Designers Are Artists, Too: The Necessity of Supporting Tech in Educational Settings

  • Abby Lass

My first experience with sound design essentially happened by accident. During the spring of my freshman year of college, my roommate was stage managing a production of three student-written one-act plays. Days before the show went into tech, their plans for sound design fell through, and she asked if I could step in.

I said yes without having any real knowledge of what a sound designer’s process was supposed to look like. I read through the script, marking any mentions of practical sounds and jotting down a few questions I would bring to the directors later. Because of the time crunch, my design ended up being extremely utilitarian: phones rang when they needed too, transitional music was vaguely related to the plays by style or subject matter, and a shootout soundscape was pieced together out of different sound effects downloaded off of Youtube. The process was so rushed; I didn’t even have time to learn how to use QLab-- the industry standard program for sound and projection design-- and instead sent my roommate an Itunes playlist featuring tracks renamed with different cue numbers. I was proud that I’d been able to pull everything together so quickly, but the product wasn’t exactly what I would have called art.

My second experience with sound design could not have been more different: over the course of an eight-week process, I had weekly design meetings with the rest of the design team in addition to one-on-ones with the show’s director. We were encouraged to spend the weeks stopping by rehearsals whenever possible and exploring our mediums, looking into sounds and visuals that evoked the formal qualities of the play but likely wouldn’t end up in our final design. At first, this felt a bit like overkill-- I’d just sound designed a show in under a week, why was I wasting time listening to bizarre audio clips I knew weren’t going to be used?

Before long, though, I began to understand: this is the artistry of being a designer. While actors spend hours playing energy games and exploring different physicalities and vocal patterns to bring their characters to life, designers research aesthetic movements and go on a string of crazy internet searches late into the night, trying to find or create an effect that evokes their desired reaction. I gained a new appreciation for design as an equally integral-- and equally grueling-- part of theater. Just like a strong performance by an actor, strong design has the power to move audiences and make them think.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson people often seem to forget.

Since that eight-week process-- which, I should note, yielded a product that I considered deeply evocative and well-suited to the show-- I had a slew of other disappointing technical experiences. I continued to work as a sound designer, in addition to picking up credits as a dramaturg and intimacy coordinator. At best, my position felt somewhat auxiliary-- I was kept in the loop about practical matters but was generally expected to simply execute whatever the script or director dictated. Even when I was given some creative liberty, I often didn’t feel like I had a deep enough understanding of the production to confidently make additions. At worst, I felt like a disposable laborer, showing up days before tech with a design I wasn’t proud of and which no one seemed particularly interested in or even aware of. Q2Qs felt like a courtesy, and I typically found myself too overwhelmed to attempt anything creative or argue when a director asked for something that felt off. Very rarely did I feel like an artist, and more than once did I regret having my name on the work I had produced.

In many theater programs, design is considered a luxury. Either due to budget constraints or simply a lack of interest and energy, many educational and community theater settings keep things simple out of necessity. There is absolutely something to be said for sleek, clean designs, but I worry that this mentally of seeing technical elements as an indulgence creates a misunderstanding of what design has the capacity to be, and hinders the enthusiasm of students who might be interested in pursuing it.

First and foremost, we need to get our heads around the idea that impactful design elements do not need to be expensive or laborious. Creativity often flourishes under constraints-- you’d be amazed what some college students are able to create with the trash their cast accumulates over the course of a month. Educators looking to support student designers should, from the beginning of the rehearsal process, encourage them to analyze the script and the actors’ performances and to talk with the director about the type of world they are all trying to create together. The ideas expressed in Eleanor Fuchs’ “Visit to a Small Planet” are an excellent starting point. Make sure your designers feel welcome and wanted in the rehearsal room, and encourage them to keep up a dialogue not only with each other but with the director, managers, and actors. Guide your designers towards the essence of the play, and help them find creative ways to evoke it, thereby strengthening your production without breaking your program’s budget. Strong lighting choices-- even if it’s just a ghost light-- and effective uses of color and levels can go a long way towards creating memorable stage pictures and meaningful story progression.

On that note, it is essential that you give your designers the time and space necessary to explore these ideas. When actors have a week to put up a show, we have a very different set of expectations for the production than when they’ve been given six months to rehearse. Design should be no different-- if you don’t give people adequate time to explore the material, you can’t expect it to get much farther than what’s on the page.

Pushing students and peers into design positions without adequate time, support, and communication is not only unproductive for your final product but also disrespectful to these individuals as artists. What’s more, these rush jobs are often stressful, unpleasant, and lose sight of the art involved in true design work. If your program is struggling to maintain an adequate number of designers-- and most programs are-- you won’t be doing anyone any good if you’re putting students into situations they’re unlikely to enjoy or want to repeat. You wouldn’t wait to cast a role until the week before tech if you want that actor to give a strong performance, so you shouldn’t think about tech any differently. Get your students involved early in the process, and you’ll be amazed what they’ll be able to come up with.

Additionally, be sure to set expectations clearly from the beginning. In many smaller programs, the line between designer and technician often gets blurred, and designers-- particularly lights and sound-- often end up doing a lot more mechanical work than they may have expected. Make sure your designers know what they are signing up for, and support them as much as possible throughout the process. It may also be worth discussing with them how different programs might have a different division of labor, so they don’t get a warped sense of what a job entails and then stop designing because they’re no longer interested in what they think the position requires.

One more thing I want to be clear about: the prompt emailing of daily rehearsal reports to your full design and production crew should be mandatory in every theatrical situation. No excuses.

Returning to the subject of buoying your design pool, don’t be afraid to encourage your students to explore design avenues they wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Even if they continue to primarily see themselves as actors, the experience will give them a more holistic understanding of how the different elements of theater impact their performance. Ever since I costume designed a series of 10-minute plays my sophomore year of high school, my appreciation for my costumes in every role I play has been fundamentally heightened. What’s more, having actors participate in the technical side of theater-- even if it’s just helping to paint sets, hang lights, and restock costumes-- can lead to a greater sense of respect for what designers and technicians do every day.

Not all great theater makes extensive use of technical elements, but that’s not an excuse for your program not to use whatever lights, sets, sound, costumes, and props you have access to in order to create a meaningful production. Take the time to invest in your designers, encourage them throughout the process, and support them the same way you would actors or directors. Push for creative solutions and empower students’ creativity even when your budget is constrained. Your program, and your students will be better for it.