The Sounds of Disscoia

Lisa Field

Theater Alliance recently sat down with Matt Nielson, who co-designed the sound and composed original music for The Wonderful World of Dissocia, and the show’s director, Colin Hovde, to talk about the significance of sound design in our latest show, as well as its importance in theater.

Matt, how did you come to sound design as an occupation?

Matt Nielson: I studied musical theatre in college, then jumped into technical theatre – building scenery and running shows – when I graduated. On one production, I was assigned as the sound operator and found that I really enjoyed it. I started mixing bands and learning about sound systems. After stints at Wolf Trap and The Public Theatre, I joined the staff at Round House Theatre setting up the sound system for shows, running them, and observing the best sound designers in the area as they designed shows there. Eventually I realized that sound design connected the creative aspects that I studied in college with my love of all things technical and my desire to tell stories.

Colin, how did sound factor into The Wonderful World of Dissocia compared to other shows TA produced?

Colin Hovde: Theater Alliance has produced a number of shows in the past few years that have relied heavily on a strong sound design. The Wonderful World of Dissocia was a show where sound was very integral to the storytelling and to much of the subtleties in tone from scene to scene. Theater Alliance does not usually produce musicals, but Dissocia called for music to be written for the songs in the text, so the integration of sound and composing were vital.

Why did you ask Matt and Chris specifically to design the piece?

Colin: Both Matt and Chris are very strong Sound Designers that really focus on the overall storytelling and how the sonic world can help the story have more resonance and move.

What were your initial conversations you had with Matt and Chris?

Colin: The initial conversation really was about the story and what was important to the story. We did not talk too much about the sound design per se. But soon after that initial conversation we started talking more specifically about the sound.

Matt, where do you start when someone hands you a script?

Matt: I read it. I sit with it. Read it again. Talk with the director a couple times, listen to any thoughts they might have about the production and bounce some ideas around. If I’m writing music for the production I’ll start sketching out ideas right away. I’ll go through the script again and make a preliminary sound plot for my own sanity so I have a general roadmap of what I need to provide (which, on a show like Dissocia, is no easy feat).

Colin, what did you envision for sound design when you first looked at this show?

Colin: I did not have a clear picture of sound. As a director I usually have a clear picture of the world of the piece, and the lighting, but usually sound is something that I need a great designer to help me hear.

Matt, where did you draw your inspiration for the sound design of Dissocia?

Matt: In this production, most of the inspiration for the design itself comes from the script. In his stage directions, Anthony Neilson is very specific about what we hear and when we hear it. I consider a show like this to be a sound designer’s dream. There’s an incredible mix of reality, fantasy, comedy, horror and adventure, and most of that falls on sound to create. An apartment that turns into an elevator that lands in an airport. A scene with a goat that turns into horror and then dissolves into cool and soothing. A musical field (!) where the lead actor inadvertently triggers music with gestures, and then builds a song for herself piece by piece. A car that starts to fly and then drops bombs. An epic battle at the end of Act I. The contrast between Act I and Act II is stunning, and that is reflected in the sound design as well. Just reading the script made my mouth water.

Musically, I had several sources of inspiration. The first number, Welcome To Dissocia, came to me first and quickly. I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like. During previews I heard it compared to several things but I think my favorite might be the song “Welcome to Dulac” from Shrek. I also wrote a “muzak” version of this song that appears a couple of times. The second song is “What’s an Hour” If Dissocia were a musical, this number would be the “I am/I want” song, so I drew inspiration from contemporary musical numbers. Threads from this song make up the ambience in the musical field, the actor triggers sections of it with waves of her hand, and then she builds the whole song instrument by instrument with waves of her hands. For the third number, “Who’ll Hold Your Paw,” Colin’s only note before I wrote it was “It has to be so beautiful.” This one took me the longest to hash out. I wrote a variation on it that becomes the backdrop to the final battle at the end of Act I, and a short variation that appears at the end of Act II.

Colin, did you realize how big a part sound would play in this show from the beginning?

Colin: I know sound would be very important. And I knew that there were several songs that needed to be composed. But I was surprised many times in the rehearsal process and in the tech with the things that both Matt and Chris brought in.

Matt, how many hours did you put into the design? The implementation? The tech?

Matt: Chris (Baine, co-Sound Desinger) did a lot of the preliminary work on the design itself leading up to tech. My early work on the production was all about the music in the show. There are lyrics to three songs in the script and I started composing those right away so the actors could work with them as early as possible. I wrote variations on all of those songs that Chris and I then embedded into the sound design. I’m not great at keeping track of my hours as I work so it’s hard to say exactly. Each song took several hours to write, several more to orchestrate and record, and several more in making adjustments as the cast began working with them. Dissocia is an incredibly sound heavy show, so we spent many hours in the days leading up to tech roughing out specific chunks of the heavier segments.

Colin, what would this show have been like without sound design?

Colin: This show would have been very flat without sound design. I cannot imagine the story without the sound design. It is integral to the storytelling.

Matt, what do you believe sound can do that visual stimulation cannot?

Matt: The set is fairly minimal in Dissocia and we opted to not use projections. Yet the main character visits ten or so very different environments. Sound helps create those environments. When she is on the elevator, lighting draws our focus down to a much smaller playing area, while sound makes us feel like we are jostling around on an elevator. When she is in the flying car, all we see is two actors on an adult-sized tricycle. The sound makes us feel like the car is taking off, flying, being attacked and landing. I guess the best example would be the musical field. Even if there were more visual elements in this production, how would we see a musical field?

Colin, looking ahead to next season, how will shows like Spark, Black Nativity, Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea, and Occupied Territories incorporate sound?

Colin: We are just at the beginning of design conversations for some of these pieces. But sound is a major and important tool in telling stories. I feel that often you do not notice it, but it affects you a great deal. Like great directing you usually do not notice it, as it is a part of the whole package of the story.

The American Theater Wing recently chose to eliminate the Tony Award for Excellence in Sound Design. How do you both feel about that?

Colin: I feel that theater is a collaborative art. Every artist of that creative team should have recognition and be valued. We at Theater Alliance hang pictures of our creative teams up in the lobby to impress on the audiences that the performers are not the only people necessary for the story to happen. Just because you cannot see the sound design does not make it any less important, or less worthy of recognition.

Matt: The addition of the Sound Design categories to the Tony Awards in 2008 was long overdue. For decades, sound design in theatre has been evolving to the point where it is an integral and vital piece of every production. By removing those categories, the American Theatre Wing has said two things: Sound design isn’t actually as important to theatre as they thought it was; and sound design is strictly a technical aspect of theatre design that is not on the same level and doesn’t consist of the same artistry as scenic, costumes and lighting. Granted I’m a little biased, but I have a difficult time understanding how anybody who works in theatre can arrive at these conclusions, which tells me that they don’t actually understand what sound design is, how it affects a production and audiences, or how a sound designer works. It also sets us back in bit in recognizing newer aspects of theatre design like projections. Luckily, the theatre world is responding.

Matt: One more note – I have so much gratitude for being a part of Dissocia. The directors were very supportive and gave us lots of room to play. The cast was amazing to work with and gave life to the songs I wrote more than I could have imagined. The crew does exceptional work in calling and running a very design-heavy show. And it was great to work side by side with Chris Baine, constantly bouncing ideas off each other and trying new things to create this world that frequently shifts between reality and fantasy. Chris’ work was amazing on this production, and our distinct styles and approaches meshed together very well.

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Welcome to Dissocia

Ever arrived at a destination and thought to yourself, “How in the world did I get here?”  You may have heard this phenomena referred to as “highway hypnosis” or “hypnotic absorption.”  This “lost time experience” is a form of every-day dissociation and happens to all of us.

Imagine, for a moment, if you were to spend much of your life in this state of dissociation.  Such is the case for Lisa in The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson.

Dissociative Identity Disorder commonly stems from repetitive childhood abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) or trauma.  Dissociation in childhood can be considered adaptive because it reduces the overwhelming distress created by trauma.  When the original danger no longer exists, it can be maladaptive. 

An adult with DID may disconnect from potentially dangerous situations without placing them in context or determining if there is real danger.  The zone out and become unable to protect themselves from real danger.

Self regulation can take many forms: derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and depersonalization.

This week the cast of Dissocia spoke with four guests about their work or personal experience with DID in order to better share Lisa’s story.


Monday evening, we spoke with Tracy Howard and Rachel Elise of the Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute.  Both speakers are involved in DID education and advocacy and live with Dissociative Disorders themselves.

Dissociative disorders are treatable, but so much of the work comes from the patient.    In treating DID, they said, the focus is self-knowledge.  When a person dissociates, their inner person divides into many “child parts,” each with characteristics and coping mechanisms for different situations.  The goal in psychotherapy is to unify those parts.  This is no easy task.  Tracy informed us, “Part of therapy is coming to grips with the trauma that occurred.  There is a lot of grieving in the healing process.”

Why is dissociative disorder not well known?

It only really started being written about in the 1980s.  Now it is gaining more attention because after September 11, 2001, the world started to recognize that PTSD is not restricted to military experience.  Trauma of any kind can cause a damaging response.

Is Dissociative Disorder a mental illness?

We refer to it as a trauma response.

Do we medicate DID patients?

Medication may be useful in treating the depression and anxiety that often comes with DID.  The disorder itself requires psychotherapy for any healing to take place.

When is DID usually diagnosed?

Unfortunately, DID is often misdiagnosed for years before it is recognized for what it is.  Partly, this is due to the fact that the patient may have blocked the memory of trauma.

One of the cast members asked, “What is one message you would like us to send our audience?”

“DID is preventable.  It’s about how we treat people.”

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‘Broke-ology’ prepares for opening…

Theater Alliance presents ‘Broke-ology’, the inaugural production at the Anacostia Playhouse this August 14th – September 8th!
As we prepare for load-in this weekend, we are able to get some answers from set designer Harlan Penn about his inspiration behind the genius…
Q: What inspiration did you draw upon to create the set design for ‘Broke-ology’?
Much of my inspiration came from researching actual homes in Kansas City in conjunction with the director’s vision of the play.  
Q: What about this piece (or a piece in general) connects a designer to it? Was there a reason you knew you wanted to get involved with this show?
In my opinion, the high sense of emotion coupled with realism draws a designer to this piece.  The main reason I wanted to get involved with this production was because it provided the opportunity for me to work with a great artistic team in which we are all young theater artist chasing our dreams.
Q: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve experienced in the design process so far?
My biggest surprise (which is a great one!) so far is the detail in vision provided by the director since she is from Kansas City.  Her being from KC brought a whole new perspective in which I viewed KC.
Q: Why should DC audiences see ‘Broke-ology’?
DC audiences should see Broke-ology because its a great story about the human experience in America.
until next time…
The Theater Alliance Team
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‘Broke-ology’ Rehearsals Begin!

Today is the first day of rehearsals for ‘Broke-ology’, the first production of our Season Eleven! The scripts are printed, the Brita water filter is filled, and all that remains is for the actors to arrive…


We chatted with Candace L. Feldman, the director behind ‘Broke-ology’, about what to expect this August…

Q: What does Broke-ology bring to the Anacostia community?

‘Broke-ology’ is a huge opportunity for Theater Alliance to get involved in the Anacostia community. With this show, we want to bring the pie next door to our new neighbors so to speak – we want to say ‘Hi, we’re here and we’re cooking up something great’.

Bringing Theater Alliance East of the River really opens up the possibility for cross-community conversation. It’s important to realize that every neighborhood deserves good art, company, and neighbors. Art has a common language – and Theater Alliance’s recent relocation gives the opportunity to a new neighborhood to become versed in it.

Q: Why is ‘Broke-ology’ uniquely suited to DC?

DC is prime Nathan Louis Jackson territory. Kansas City, the setting for ‘Broke-ology’, has a similar urban yet hometown feel to DC. ‘Broke-ology’ is really a trip back home and we think it will be well received and enjoyable to all.

‘Broke-ology’ also deals with relevant social and political issues. Although relevant when the show was written, the issues are even more so today. This show takes the image and identity of a black man in America – and throws it on stage. We meet a family with an appreciation for family values and that works hard to do right for and by each other. This positive affirmation is something that we don’t see or get nearly enough.


‘Broke-ology’ is the inaugural production at the brand-spankin’ new Anacostia Playhouse. We have recently moved our base of operations to this fancy new Playhouse, although we will continue to produce across DC.  This move makes us the ONLY professional theater company in DC to be located in either Ward 7 or 8 – out of over eighty! (We know – we didn’t know there was that many theater companies in DC either….)

‘Broke-ology’ stays true to its local DC roots. Two of the cast members, William King (G. Alverez Reid) and Malcolm King (Marlon Russ), are Howard Alums. Costume Designer (Reggie Ray) is also currently an Artist-in-Residence and Costume Design Professor at Howard University. We’re absolutely thrilled to have local talent bursting through our seams.

Until next time….

The Theater Alliance Team

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Creating a “Wonderful Life” with Jason Lott

We chatted with Jason Lott, the fantastic actor behind the colorful characters of Bedford Falls, about his work on Wonderful Life. Enjoy a sneak peek at this happy holiday production!

Jason Lott in Wonderful Life.

Q: What first drew you to this project? Was there a certain spark or idea that led to wanting to work on Wonderful Life?

It’s all Helen’s fault…  Helen first approached me about doing a one-man holiday show at The HUB for the 2011 holiday season.  She had been researching various shows based on It’s a Wonderful Life, but hadn’t fallen in love with anything.  She told me she was thinking of writing her own version and I asked if I could contribute.  She considered it for a bit and, thankfully for me, threw caution to the wind and agreed.

We immediately started collaborating and were continually amazed at the depth of the original story and how timeless it is.  I felt that timelessness in every performance last year, as parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession continued to resonate.  For better or for worse, those parallels are still with us this year.  Just as George Bailey had to find his way out of his depression, so to does our country continue to find its way out of its recession.

Q: How many times have you seen the film?

I’ve lost count…

Funnily enough, before we began working on the play, I had never seen the film all the way through.  I’d seen parts, of course, but had never seen it from beginning to end.  As soon as Helen and I agreed to go forward with the project, however, I immediately went out and bought a copy.  I popped in the DVD and fell in love.  It’s instantly classic and infinitely loveable.  I eventually had to stop watching it, though, as our production is based on the story, not the movie performances, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t try to copy them.  I mean, there’s only one Jimmy Stewart…

Q: Was there something in particular that made you want to bring the project to a Capitol Hill audience?

I have always been a fan of Capitol Hill audiences.  Ever since my first show at the H Street Playhouse (Painted Alice at Theater Alliance), I have loved working on the Hill.  The audience members are so supportive and so smart that you can feel them absorbing absolutely everything you’re doing on stage.  That connection is key, especially for a show like Wonderful Life that relies on the audience being a part of the story.  It’s like having a scene partner you know you can count on.

Q: Are there any unique difficulties you think this project poses?

There are always comparisons to the movie and, for people who are die-hard fans, it might be considered sacrilegious for anyone but Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore to play the parts.  That difficultly, though, is also part of the fun.  We think that the story of It’s a Wonderful Life is so powerful that it can exist without those iconic performances.  What is more compelling than a man searching for what he thinks he has always wanted, only to discover that he’s had it all along?

Q: What has been your favorite part of working on the show? Do you have the most fun doing any particular character?

Two things.  First, working with Helen and with Gregg Henry, the director, are some of my favorites things about the show.  Helen is so smart and so giving as a writing partner and Gregg is just brilliant about seeing what the show can be and then guiding me to get it there.  The show wouldn’t be what it is without them.

Second, the opportunity itself to bring this show to audiences is something for which I’m incredibly grateful.  I love walking out on that stage every night and knowing that the audience is ready to go with me on this hopeful and heart-breaking journey.  Having the chance to help people think about things in a different way and see things from a different point of view is why I do theatre in the first place…

I don’t have a favorite character, but two stand out at the moment: Potter and Ma Bailey.  One of the things I love about playing Potter is the challenge of bringing his humanity to the surface.  He’s a tragic and wounded man and he has covered up that humanity in an attempt to survive.  Potter does terrible things, but I think it’s important for audiences to understand why.

I also love to perform Ma Bailey.  She’s such a strong, smart, loving, and resilient woman.  She reminds me of my own mom and it’s an honor to try and even bring one ounce of that goodness and graciousness to the stage.

Wonderful Life is playing at the H Street Playhouse from November 29-December 30, 2012, and is co-produced by Theater Alliance and The HUB Theater. Please visit our website for more information and to purchase tickets.

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The Real Superheroes in YOUR Life

We at Theater Alliance recently requested stories of the ‘real-life superheroes’ from our audience for the chance to win free tickets to Reals.  Whether it be a loved one, friend, or favorite barista, we wanted to hear about the people who help make your life a little more….super!

We are delighted to share the submissions by Leah Daniels and Harriette Wimms, both of whom have won two tickets to Reals.  Big congrats (and a bigger thank you!) to both of them for sharing these superhero stories with us!

Leah Daniels, owner of Hill’s Kitchen, filled us in on the heroics of retired Capitol Hill lawyer Gary Peterson.  In 2007, Peterson witnessed a police chase cross through his back yard.  In an attempt to escape, the suspect, a teenager connected with several local robberies, darted into the Peterson’s kitchen.  Without thinking, Gary Peterson grabbed a copper frying pan and whacked the criminal on the head.  The night ended with the suspect’s arrest in the Peterson’s home.  The copper frying pan is now holds a place of honor in Hill’s Kitchen; look for it next time you visit!

Harriette Wimms movingly described her personal heroes in her own words: “I have three: 1) My dad, who was 60 when I was born.  He met my mom, a young widow with 5 kids, asked her to let him help her raise the children…and then poof! I arrived.  He filled my life with love, wonder, kindness, and adoration.  2)  My son…who I believe looked down from heaven and said, ‘Yep, even though they’re a mess, I pick those folks as my parents.’  I am so grateful to be his mother, and I am guided by his insight and grace.  3) The kids at The Mount, who face painful rehabilitation and extended hospital stays and yet still retain the joy and wonder of childhood.”
-Harriette Wimms

If you would like to submit a story of a real-life superhero, email Theater Alliance Managing Director Lee Daugherty at

Andres C. Talero and Blair Bowers in Reals. Now running at the H Street Playhouse until September 16.


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Real Life Superheroes are Fighting Crime and Spreading Kindness

“Simple acts of kindness are within the reach of all of us.”

-The Real Life Superheroes Project

They keep on popping up on the local news. They have professional photographs of themselves in action. They have army grade armor to protect themselves on the job. Some focus on service, some on crime. They are a contingent of citizens who help those in need- and they’re doing it in costume.  Their credo is the following: to follow and uphold the law, to fight for what is right, to help those in need, to be role models, to be positive and inspirational, and to create a better tomorrow. However, the world is having a mixed reaction to their actions.

Colorado’s Wall Creeper helped shut down a nightclub’s OxyCotin ring.  Geist runs crime deterrent patrols in Minnesota.  Child brother and sister duo Soundwave and Jetstorm hand out marbles in Virginia that they claim remind people to love America.  The movement is also not confined to the United States: the UK’s Angle-Grinder Man walks the streets in Kent and London, looking for drivers who have had their wheels clamped and setting their cars free, and Superbarrio roams Mexico City, symbolically protecting poor squatters and labor unions by leading protest rallies, filing petitions, and challenging court decisions. Some of the real life supers shun the press. Some of them will only meet in costume.

Soundwave and Jetstorm, Courtesy of The Real Life Superhero Project

The District’s own DC Guardian is one of the great ones. He is former military, and now patrols the metro area of the capital, handing out copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. He is a member of the Skiffytown League of Heroes, which focuses on service, and has worked for Make-A-Wish, The Joyful Heart Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Army Fisher Houses, the Autism Research Institute and more. He has spoken to high school students about peer pressure and their responsibilities to their community.  However, he is not as well known as some of the flashier real life superheroes.

DC’s Guardian, Courtesy of The Real Life Superhero Project

Phoenix Jones, founder of the Rain City Superhero Movement, is perhaps the best know real life superhero. He has been cited by GQ as the “baddest-ass ‘real life superhero’ of them all, having sustained injuries like stab wounds in his fight against crime.”

He has a fan following, including his own t-shirts, and is well known on the streets of Seattle, where he patrols late at night. He has also stirred up a lot of controversy. He faced a trial when accused of pepper spraying people leaving a nightclub.  Police officers while discussing Jones have explicitly stated that they do not want people who are not officers putting them in danger.  Jones has claimed that he has had “over 30 bullets shot at him or in his general direction” and “been threatened with murder and stabbed” and is now attempting to raise money for costume pieces, some of which are worth roughly $100,000.

Other real life superheroes have blasted him, pinning him as a glory hound who wants limelight more than he wants to help other people.  In spite of his controversies, however, he remains one of the most visible parts of the movement, even while sharply contrasting heroes like Master Legend.  Master Legend lives forever on the edge of eviction in Florida, more concerned with helping others pay their bills and get food than for his own needs. He was one of the first to call himself a real life superhero.

Master Legend, courtesy of

Most real life superheroes can be found on the World Superhero Registry.

Melissa Englander is the Theater Alliance’s Artistic Assistant. She is a recent graduate of American University’s Theatre Arts program.

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