Probably the least appreciated aspect of contemporary theatrical production is sound design. A controversy arose a few years ago when the Sound Design category was dropped from the Tony Awards. Apparently, the American Theatre Wing did not consider sound effects important. Fortunately, many people sounded out in protest, and the category was later restored.
The playwright David Mamet is known for his occasionally eccentric views. In one essay, he disparaged sound design as a superficial consideration. He should have known better, for Mamet has written a number of radio plays.
My interest in sound design probably comes from the radio. I’ve also worked as a radio dramatist. Sound effects form one of the three principal ingredients of sound in theatre, film, radio, and television, the other two being dialogue and music.
Unlike film or radio, theatre is an ancient medium. It used sound effects long before electronic or mechanic recording existed. We suspect that when Lear walked the stormy heath, someone backstage was rattling sheets to simulate thunder.
With today’s electronic recording, sound design has come to play an important, albeit often overlooked, part in modern productions of plays and musicals. Sound effects including bird songs, gunshots, and car horns, enhanced the 1998 Broadway production of Ragtime. A few years ago, many rightly irate theatrical folk found it ironic that sound design was being removed as a Tony category right after sound effects had made a significant contribution to the unique excellence of Hamilton.
Sound design makes a good sister to that other relatively new aspect of stage design: lighting. It has been said that to design lighting is to paint with light. Lighting does not merely illuminate the performers and things onstage. It conjures up places minimally depicted by sets. It suggests and creates moods. It is an instrument of the imagination.
With regard to sound design, radio is a medium for the imagination. With sound effects well used, the characters (and listeners) can be on a prairie in the American West, in a courtroom, or on a spaceship bound for a distant galaxy.
The theatre is, like radio, a supreme medium for imagination. On a stage, with living human beings performing, stories can range across the cosmos. Every place can be realized. Vast ranges of time can be presented even within a single play or scene.
Sound effects aid actors and spectators alike in achieving these leaps of imagination. Sound design will play an increasingly important role in the future. It is time for us to stop ignoring it.