Now Hear This: Sound Design Plays Integral Role in Progressive Theater

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Although audiences may not always be aware of the work of the sound designer in the theater, it’s a role that can be just as complex and important as that of director, according to Ohio University doctoral student Dan Dennis.

Dennis is part of a small but growing field of scholars examining the art of sound design–music cues or sound effects, such as the slam of a car door or a clap of thunder–for the stage.

“Sound, I’m trying to argue, is an important element of an imaginative world that is being created,” he said. “It already exists in life.”

Dennis is studying the SITI Company, a progressive theater company in New York City known for pioneering the Viewpoints Method, in which actors use practices from modern dance. The company fosters a strong collaborative environment for its actors and designers.

“I think that their work is awesome, as it’s open to multiple readings,” Dennis said. “I can see how some people might not like their work because of that, because it’s not trying to say just one thing.”

Dennis closely follows SITI Company sound designer Darron West, who recently won a Tony Award for his work on Peter and the Starcatcher.

West taught Dennis that a sound designer makes just as many decisions about a show as the director does, collaborating with artists from the beginning of a play to the very end.

“The choices any designer makes should be about developing the theme or concept of the play-not just making clear the story (if there is one), but exploring the ideas. West is certainly not the only one doing this, but he does this very well,” he said.

Research on his dissertation, which has been supported by an Ohio University Kantner Fellowship, included travel to New York City, Chicago, and Maryland to visit theaters.

Dennis hopes that his project on the unique company may help other theater troupes understand and even work to emulate SITI Company’s creative environment. It demands that all members participate in different aspects of the play production process, and also seeks participation from the audience.

“I like theater that requires you to do your own thinking,” he said.

Dennis has an extensive background in the theater. He’s earned degrees in acting and theater pedagogy, and has worked as a music director, sound designer, voice coach and teacher. He has written and directed for the stage.

“I spent a lot of time in the theater in the last 20, 25 years,” Dennis said, “so all of that has influenced the way that I’m thinking about approaching this project.”

This story appears in the special graduate student edition of Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine, published in spring 2013.