Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Magic is not Magic.

Of all of the tweets and other expressions of outrage that have hit the internet in the last 18 hours, this one is my favorite:
Last night we learned that the Tony Awards Administration Committee will no longer be giving out awards for Best Sound Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Musical. This is heartbreaking and disappointing and does not bode well for our industry.

I do not watch the Tonys. I hear a lot of people every year at this time saying "I don't watch the Tonys" and the reason given is usually the belief that the Tonys are not truly representative of theater. This actually doesn't bother me. I also don't believe that the Oscars are representative of films and I DEFINITELY don't believe that the Grammys are representative of music - why should the Tonys be any different? I don't watch the Tonys because the part that I care about the most - the design awards - usually happens during the commercial break. Unlike the Oscars I'm not likely to have seen any/all of the nominated plays, musicals, or actors, but there is a chance I know - or at the very least, know OF - the designers or their work. I don't watch the Grammys because I don't listen to the music that gets nominated. It's not a function of protest against the show, rather it's that there's nothing for me in it.

Before I became a designer, I did watch the Tony's - I think that this was in 1997, because I believe it was the year that Janet McTeer won for "A Doll's House." That year, when the design nominees named before the announcement of the winner, we were shown sketches, renderings, and models of the set or costumes (possibly lights too, but I can't remember). That was MAGICAL. It showed a process behind the art that required skill, research, and collaboration. But since then the design awards have become less and less important to the overall Tony broadcast and are now given out during the commercials. I go to youtube to watch the winners accept their awards.

I get it, Tonys. My work is less important than selling cat food. It is certainly less important than ratings, and obviously I have always been an anomaly among awards show viewers, and most people watching on TV don't want to see anything other than the musical numbers and the stars. I personally think that's a shallow view of your audience, but you aren't the first media executives to talk down to the consumers of their product.

But cutting out an entire award, not even giving it out unless you feel extra special good about a specific design one year? What does that say? It tells me that a sound designer is not only less important to you than cat food, but doesn't even make the cut as a creative professional. It tells me that the actual value in handing out these trophies has less to do with the quality of the work and the industry celebrating its achievements than it does with SELLING tickets to Broadway shows. And it tells me that my field is quite possibly next.

My husband wrote a rather smart piece earlier in the week on the fact that the design awards have been largely excised from the telecast that garnered more than a few negative comments on American Theatre Magazine's Facebook page. It was beyond sad. What I saw was that my peers think that not everyone should get an award. My favorite comment was this: "Sadly, and realistically, no one has EVER bought a ticket to see the stage manager or the set designer. They know that when they choose that as a career , publicity and accolades will be non existent. Using THIS theory, lets give out awards for Best Usher and Best Ticketmaster Seller, too!! LOL" Thank you, American Theatre Magazine reader, for equating my work to that of an usher. 
Here's the truth. When I was working on the student production that eventually became the REASON Why I Do Theater, the *sound design* was the first thing that really hooked me in. My friends were creating a world with sound, with speaker placement, and this was earth shattering to the Megan Who Knew Nothing, Jon Snow. The production was "The Tempest," it was 1998, and if I remember correctly the creative "team" of two friends wanted the audience to hear the sound of the ocean upon entering the theater, as though they were far out at sea, and have that soundscape gradually change the closer they got to the stage to something more "island"-like. MIND. BLOWN. I'm telling you, I had no idea that what people were doing on stage or in movies or on TV was actually creating worlds and environments. And it was only a small step from that to seeing the way that lighting could do this. I had never heard of sound or lighting being used as an art form before and it changed my life.

Here's another truth. I was working on designing "Sila" since last June, and it opened in February. Design teams are frequently brought on long before a show is cast, sometimes even before it is written or while it's being conceived. We often have a direct hand or at the very least an influence in that conception, in the staging of the show, the motivations of the characters. We are part of the "creative team" on the show. While not all projects enjoy the long gestation period that "Sila" had, we often do extensive research, build scale models, create renderings, test out ideas, throw them away, start over again a thousand times leading up to the moment of design presentations. Most of the ideas behind the productions of "Ophelia," "Black Snow," "Murder Ballad Murder Mystery," and "Machinal" that I worked on with Dustin Wills were the result of many, many hours of meetings and lots of beer at the Dog & Duck Pub, before scripts were finished and actors cast. And all of that work on the part of the design team - which, yes, includes the sound designer - is all done to create a cohesive, whole ENVIRONMENT and story.

Here's ANOTHER truth - if we have done our jobs well, most audience members will never notice our work. But that doesn't mean that it's not there, that it's not well done, that it didn't take skill and years of training or education, that it's not worth rewarding. And when you, Tonys, decide that well, the sound design awards can be cut for __________ what I'm hearing is that the sound designers are too good at their jobs. Because you were so involved in the story being told and the world being created that you didn't notice all the pieces. And because the sound design is not Hugh Jackman or Denzel Washington or whatever huge musical is popular now, it doesn't deserve the same level of recognition.

Here's yet another truth. Broadway may be looked at by many theater artists outside of its circle as something that is safe and overly commercial, but it is very much a place for designers and technicians to INNOVATE. It's where we have resources to do what can't be done at the OffCenter here in Austin. It's not the only place where new ideas are developed and tested, but it is an important one, and a visible one. One of the ways that innovation is visible to the rest of the world - which includes future sound designers - is through the Tony Awards. By excluding them, you may very well be cutting back on that level of creativity and innovation.

One of my favorite artists to work with in Austin is K. Elliot Haynes. I have worked with him in his capacity as a sound designer and as a projections designer. When I come on board a show, and I learn that Elliot is part of the team, I know that the quality of the work and level of artistry brought to the sound design is going to be high. The work that he brings to every production is every bit as important an artistic contribution as what the lead actor brings.

I want to believe that on some level the Tonys *are* about the theater industry recognizing and celebrating excellence.
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