Stage Directions — December 2014
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Windy City Sound
Victoria Deiorio

Chicago’s sound designers have an identity as particular as their city’s theatres, and both were forged together

I identify myself as a composer/sound designer. But more specifically, I’m a Chicago composer/sound designer. And as I’m sure that every city has its story of how sound developed in their theatres, starting my career here in the mid ‘90s gave me the unique perspective of the evolution of what I consider the birth of artistic sound design in Chicago.

The Community Itself
Chicago’s theatre community is comprised of diverse artists that produce their work at theatres that vary in size from 50-seat store-front houses to 900 seat proscenium theatres. And while the theatre companies here are unique to each other they all employ the entire community. It’s not rare to find yourself working in a small store-front theatre one week and then on a main stage of a regional house the next. This lends itself to the reasoning that the artistry and inventiveness of creating sonic environments in a 50-seat house will transition with ease to the larger theatres and vice versa.

In Chicago, sound designers have always been invaluable members of the production team. Our Joseph Jefferson Committee, who celebrate excellence in Chicago theatre, gave its first sound design award in 1975 to Phillip Naunton for After the Rain produced by Old Town Players. The next award was given in 1983, and since then has continued yearly for both Equity and Non-Equity theatres. This recognition meant a lot for designers.

Rob Milburn, a large figure in Chicago sound design, remembers, “When I started 30 years ago lots of people in theatre didn’t take sound seriously. Many of our fellow designers didn’t even consider sound a legitimate design discipline. But then along came Bob Falls at Wisdom Bridge, Galati and Maggio, Remains Theatre and Steppenwolf. They all embraced sound, encouraged us to take the work seriously, and to approach sound with the same honesty, intensity and artistry that Chicago actors and directors were famous for.”

Steve Scott, associate artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, says of that time, “I moved to Chicago in 1980, and it was the first time in my career that I worked with sound designers who were truly designers, not just technicians who recorded music and effects. Those designers (especially Michael Schweppe, who was the first resident sound designer at the Goodman, and Rob Neuhaus, his assistant) were as concerned as the other designers with the details of storytelling and with the complete creation of the world of the play.”

The first names I saw repeatedly were Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. These two gentlemen are who many regard as the founding fathers of Chicago sound design and are huge players in the national sound design movement. Also part of this burgeoning of sound design in the ‘80s was Christian Petersen, David Pomato, Larry Hart and Richard Woodbury. I began in the ‘90s along with Lindsay Jones, Andre Pluess with Ben Sussman, Ray Nardelli and Josh Horvath, Joe Cerqua, and a host of others that have come and gone throughout the years.

Cerqua credits Milburn and his leadership for how sound took off: “Rob took me, and later many other young sound designers, under his wing and showed me how to really create my own effects by sampling them, manipulating them, and then using a keyboard to trigger them. His work and his teaching transformed the world of sound design in Chicago.”

Chicago Acting, Chicago Sound
At that time, Chicago theatre ensembles that pushed boundaries were abundant and there were no restrictions to trying anything. Sadly, some of these companies do not exist anymore. However, those that have remained strong since then—Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, Shakespeare Repertory (now Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), and Lookingglass Theatre—are prime examples of watching an ensemble grow from storefront into formidable staples of a community. Sound was tightly integrated into these ensembles’ aesthetics. “You can always pick out a Chicago sound design because it’s very heavily woven into the fabric of the production and everyone on stage responds in a very immediate way to it,” notes Lindsay Jones. “To me, the growth of sound design in Chicago really came out of the already existing respect for the ensemble, and how sound design could be an equal partner in the ensemble.”

The joy of being a composer and sound designer in Chicago during these exciting years came from the ability to bring something to the process that most people found mystifying. And because of this, there was very little censorship of exactly what we could do. Our artistry could be extreme or sublime depending on what was needed. But most of all, as sound designers, we all understood how we were adding to the theatricality of the moment, and how we governed the ride of emotion and pacing of the show. Richard Woodbury describes the features of Chicago style sound design as “a clear focus on collaboration, creative innovation, and design in service to the whole of the production.”

This sounds like any sound designer today, but to give you the context of the parameters of our art, this was the time of reel-to-reel tape in addition to whatever you could find for playback. If cues needed amending, you worked on it overnight before the next day; there was no sleeping during tech. You also had to teach your engineer how to run your show as well. As Ray Nardelli remembers, “I did Lookingglass’s The Great Fire at the old About Face space on Halsted. I think I had so many playback decks, as well as sound on cassette, CD, mini disk, and a sampler to play back hundreds of cues. My board op thought I was nuts. He was right.” It was a crazy job. And we few, who knew that we wanted to do nothing else, embraced it with passion.

Andre Pluess credits The Iphigenia Cycle directed by JoAnne Akalaitis at Court Theatre in 1997 with the reason he became a sound designer. “It changed my life, opened my mind, and made me think about the role sound could play in live theatre in ways I’d never thought about before. I also loved the Defiant Theatre shows. I remember loving how brassy, irreverent, muscular and full throttle those designs were.”

I remember the impact of Lindsay Jones’ sound design for Among The Thugs that began at Next Theatre and then ultimately moved to the Goodman Theatre for an encore run. Jones remarks that, “The sound design for that show was tightly integrated with the choreography as it supported the physical danger all around. It was loud and disorienting. Things would speed up and slow down at will. Sound could isolate, then rapidly switch perspective and then completely overwhelm the audience. The director, Kate Buckley, gave me the freedom I needed to really push the sound design into realms that I had never heard before. Looking back at it now, I think that this design showed that sound could be more than quiet atmosphere or basic effects. It showed that sound was a primary storytelling device and, in many ways, it could communicate energy and mood in a way that no one else really could.”

What made these early shows’ sound designs bold and exciting is hard to define. It could be the sheer fun of creating sound for such extreme and risky productions. It could be that there was no barrier that was defined as too much. It could be that so few people understood what we did, and how we did it, that we were able to be freer with our contribution and thereby experiment more. As Michael Bodeen points out, “Chicago Theatre has a reputation for being bold, honest, no nonsense, emotionally charged and hyperbolically real. And this includes everyone from actors, directors and designers, right down to the theatres themselves. I think we were fortunate to have had the right mix of people working on thrilling plays that were supported by terrific audiences and by a particular champion in the press. It was a wonderful stew of timing.”

Sound Superheroes
Technology advanced quickly during the ‘90s and for a brief few years we sound designers were regarded as super heroes. When we were able to record on our laptop computers, and burn and manipulate our cues in tech, that’s when the earlier foundation of artistry was able to flourish. We amazed our teams with what we could do and it added even more excitement and possibility into the process. We no longer had to stay up late at night working on hundreds of notes for the next day, we could work quickly in tech creating montages of sound right as we needed it. This was a point of liberation.

So how do you convey the passion that came before, the sheer will of putting sound into a show, and the dedication it took when theatre is fleeting? The next generation will never know what it was like to experience shows of that magnitude built without the ease of technology. What will remain however is the artistry that Chicago theatre sound designers created by being dynamic, bold, supportive and diplomatic over-achievers when it comes to our craft.

Victoria “Toy” Deiorio is a Chicago-based composer/ sound designer and Head of Sound Design for The Theatre School at DePaul University. Her work has been heard Off-Broadway, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Steppenwolf Theatre, and many other theatres in and around Chicago, NY and LA. She has been nominated for 11 and has received six Joseph Jefferson Awards.