SOUND DESIGNER Palmer Hefferan has noticed that, when watching a theatrical production, people have a hard time understanding things they don’t see. As opposed to visual design fields such as sets, costumes, or lights, she said, “They often don’t realize that there was a whole creative process and a person behind what they’re hearing.” For Hefferan, sound can feel “like the underdog of the design world — which is exciting. It allows you to invent things and explore and make history.”

Hefferan made history in 2018 when she joined Broadway’s first all-female design team in The Lifespan of a Fact. In doing so, she also joined a historically small group of women designing sound on the Great White Way. Among other Broadway pioneers are veteran designer Joanna Lynne Staub and Jessica Paz, the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical for 2019’s Hadestown.

Staub points out that “women have been front-of-house audio engineers and mixers on Broadway for more than 30 years. Cyndi Hawkins, Beth Berkeley, Carin Ford, Karen Zabinski, Valerie Spradling, and Eileen MacDonald were the women a generation older than me who, when I first came to New York, were mixing Broadway shows. When I transitioned from engineer to designer, they said, ‘Go for it.’”

Dramatics reached out to Hefferan, Paz, and Staub, as well as three women thriving in sound design off-Broadway and in regional theatre: Victoria Deiorio, Beth Lake, and Jane Shaw. They acknowledge that sound design can be difficult to talk about, as it’s not easy to capture in words and images. As designers, their only viewable product is the cue sheet, which Deiorio describes as an exercise in “spatial dynamics …  a kind of graph.”

As we focus on the women behind theatrical sound, we’ll rely on their words to graph the dynamics of this evolving field.

How do women advocate for sound design?

Joanna Lynne Staub

Joanna Lynne Staub. Photo by Reed Hummel.

Until recently, sound design has been a siloed and often-overlooked field. In June 2014, the Tony Awards Administration Committee announced it would eliminate awards for sound design, prompting national coverage in The New York Times, an online petition garnering more than 30,000 signatures, and the coming together of sound designers across the country to advocate for the field.

“We were all isolated from each other. On the regional level, you had a mentor or two. But other than that, it felt very proprietary, and everybody kind of kept information to themselves,” said Deiorio, a Chicago sound designer and composer who developed and now heads the sound design department at DePaul University. “When this happened, it hit everybody universally. My students asked, ‘What’s the point of doing this if we’re not valued as a collaborator on the team? How can we educate people; what kind of outreach do we need?’”

Deiorio and other sound designers arranged town hall meetings — in Chicago, on both U.S. coasts, and online. “Everybody said we needed an organization to create a network.”

Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association was incorporated in 2015 and began holding annual meetings in 2016 to educate, advocate, and set industry standards for the next generation of sound designers. The Tony Awards for sound design were reinstated for the 2017-18 season, and the TSDCA continues to grow. In 2019, Deiorio, a founding member, stepped down as co-chair, handing stewardship of the organization to Paz and Lindsay Jones.

“Although when this group first came together it was in reaction to the Tonys being taken away, I think immediately it was like: ‘How cool is it that we’re all sitting together in this room?’” said Shaw, a Drama Desk Award-winning sound designer who works closely with New York’s Mint Theater Company.

Staub reflects that this organization “created out of frustration” has become a source of mentorship and networking for women in the field, especially younger designers. “It’s a place where a lot of the female sound designers from all over the country can talk together as a group.”

TSDCA nurtures ongoing dialogue, collaboration, and mutual support surrounding industry issues, including union negotiations and defining the duties, expectations, and compensation for an associate designer, both on and off-Broadway. Additionally, Paz said, the group serves to connect “students who are graduating sound design programs with people currently working in the field.”

Victoria Deiorio. Photo by Jenn Udoni.

What is sound design?

Deiorio described sound design as either prescriptive or creative, depending on the director. “You’re either told what to do — ‘I want this kind of music, this exact piece of music, I want this here’ — or you’re allowed to do it on your own. It depends on who wants to drive the sound journey.”

As something “hitting the audience on an emotional level,” Deiorio said that “sound is very directorially influenced.” When she recruits student assistants at DePaul, she seeks storytellers who appreciate the emotional impact of audio. “If [students] have done anything in sound that’s affected an audience and realized they did that, that’s a big part of what I look for. I can teach the [technical] skills.”

Lake works closely with directors to effect transitions and mood through “soundscapes and tonal shifts, finding music that fits a piece, editing it and mashing it up with other things, and manipulating it to fit exactly what we need it to be.”

Like all theatrical designers, Lake and her colleagues need to understand both the director’s overall creative vision and the minute details of each scene. “My usual process with a director is to talk about the world of the play and how it needs to function, and then the mechanics of quick changes or a scenic shift,” she said.

Next, she collects a sampling of melodies, sounds, and tones to piece together. “I call it ‘swatching,’ like how a costume designer gathers bits and pieces of material. Do they fit together, have the right feel, the right look, the right texture? I worked in a fabric shop in high school, and that opened my eyes to the breadth of fabrics you can interact with. Is it cotton based; is it a poly-cotton blend? This relates to music in the same way. Are they string instruments, woodwind or electronic instruments, or all-natural sound effects?”

Beyond their theatrical craft, Shaw added, designers often dabble in other sound-related fields, thanks to the versatility of their skill set. “I see sound designers around me wearing many hats: education, sound studio, scoring things for short films or videos, or writing jingles. It lets them work in different ways with music, collaborators, and sound, so they can come back to theatre with new tools.”

Beth Lake. Photo by Samantha Fairfield.

Where should the sound design journey begin?

Staub studied music in college, where she discovered audio engineering. In a gap year between undergrad and grad school, she worked at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She went on to earn an MFA in technical theatre and sound design at the University of Illinois, where she loved the variety of her work. “On Friday we would do a symphony, on Saturday we’d do an opera, and on Sunday I would be mixing a rock ’n’ roll show.”

Like Staub, the other five women interviewed for this story discovered sound design in college, or even later. For example, Lake, who had no musical training as a child, decided to study lighting design at the University of Northern Colorado. “There’s no graduate program for theatre and design, so the undergrad students do everything,” she said. After noticing the surfeit of lighting students, she pursued stage management, then became interested in sound design — by far the least populated discipline, with only two other students. “It was a very independent shop; we were kind of like the Wild West, doing whatever we wanted, because the three of us were the only kids who wanted to do sound.”

Though a leading Chicago sound designer with 25 years of experience, Deiorio started as a dancer, studied musical theatre and acting, spent time directing, and joined a rock band before getting into the field. At some point, after thinking she’d quit theatre altogether, “I got dragged back because I wrote music, and someone wanted music for a show, and my name got handed around Chicago.”

As head of a university sound design program, Deiorio believes that while college isn’t necessary for a career in sound design, it serves a valuable purpose. “College is a place where you can fail with a net. You don’t burn bridges when you fail. You’re taught how to do something in an effective way, and you’re allowed to learn and experiment without consequences.”

Like Deiorio, Shaw found design through chance opportunities and on-the-job learning. After playing in the orchestra for her school theatre department, she majored in biochemistry at Harvard, where she took a part-time job running sound on a show. Though she claims the gig mainly consisted of hitting “play” on a cassette player, she enjoyed commanding a production’s soundscape. After that, Shaw studied sound design at Yale School of Drama. For her, studying the discipline in a formal way “makes you more efficient and more professional, and it actually can break open different creative avenues.”

Hefferan was a musical child who found her path by chance. When she didn’t get her high school elective of choice (ceramics), Hefferan was instead assigned to film and television and became interested in broadcasting. She attended the Savannah College of Art and Design where, during her freshman year, a professor noted her aptitude for sound design and invited her to a master’s level course. This prompted Hefferan to declare the school’s new sound design major. She later earned an MFA at Yale — but not before gaining practical experience.

One of Hefferan’s first gigs after undergrad was as board operator at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, executing existing designs. “In the interview, I was honest. I said, ‘I’ve never done theatrical sound before, but I have a degree in sound design, and I’ve used mixing consoles.” Hefferan credits both luck and the breadth of her technical theatre skills. “You have to do the engineering thing, [but also] you’ve got to do load-in crews and heavy lifting and mixing in order to move up in your career.”

Paz describes herself as self-taught. She recalls observing problems as a stage manager at a small Long Island theatre. “I asked a friend how to fix [a sound issue], and he told me how to do a sound check and how to equalize a channel,” she said. “I sound checked the next day, and we finally had a show that had no feedback. That was my first experience. Then I started mixing the show and worked at another theatre, pitching myself to an artistic director to sound design a show. I said, ‘Give me three days of tech and if you’re not happy with what I do, you can replace me.’ He didn’t replace me.”

Hefferan at the sound booth of Today Is My Birthday at New York's Page 73. Photo by Stephen M. Cyr.

Jane Shaw. Photo by Maria Baranova.

What is it like for women in sound?

Staub moved to New York at 25 and worked several off-Broadway shows before serving as assistant head of audio for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark. Since then, she’s worked on Broadway for nearly two decades as an associate, mixing sound designed by male colleagues. “It is a hugely male dominated field, and it’s only just now starting to break down.”

Staub admits it can be disheartening to serve as a proxy representing other designers for years on end — “to realize how much work I was putting into shows that had other people’s names on them.”

Staub’s early Broadway work involved logistics more than design, albeit sometimes with an international flavor. “I became the go-to girl for non-New York City designers. When shows were being transferred from London or Chicago, I was the girl the general managers would hire to assist these designers in translating their work to Broadway.” She consulted about “unions, shop bids, the layout of the shows, the way the load-ins happen, the hierarchies of the show.” She labeled this role a “hand holder” — ensuring a designer’s work was executed in New York fashion.

Her first Broadway associate gig was for August: Osage County in 2007. Since then, she’s been steadily employed, sometimes associate designing up to three Broadway shows a season. For her, what makes the difference is having a voice in a show’s creative development. This occurs when both lead designer and director encourage feedback and acknowledge their team’s contributions. Staub notes, for example, Ian Dickinson, a British sound designer she assisted for both The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the 2018 revival of Angels in America.

“I don’t feel like I’m taken for granted,” Staub said of Dickinson. “He’ll give me the sound design on paper, and I make it happen in New York, but he still shows up.” She added that Broadway directors such as Marianne Elliott and Anna D. Shapiro also make the effort to include not just designers but also “associates and everybody.” With these directors, Staub said, “by the end, 20 of us sitting in a circle had solved the problem, and everyone felt listened to.”

Paz had similar reviews for Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin. “We would just riff off each other. Chavkin is so open to hearing everyone’s thoughts. I remember being in Canada, and we’d all go out to the bar after to have a creative meeting, and everyone who worked on the show would be there: the automation engineer, the designers, sometimes actors. We would all sit around and talk about the show. To really invite everyone to the table, you make a better show.”

Paz, for whom Hadestown also marked her Broadway debut as lead designer, credits Staub with helping pave the way for women. “Joanna has had a very long career as an associate on Broadway. I’m only the second woman to be nominated for a sound design Tony [the first being Cricket S. Myers for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in 2011]. There are so few of us.” Indeed, before Hefferan and Paz joined the mix in 2018, Broadway had hired just five female lead sound designers — ever.

Paz’s Hadestown gig developed through a long-term collaborative relationship with established sound designer Nevin Steinberg, the co-designer of the show. Hadestown had several stops before Broadway, including a production in Canada, where Paz was well received by the team as an associate. When the show moved to London, producers promoted Paz to co-designer. She notes that establishing a creative rapport makes co-designing much smoother. “He’ll have his notes, and I’ll have my notes. We don’t step on each other,” said Paz. “We were very mindful of being respectful of each other and of making sure that we were at all times collaborating and neither of us was telling the other what it had to be.”

HOW CAN EARLY-CAREER DESIGNERS MAKE THE MOST OF ASSOCIATE ROLES?

Palmer Hefferan. Photo by Tess Mayer.

For her part, Lake enjoys working as an associate. She thrives as the person who understands the artistic choices and figures out how to implement them — and how to fix things when they stray from the creative vision.

“The designer says, ‘I need the bare-bones structure of this many microphones and this many speakers in order to create this aural image,’” Lake explained. “Then it’s up to the associate to figure out the physical nuts and bolts of it and the software programming, and to make sure all the parts talk to each other.”

Lake’s background as a stage manager trained her both to troubleshoot production issues and to stay calm, composed, and communicative. On one show, Lake said the crew referred to her as “Switzerland” due to her ability to mediate competing interests in a neutral way.

“The composition team had one set of needs, the production team had another set of needs, and the design team had another set of needs. I became the central hub, the one who communicated with stage management, production, and design.”

Lake often finds herself functioning as a “conduit of communication,” which she admits is not the primary job of an associate sound designer. Her holistic approach helps her integrate interpersonal aspects of stage management into her design role.

“I really enjoy being in the room and seeing the artistic discussions and understanding how they affect the technical elements,” Lake said. “I think of myself as a theatre person who does sound, rather than a sound person who does theatre. Much of my training was dramaturgical and design generally, rather than sound. As an associate, I get to see how those things come together and how they all influence each other.” The focus for lead designers, she said, is “‘How can I fit into the world?’ It’s harder to step back.”

To assist early-career members of TSDCA, Lake is drafting what she calls the “Off-Broadway Handbook,” in which she aims to cover “all the things you need to do as [an off-Broadway] associate sound designer to make a functioning show. A large part of that is being able to clearly state your intentions on paper.” That’s one thing Lake learned by doing. “Nobody said, ‘This is a list of all of the paperwork you need to come up with and all of the things you need to think about.’”

Jessica Paz. Photo by Anne Lowrie.

What’s the future of women in sound design?

Paz admits her rapid rise to Tony-winning lead design is rare, especially as a woman. “I think the big problem is not that there aren’t enough qualified women. The problem is that women aren’t being given the opportunity. It’s the problem of general managers and producers going to the same designers they’ve always gone to before, as opposed to looking for new talent and giving opportunities to new people.”

That said, she sees hopeful signs for young designers, especially those who identify as women. “People are very aware that it’s necessary for them to change. The only way for an art form to stay relevant is when it is designed and created by the next generation. If the art form is only being created by the older generation of people, it just stagnates.”

When Lake came to New York less than 10 years ago, she was generally one of two women on the entire technical crew, if not the only one. “The spectrum is shifting, but it’s still largely a boy’s club. You still go to see shows or get on a crew, and it’s all men in the room, with only five or six women.” But, like Paz, Lake acknowledged that, when it comes to both sound design and technical theatre in general, “a lot of the newer, younger, more hip organizations are recognizing that we need to be telling women’s stories, and we need women to do it.”

In the end, it’s not about prizes, coalitions, or titles. As Deiorio pointed out, “Sound is basically vibrations. The delivery of that vibration to an audience is our job: how vibration affects a human being emotionally, physically, physiologically, psychologically.”

With resources like TSDCA, increasing numbers of educational opportunities, and supportive mentors, Deiorio actively encourages young women to consider sound design. Where a person ends up professionally, she mused, largely “depends on your love of the vibration in the world and how you want to use that.”

Portions of this article were written by Anita Martin.

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