Sound Designers Sound Off
American Theatre's sound design roundtable goes live

Monday, November 5, 2001 | 7:00pm EST
David C. Budries has designed sound for Hartford Stage Company, Yale Repertory Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, Center Stage and Dallas Theater Center, among others.  He is involved with regional, Off-Broadway and Broadway productions and chairs the Theatrical Sound Design Program at the Yale School of Drama.

Janet Kalas has designed sound for the Drama Dept., Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater, American Place Theatre, Second Stage Theatre, The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club and Hartford Stage Company, among others.

Moderator: Welcome to TCG Live. We're chatting today with sound designers David Budries and Janet Kalas about their lives and work in sound design, and Martin Desjardin will join as soon as he can.

David Budries: Hello to all! Welcome to the chat. I'd be happy to answer any questions.

Moderator: David and Janet, I want to start with a question several people have asked. How did you find your way to sound design?

David Budries: My entry was through a love for music and technology. I found theatre to be a place where I could use music, sound and technology to create art in a way I had never dreamed possible. Exploring the entire world of sound as a musical element has opened my ears to an extraordinary range of expression. Early on, I recorded myself doing little radio shows where all the sound was created by my hands and mouth. I found that with technology, I could manipulate those sounds and create even more interesting textures and events. With the current tools, your imagination is your only limitation in creating interesting soundscapes.

Janet Kalas: I started doing hands on work in the performing arts at the Denver Center. I have no formal education, but I have done a lot of experimentation.

Judy: Could you talk about the differences and similarities between a sound designer and a composer?

David Budries: Sound designers compose using traditional and non-traditional instrumentation. We also have to work in real-time with actors, this means that we have to work fluidly in time, constantly adjusting our content and intent. As sound designers we can harness an imaginative world of sound using sounds that we find or create. As a traditional composer, we're not limited to the use of traditional musical instruments, but we tend to stay more in that realm. As a sound designer, I work to find meaning in every day sounds and formulate music using that vocabulary. For example, I could make a piece based on the various squeaks of a bad chair. I have turned cork squeaks into a flying bat attack. I have made musical instruments out of dumpsters and oil cans. I have also combined these sounds with traditional instruments to create other interesting effects.

Sten: Do either of you find yourself in competition with a separate composer on a show?  Or is there usually room for both sensitivities?

Janet Kalas: No, it has to be collaboration. It just has to be.  I actually appreciate having another person working with me and listening with me.

David Budries: I feel that I don't need or want to compete with traditional composers. In fact, Mel Marvin and other composers have greatly influenced my approach to designing sound for theatre. I look forward to collaborations with traditional composers where I can expand their sense of musical space. What I mean is, composers sometimes look at their work in two dimensions. I feel that I can expand that for them in a theatrical setting, taking advantage of the large, three dimensional space of the theatre. In theatre, we can get sounds coming from above, below, north, east west and south, sometimes simultaneously. 

Melissa: Janet, I’d like to ask the obvious question.  You seem to be one of very few women in the sound design field.  Do you see the composition of the field changing?

Janet Kalas: In terms of composition in the field, I do, yes.  I've worked with two women recently, one of whom is a sound designer in New York, and the other an aspiring sound designer.  Prior to this year, I really hadn't had much dialogue with any other women in terms of sound design.

David Budries: I am hopeful that this is changing as we speak. I think it is extremely important to encourage women to enter this field. We need the balance.  I have seen more female applicants to the Yale School of Drama in the past few years than I did 10 years ago.

Janet Kalas: When people participate in the academic environment it is a definite signal of change.

Ucla4325: Are there particular playwrights whose work you’ve done or would like to do that seem to cater to sound designers?

Janet Kalas: Definitely yes, but not necessarily because of sound design. Playwrights have grown up with television and different forms of media. So naturally they write sound into their scripts.

David Budries: Film and television has made an immense impact on writing plays.  Our collective ear has changed. We expect a more intimate approach to the content and delivery of sound in all media.

Ucla4325: In production meetings do you find that directors tend to elicit ideas about sound from you or are you the catalyst for what becomes the soundscape of the play?

Janet Kalas: I think the whole dialogue has changed between the sound designer, the director and the playwright. It's easier to communicate with directors about sound than it used to be. Directors expect more from sound and are better able to communicate what they need. There's a dialogue now.

Judy: Do you find playwrights are specifying more sound cues in their scripts as sound designers gain recognition in the field?

David Budries: Some of the playwright’s interest in sound is constructive. Sometimes it becomes a band-aid for problems in the script.

Janet Kalas: True! You can see it coming sometimes.

David Budries: I appreciate it when a playwright is sensitive to the subtle use of sound. But it's also fun to make a lot of noise when necessary.

Ucla4325: Do you think incidental music in a play becomes in effect a soundtrack?  And do you think this blurs the line between theatre and other media?

David Budries: Incidental music as an underscore can be very effective in all media. In theatre you have to be very careful of how and when to use it.

Janet Kalas: I agree. The term "soundtrack" implies something that plays underneath the action all the time.  You just can't do that with live theatre because every performance is different. That's the beauty of it.  But, for me the bottom line is you can't control all the elements of theatre like you can in film. That's why you have to be careful with underscoring.

Martin Desjardin: Good evening, everyone...Sorry to be running behind. I had to unexpectedly update my browser.

David Budries: There must be a balance between the power of the text (as an aural element) and the use of sound. I'm never comfortable with too much sound in a production. I sometimes get weary from listening to it.

Melissa: What do you think about the amplification of actors in musicals (and even plays) these days?  I find it annoying to see the little microphone sticking out of people’s hair, and to hear sound that is so artificial it might as well have been recorded.  Is that just bad sound design?

Janet Kalas: It becomes a distraction. I find that, for instance, in Baltimore the performance space is no longer traditional. It's no longer a proscenium exclusively. You have to consider the audience member who's sitting directly next to the brass section and the audience member who's sitting downstage of the thrust in the balcony. Both need to hear the same thing. It's a real challenge. I hate seeing the microphones too! But frankly, they're a useful tool in a live mix.

David Budries: Musicals are a very different beast for a sound designer than straight plays. These days, musical theatre is a kind of re-construction job. This means that all the elements are extracted and re-delivered to the audience in as enhanced a way as is necessary. Some Broadway shows do an excellent job with this style of delivery. The Lion King in Los Angeles was extraordinarily loud, but wonderful. Not all musicals need that kind of support.

Janet Kalas: "As necessary" is important to me. I don't like an overamplified sound. The bottom line is you need to be able to hear the performers along with the orchestra in a beautiful way.

Martin Desjardin: I would prefer to never see actors in a traditional musical or straight play "on mic." That said, singers now are trained more for expression and dynamics than sheer volume, and many directors on straight plays expect reinforcement. For me, it has become a disappointing but unavoidable part of some production environments.

David Budries: I agree with Marty. I find it hard to listen to reinforced straight plays.

Janet Kalas: We're seeing actors from different media come into the theatre. We need to hear them all equally and that's just the way it is.  Actors who come from television do not have voices trained for the stage. It becomes our job to support them. And I use that word "support" to mean amplify them. And that's also true for film actors in some cases as well. With all due respect!

David Budries: Using microphones for effects is, of course, appropriate when used properly.

Martin Desjardin: And, to speak to the visual issues, which I think are huge...If you use microphones, it is best to not pretend you aren't. Make the mics part of the style of the production—not something you're pretending isn't there. Microphones work when they are used very intentionally to create an entirely different theatrical world.

Emily: Are any of you musicians?  Do you feel that mastery of a musical instrument benefits sound designers?  Are there instruments that would be particularly useful to be able to play?

Martin Desjardin:  I am not a musician, but I do compose. I know that composition, both as a tool and as a way to think about design, is extremely useful.

David Budries: I feel that being a musician is an important characteristic of a good sound designer. Playing piano is very valuable, but any musical training is extremely valuable.

Janet Kalas: I play flute and piano but I don't do that any more. That's my basic education—a sense of rhythm, a sense of timing, the ability to read music.

David Budries: It's also important to understand musical history and the fundamentals of composition.  Taking a world music survey class can be very valuable.

Janet Kalas: Just having a basic knowledge of the music that's out there is essential. Directors will ask.

Harry: I know that acoustics are a problem in many theatre spaces.  Are there any examples of recent theatre architecture that have created a great space from a sound designer’s perspective?

Janet Kalas: Not that I've come across recently. I'm more aware of the nightmare situations than the ideal situations, but I always consider them a challenge. I think that's the first challenge of sound design—creating a beautiful design for each individual space. 

Martin Desjardin: I agree with Janet: every space has its strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to exploit both to your advantage.

David Budries: The Hartford Stage Company is not a new space, but as a thrust space, it is one of the better sounding venues.

Janet Kalas:  I would concur with that. It's definitely a well thought out space in terms of sound.

David Budries: I have not had the opportunity to work in many new spaces. A good theatre space for sound design needs to allow for the creation of sound fields from all directions. We especially need a lot of space in the rear of the house to create interesting images.

Harry: I was just wondering if, as sound design has gotten more sophisticated, theatre architecture has developed accordingly.

Martin Desjardin: I have not seen that, Harry. I have been in two relatively new spaces, neither of which was particularly sophisticated in terms of acoustic design or system capabilities.

Janet Kalas: One would hope, but often there has been no regard to the way a space sounds, and there are many spaces that are not sound supportive. It's all up to the architects and often times they don't consult with sound engineers and audio experts.

Martin Desjardin: My experience with the construction of new buildings is that visual aesthetics supersed acoustical concerns, and that sophisticated audio systems are often victims of last minute budget cuts. 

David Budries: Most architects forget that theatre spaces must be quiet if we are to observe the subtlety of good sound design and speech.

Martin Desjardin: Unless, as David noted, the space is intended to be used for live musical performance.

Moderator: I'm sorry to say that it's time to wrap it up tonight. David and Janet have generously offered to answer your questions off line. And you may send those questions to me at I want to thank everyone for participating, and on behalf of TCG, I want to thank Janet, Martin, and David for taking time out of their busy schedules to be here tonight.

David Budries: Thank you all!

Janet Kalas: Goodnight everyone!