The Official Blog of the
Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

INTERVIEW | Darron L West, Sound Designer for TRUE WEST

Interview with Kate Pines, TRUE WEST Assistant Director.

I first met Darron this past winter at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville’s 2009 Humana Festival where he was in residence with SITI Company’s Under Construction, a beautiful, chaotic, intimate examination of culture in America and how we are constantly redefining it. His effervescent passion and infectious joy in talking about the steps and missteps of the piece and it’s journey into life were magnetic, and my experience talking to him about the show was topped only by getting to experience it myself the following evening. When I found out that Darron was designing True West – the show I was lucky enough to be assistant directing this summer, I was thrilled. And when I saw Darron’s unique process of spending an enormous amount of time in the room – and, as it turned out, sitting at the table next to me – I was intrigued. When WTF asked me to blog about True West, he seemed like the perfect person to sit down and ask some questions…

Kate Pines: This is your first time back at Williamstown in quite a while – what is your history with the festival?

Darron L West: The last time I was here was 1994 and I was a guest designer when Jimmy Naughton was directing Johnny on the Spot. But I started my career here in 1989 and I did three seasons as the resident designer of the festival. It was right after Nikos had passed and the first year of the “triumverate” of Peter Hunt, George Morfogen and Austin Pendleton. So I kind of grew up here as a designer.

KP: And then you took something of a significant hiatus…

DLW: I did take a long hiatus because I got involved with Anne Bogart’s company and so it meant my summers were then occupied by doing work with her company in June – we do an annual thing there [a summer training program in Saratoga Springs where SITI company is in residence] – and then there is so much international festival touring during the same period so I kind of went away from it. The other thing is that at that period of time there really wasn’t a huge sound staff, there weren’t too many people involved in it. The first year it was just me – that was the first time they had the title of “Sound Designer”. And I remember the first program came out of the very first show and I was really upset because I wasn’t listed on the front page with the rest of the design team. (Laughing) So there was a big fight making sure I got listings from then on.

KP: (Laughing) So that’s not the reason you’ve been away now for fifteen years…

DLW: (Laughing) No that’s not the reason! You know, in the second year I was here it was just my assistant Marty and I, and then I kind of gave the position away to people who had assisted me…I was just ready to move on. So I just hadn’t been back! Until I got a call from Jimmy [Naughton] who I’d just run into in New York and he said “Oh you should come up to Williamstown and do my show!” and I happened to be free that summer, due to touring schedules.

KP: And is what happened again this summer with Danny?

DLW: No actually this one came totally out of the blue. I got a call from my agent saying that Williamstown was interested in having me come up for True West, but I don’t even think my agent realized I had worked here before. Because when I worked here it was way before my agent or any of that kind of stuff. But Danny and I had the same representation and they had been trying to hook us up for a while. And I thought, “I love this play,” and I’d done a bunch of shows with Sam [Shepard] prior and I thought “Oh! But this is a play I haven’t worked on!” So I thought, “I should come work on this play. And come back home.” So I’m back here. In a basement. Of a church.

KP: In all it’s glory. I’m going to step back from this particular show for a second and ask about the job of a sound designer. Since the job is defined very differently for musicals and straight plays—and you are one of the most sought after straight play designers in the field—can you talk about the way you would define your particular version of design?

DLW: Basically you’re just responsible for everything aural in the context of the show. If there is composed music you are the go-between for the composer and the director and how that music works into the play; there are shows were I’ll do a little composition inside the play. And if it’s a big venue and it needs microphones you are responsible for that. In some situations I’ve done shows where it’s only five sound cues, but I’m actually at the prop shop determining the sound of the teacup against the saucer. I did a show a few years ago on a concrete floor so half of that show’s conversation was about what kind of soles of shoes the actors were wearing because it affects the sound of the footsteps. I ended up having to put taps in the women’s shoes. I like to think of what I do as a sort of full composition from beginning to end, which involves every other sound. It’s all within the same score. Even the door slams. I need to tell Neal [Patel – scenic designer of True West] that when they hang up the phone up we need to make sure we get a phone with a bell on it so that when he hangs it up it goes “ching!” instead of just sounding like plastic. So you’re trying to think about all of it at once.

KP: So that’s actually a good segue into my next question, which is about your process for this particular show. I know I’ve seen a lot more of you in rehearsal here next to me than I would see many designers pre-tech.

DLW: I’ve never been one of those people who can come in and watch a run through and go back to the studio to work on stuff and still be able to hold the DNA of the room with me while I’m working. And it was a practical thing for me. I mean I’m definitely known as that guy who likes to spend a lot of time in rehearsal but when I was working at Actors Theatre [of Lousiville] when I was the resident there I would have this issue where I would go up to the fifth floor rehearsal halls in the other building and watch a run-thru and then come all the way back to the top of the other building to my office, build all this stuff, and take it back over to the rehearsal and it wouldn’t make any sense…because in the three hours that I’d been working, everything had changed. I felt like I was missing something with regards to the way the organism was being built. So I grabbed my engineers and went, “let’s just move everything into the rehearsal hall.” And I started doing that I guess in 1990. I’m much more of a process oriented designer than product oriented designer. I wanting the ideas to emerge out of what I’m watching so the sound of the actors voices is a big deal for me. Usually when I walk in I have to take some time to just listen and be there and listening to things against the text I’m hearing in the room, and the design just eventually shows itself. With this one I didn’t want it to feel like a typical Sam Shepard play. I didn’t want slide guitars; I didn’t want to pick anything completely period. But then while I’m watching it in here, I think about the surrounding vista, which was much more cinematic. I kept thinking about it more as movie transitional scoring than theatre transitional scoring. So the pieces of music don’t really button, they sort of coast in and out of scenes, which for me gives a longer theatrical line of the play.

KP: Certainly on those days when you aren’t in rehearsal it feels like a very palpable absence.

DLW: Yeah it’s funny. I have probably 95 different cricket samples that I built before I got here. And just sitting here with headphones listening to the text against what I’m hearing in my head and seeing, musically, where it fits – I tune these particular sounds to the boys. Literally it falls on a frequency range between Paul’s [Sparks, playing Lee] text and the way Nate’s [Corddry, playing Austin] text works, the natural frequencies of their voices. So you know they can sit and they don’t obscure anything, but they are still present and in tune to the speaking of the guys.

KP: Ok we are finishing our lunch break and the church basement is being invaded by eager festival staff wanting to watch our last run thru before we move to the theater, but I want to ask you one more question, just for fun.

DLW: (Speaking urgently into the recorder microphone) One final question for fun:

KP: What are some of your favorite musicians/bands/groups right now?

DLW: Oh God!

KP: Today.

DLW: Ok. Today. I’ve gotten back on a jazz kick to I’ve been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington lately. A lot of the Beatles – I think because the re-masters are coming out in September. I’m a huge fan of the band that we’re actually using in the show, Calexico. It’s pretty diverse. I listened to the new Portishead album on the way here… A pretty wide mixure, a huge collection. Don’t ever have to listen to the radio, since I have enough music to satisfy me.

KP: That’s some excellent inspiration for new playlists for the blog-readers.

DLW: (Laughs) Right, exactly.

KP: Thanks Darron.

DLW: You’re very welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment