The Sounds of Disscoia
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.