This year marks the 30th anniversary of my professional career in the theatre, where I’ve had the good fortune to make a life designing sound and composing music for numerous productions, many of them on Broadway. I have been privileged to receive one of the highest accolades in the theatre for my work: In 2013, I was nominated for a Tony Award for designing the sound for Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful.
Unfortunately, I am one of the few sound designers who have been recognized, or might ever be recognized, by the Tonys for their work; the following season was the last the awards were given. That’s because the American Theatre Wing announced that they were eliminating the Tony categories for sound design, relegating any recognition in that area to the occasional special Tony. The reasons were enumerated in The New York Times: “Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor.”
Suffice to say, the decision was an incredible blow to me. And I was far from the only one: The afternoon of the announcement, I started an online petition asking the Tony administration committee to reconsider, thinking that if I could get 1,000 signatures, it might persuade the committee to change their minds. In an hour, I had 1,000 signatures; in a few hours, the numbers grew to 5,000, then 10,000. In a week, more than 30,000 people from around the world signed the petition—including luminaries like Hugh Jackman, Stephen Sondheim, Diane Paulus, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
People from all disciplines expressed shock and dismay. What the Tony committee saw as a simple administrative adjustment demoralized thousands of people around the country who felt as if their role in the theatre had suddenly been invalidated. For so long we had fought for respect and recognition for our art. After many years of lobbying, we were able to get Tony categories for best sound design—one for plays and another for musicals—established in 2007 and implemented for the 2008 ceremony. It seemed that the battle was over. The Tony Award was the last of many hurdles our profession had faced in gaining respect, visibility, and the potential to make an adult living. Or so it seemed.
Getting sound design recognized as a legitimate career and art form has been a long and arduous process. In the late ’90s, we were able to convince United Scenic Artists to represent us, marking a major step for our profession. For the first time, working sound designers were able to have employer-based health insurance and could look forward to a pension upon retirement. And we began to close the pay gap between the fees we received and what other designers made, meaning that to make a living we no longer had to do twice as many shows as our colleagues just to get by. We could spend more time, energy, and thought on any given production, and maybe, just maybe, even think about supporting a family while engaged in this business we love.
Sound design is now such a necessity that most major theatre graduate programs in the country offer sound design MFAs, turning out scores of young bright designers looking to make a living in this field.
Meanwhile, most of the other major awards, in New York and elsewhere, have added sound design categories. When the Tony Awards joined in the trend, it was a monumental validation. As a nationally recognized and televised event, the Tonys finally gave us access to the highest level of visibility available to a theatre artist, and the potential to turn that visibility into a sustainable career. A designer with a Tony, or even a nomination, can command higher fees and respect, and use the honor to leverage all sorts of opportunities.
Now that opportunity for recognition is no longer available to us. The manner in which the categories were eliminated, and the way it was explained in the press, gave the impression that some kind of mistake had been made in adding sound design categories in the first place, as if previous sound design winners didn’t truly deserve their awards because, after all, Tony voters never knew how to judge what we do. I was told that many people on the Tony administration committee believed that sound design was nothing more than a matter of “Can I hear them?” and that to justify the continuation of the categories we would need to change that perception.
Of course, we had already jumped through all of those hoops back in 2006 and 2007 during the process to establish the categories—a process that included months of lobbying, education, and gentle persuasion. In 2006 after a preview of Lisa Kron’s Well, which I had designed sound for, producer Liz McCann came up to me and said, “John, I love so much what you’re bringing to this production. I think you should win a Tony Award!”
I responded that many in the theatre community shared her opinion that there should be a sound design category. She then offered to begin a process to make it happen. The conversation expanded to include several of my sound design colleagues, representatives of our union, and members of the American Theatre Wing who valued sound design and understood our place as partners in the process. Our allies on the committee shepherded the idea through the byzantine and opaque political process that shapes Tony Awards policy. They arranged for an education session in which David Budries, head of the sound design program at the Yale School of Drama, spoke to committee members and Tony nominators about what we do, and what to look for in judging sound design.
What Budries told them is that sound design is a discipline that defies concrete definition, and that it’s often best when it’s not noticed. Still, any perceptive theatregoer is equipped to vote on excellence in sound design. All it takes is simply to think a bit about what you’re listening to. It doesn’t take any more special knowledge than it takes to judge lighting design or orchestration or even costume design. Listen to the design and think: Does it serve the play and production? Is it distinctive in some way that is unique while helping tell a story? How does what you’re hearing make you feel?
Admittedly, we generally aren’t used to thinking about the sounds we hear, because sound is processed in a very different part of the brain than visual stimuli. Sound works on the unconscious, animal parts of our brain; we’re often not aware that it’s happening or what kind of effect it’s having on us. That’s why it’s both so potentially powerful as a design element and yet so easy to overlook.
Some heard and understood what Budries said, but others reportedly found it hard to break out of the traditional notion of what constitutes theatrical design. To them, design is what they can see, not hear, and sound design, as far as they could tell, was simply about making things louder. Still, after more than a year of work lobbying and gathering endorsements from theatre industry leaders around the country, we had enough support that when a vote was finally taken to establish the sound design categories, it passed in 2007.
I clearly remember that day; a producer on the committee called me excitedly with news that the motion had passed. There was no better evidence that sound design had finally come of age than the American Theatre Wing recognizing our art with a Tony Award.
For us sound designers, being considered for a Tony Award was a long-awaited vindication of an essential concept: that we were an integral part of the theatre world, and have been making invaluable contributions as artists to productions on Broadway and across the country for a very long time.
I first learned this myself 30 years ago in 1986, when I made my professional and Broadway debut designing the transition sound and music for Jonathan Miller’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey. I was 22 years old and a senior at Duke University, where producer Manny Azenberg had brought the production to try out. I had spent nearly four years at Duke doing this thing called sound design, inspired by Jeff Storer, a charismatic teacher/director who had thankfully steered me away from acting and into this relatively new discipline, where I could perfectly combine my musical ability and my love of theatre.
That semester I was doing an independent study in music composition that included work with one of the very first samplers—an expensive and rare instrument that few had access to. While in rehearsal with the show, Miller discovered that he needed some kind of music or sound to tie together the different scenes in his production and indicate the passage of time, and there was no time to bring someone in from New York to execute it. Friends who were interning on the production steered him to me, and I soon found myself in a room with Miller, who hummed for me examples of the tone-like music that was in his head. Overnight I composed a little sound score of pieces that pleased the director; they made it into the production and onto Broadway. Though a modest contribution, it was part of the glue that held the entire piece together. And I actually received a paycheck for it.
After Miller trusted me to compose transitions for his productions, I arrived in New York at a time when directors were just beginning to clue into the possibilities of sound, and there seemed to be a shortage of sound designers approaching productions as artists. I found myself working with forward-thinking directors—JoAnne Akalaitis, Michael Greif, Anne Bogart—and veteran designers, including Ben Edwards, Tom Skelton, Jane Greenwood, and Jennifer Tipton. They treated me as an equal member of the design team and understood how my work complemented theirs and how aural elements could be used to tell a story. And my skills were enough in demand that I was able to cobble together a living among Off-Broadway nonprofits, resident theatres, and a Broadway production or two most seasons.
In 1990, I found a home at the Public Theater during Joe Papp’s last year, where I composed the sound score for Grief’s landmark production of Machinal and won an Obie for it. I’ll never forget the thrill of being at my very first awards ceremony, feeling surrounded and embraced by a community of theatre artists. At that ceremony, and the others that followed over the years, I felt like I was part of a family of people all trying to make a go of it in this crazy collaborative business. What these awards have said to me is: We value you. You are part of the family. We understand and appreciate the hard work you are putting into our art.
That’s why in 2013, after having designed sound or composed music for 35 Broadway productions, it was so satisfying to finally gain validation for all those years of work from the Broadway community in the form of a Tony nomination for my work on Michael Wilson’s fine revival of The Trip to Bountiful. I understood the Tonys as a high-visibility marketing tool, but still thought that at their core the awards were about recognizing excellence within the Broadway family, a family that I have long felt a member of. As I partook in all the Tony events leading up to the ceremony, I sat at luncheons and cocktail parties with actors and producers and other designers with whom I’ve worked for years, and listened to members of the American Theatre Wing and Mayor Michael Bloomberg talk about how important theatre artists are to the life and economy of the city.
Most importantly, I felt I was part of a community. Had I won that year (my colleague Leon Rothenberg won for his sound design on The Nance), this is part of what I would have said in my acceptance speech: “Thank you to all of you out there for embracing me and my work as part of this Broadway family for so many years. I feel most privileged to have been able to make a life of this, creating art with you all. Thank you for listening. And thank you for your continued support of sound designers as part of the Broadway community.”
A year later, after learning the categories were taken away, I was speaking with a colleague on the Tony administration committee, asking him how this could have happened. He told me, “I’m so sorry. You guys were just beginning to come into your own.”
Just beginning? I thought. Haven’t you been paying attention to what we’ve been doing all these years? We’ve been here for decades. A sound designer’s job isn’t just to set the volume on the microphones. It’s to convey the world of a play or musical to the audience’s ears; it’s creating and structuring sounds that underscore text, choosing or composing music to facilitate a scene transition, or making the orchestra and singers sound as good as they can, even to the rear mezzanine.
And when sound designers are not recognized at the Tony Awards for our efforts, it sends a very clear message: that what we do isn’t creative, that we’re not true theatre artists, that we are a disposable member of a production’s team. All because a group of people won’t take the time to understand the creative and necessary work that we do. Somehow the voters for other notable awards—the Drama Desks, the Lortels, the Oliviers, the Jeffs, to name a few—have figured out how to determine excellence in sound design. Tony voters, of which there are more than 800, sell themselves short when they think they’re not equally equipped.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda said in a recent Rolling Stone article, “Set designers sculpt with physical materials, lighting designers sculpt with light, and sound designers sculpt with sound. They are responsible for your aural experience at a Broadway show,” adding that we create “literally the sound of Broadway.” It’s about time Tony voters learned how to listen.
John Gromada is a Tony-nominated sound designer and composer. He has designed 37 shows on Broadway and numerous works nationwide. On June 12, he and sound designer Lindsay Jones will host the second annual Collaborator Party, to celebrate sound designers and other unsung theatre collaborators. The event will take place at the same time as the 2016 Tony Awards, and will be held at Flatiron Hall in New York City; satellite parties will be held in Syracuse, N.Y., Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Cedar City, Utah. The events are sponsored by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.