- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sound men on local stages are silent souls whose work is a blend of art and the crafty manipulation of technical machinery almost totally dedicated to advancing a dramatic plot.

Musicals that thrive on rhythm and song are another matter, but sound designer skills still are needed to keep the production on course. Computers now allow for revisions and inventions to be made with greater speed at far less cost than was possible when only live musicians and audiotape were available a decade or so ago.

“A complete paradigm shift. We can turn things around now in a few hours,” notes Martin Desjardins, 36, who has been with the Shakespeare Theatre Company for five years. “Sound designers now travel with the director on his journey through the show.”

Whether called sound designer or master technician, on either a resident or freelance basis, some of the most prominent local practitioners of the craft have backgrounds as multifaceted as their job.

Mr. Desjardins has a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. Tony Angelini is a former actor and Air Force sergeant. Timothy Thompson is an electrical engineer who previously did exhibit work at the Smithsonian. Gil Thompson (no relation to Tim) is a nonpracticing lawyer who has been a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill and has taught tech theater at Sidwell Friends for 20 years. Neil McFadden has a degree in economics and business and also does lighting design.

“A lot of what goes on in sound in film mirrors or enhances the reality. In theater, sound almost always is about theatricalization of the story. You use it to bring forward the drama,” explains Mr. Desjardins.

He uses, for example, the huge Dali-esque clock seen on stage throughout the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Comedy of Errors,” in which the passage of time is critical to the story. “Throughout, you hear the machine at work,” says the Helen Hayes Award winner (for “Midsummer Night’s Dream”). “It is laced into the music.”

The future promises to be “even more amazing, especially with directors who know what sound can do,” says Mr. Angelini, 41, of Signature Theatre, designer of the company’s much praised “Nevermore.” “Sound isn’t just crickets and thunder. … It’s also the noise an actor may make crossing a stage.”

He entered the field by interning at Arena Stage and making money weekends as a wedding disc jockey. “That sounds kind of cheesy,” he confesses, “but it helped me learn how music motivates people and how differently people get motivated.” He learned his technical knowledge from books and by asking questions.

The price of success is that everybody takes their work for granted.

“Sound has been the stepsister of the trade,” says Gil Thompson, resident sound designer at Studio Theatre, who began his career as a sound recording engineer. “You don’t notice it as much as lighting and sets. People say they saw a certain show I’ve done, and when I ask them about the sound they get a quizzical look on their faces. You have to think you did your part well because the sound didn’t stand out.”

Starting in the early 1990s, sound has changed more than anything else in theater, claims Tim Thompson of Arena Stage, who, at 41, has two full-time persons under him and also freelances.

Musicals may lack subtlety, but they come with their own complications, as he can attest. They involve what he calls “hundreds of sound pieces,” such as, for example, the use of 52 faders on the mixing board for the company’s “Damn Yankees” production.

“Surgical supplies were needed to keep tiny mikes on heads,” he says. “We would put a mike pack in condoms on bodies because they sweat, and sweat would mess with the electronics in the pack. I spent so much money on batteries for these things.”

Mr. McFadden, 41, a freelancer who was resident sound designer at Round House Theatre for 11 years, does two shows per season for Studio Theatre, including this season’s acclaimed version of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” and “Measure for Measure” at the Folger Theatre.

With “Fat Pig,” he says the challenge was selecting what he calls “musical sounds, to follow the structure of the play.” The opening, which has the two main characters meeting in a fast food court, starts quite loud; the last scene, by the ocean, is muted by comparison “to emphasize the starkness of the story and the relationship.”

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