One dividing line that’s often posited about narrative art forms might be summed up as visual vs. verbal. It’s a common formulation that film is a visual medium and theatre a verbal one, or at least that each occupies a roughly opposite place on a continuum between those two poles. There are elements of truth in this popular dichotomy, but not a lot, I would argue. The main difference between recorded and live media, it seems to me, is neatly suggested by those descriptors: One is packaged and predetermined, often intimate in feeling but fixed in its outcome; the other is blessedly, unnervingly indeterminate, simultaneously distanced from a crowd’s gaze and irreducibly immediate.
But there’s another important thing the visual/verbal contrast leaves out: the aural element. The sound of plays (and films, for that matter) does not comprise simply dialogue, after all. And theatrical sound design, as we learn in a package of stories in this issue, is more than the business of crickets and phone rings. It starts with the very shape of the space where theatre happens, the people who fill it, and the air in the room, as Naveen Kumar details in an excellent overview of acoustic design and science behind it. Indeed acoustics are related to dialogue in this way: You can’t always know what works until an audience is there to reflect or absorb it.
One thing we hope to do with this issue is clarify some of the misunderstandings that still persist around sound design. Jerald Raymond Pierce’s overview of the field highlights one common misconception: that sound designers and composers are effectively interchangeable, and/or that a person with either title automatically can do both jobs. Indeed many do—which makes sense, as designing sound for a show is roughly akin to composing a score for it. But knowing exactly who’s expected to do what, and just as importantly who’s getting paid for it, is as crucial a distinction as knowing the difference between such overlapping but not identical job descriptions as dramaturg and director, or fight choreographer and intimacy choreographer.
And though we’re challenged in a magazine—a medium both verbal and visual, but alas not aural—to show you the work, we have Caroline Macon Fleischer’s vividly descriptive roundup of some exciting sound innovations and experiments from around the nation and the globe, from Amazon rainforest soundscapes to biorhythms. (We are planning to include audio clips for as many of these as we can, so be sure to check out the online version of Caroline’s piece at americantheatre.org.)
Since 2016 each July/August we’ve put our focus on some aspect of design: magic, theatre architecture, lighting, and this year sound. If this year’s focus feels like a homecoming, or at least like it’s been a long time coming, it may be not only because sound design is an often overlooked and easily misunderstood field. It may also be because sound itself is elemental, pre-verbal. Hearing is the first sense we experience in the darkness of the womb, and many believe it’s the last sense to leave us. In the beginning was the light? Maybe in the beginning was the bang.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!