding to the mystery of whether the photographer could truly capture ghosts on camera.

“I was trying to get just the tapping sound that I was looking for. So I’m at my house, tapping on the coffee table with a glass surface, tapping on the kitchen table, the fridge,” Nielson explains. “I ended up using those knitting needles just to do the click, click, click, click, click, and then I would put all kinds of crazy effects on it so it would sound like these clicks were happening all over the room.”

Female at sound board in a black tank top and black background

3 Tips for a Career in Sound Design

Nielson has forged an award-winning career in sound design and composition that has spanned two decades. Here are his pearls of wisdom for students seeking a place in the sound arena of theatre:

1. “If you want to be a freelance theatre artist, you have to be adaptable.”

Nielson says when the pandemic hit in 2020, he was contracted for eight productions that were all canceled. He quickly had to pivot and utilize the knowledge and experience he gained while working in film and television so he could work on audio and sound design for web-based projects during quarantine.

2. “Really learn what it means to collaborate with your fellow artists. Be open to what’s happening around you and be available to listen and respond creatively.”

Nielson encourages rising theatre artists to take the time and initiative to understand what their collaborators actually do. What does it mean to be a lighting designer, a costume designer, an actor? He says it’s important to understand what each person goes through on stage, off stage, and behind the scenes.

Equally important is not getting caught in creative silos, and collaboration prevents that from happening. “It took a couple of years and some really persistent other designers — who are now some of my favorite collaborators — to make me realize that I had a voice in the room and that other people wanted to hear it and that it could actually be part of shaping the world [on stage],” he says.

3. “Be honest. And this is less about lying to other people as it is being honest to yourself.”

He says this is especially important if you want to be a freelance artist in theatre. He cautions against overbooking yourself and stretching yourself too thin. It’s possible to keep reaching for goals while still understanding your limitations. Lastly, it’s okay to ask for help from friends, colleagues, and theatre companies.

You can learn more about Nielson and his creative work at matthewnielson.com and curiousmusic.com.

Natalie Clare is a regular contributor to Dramatics, a freelance arts and culture reporter in Cincinnati, and an arts and education marketer. She has a handsome husband, an adorable baby boy, a mischievous cat, and far too many plants.

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