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About Michael Rasbury and Sound Design

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  Sound Design for the Theatre
Interpretation, Research, Composition, and Execution
by Michael Rasbury, Associate Professor of Sound Design
Department of Drama, University of Virginia
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  Section 6: My Design Philosophy
I believe that a designer’s process is always evolving. Since the director of a theatrical production is typically the lead collaborator, my aesthetic must remain malleable in order to serve the production as warranted by the greater collaboration. My philosophy of design is very much rooted in the idea of “less is more.” This is not to imply that I am a minimalist, although I prefer design elements that carry multiple pertinent perspectives to the spectator.

A particular objective of the sound designer is to capitalize on the imaginative powers of each individual in the audience. The designer should have an understanding of all the potential meanings for a sound and appropriately use them to entice each mind in the audience into intellectual and emotional involvement with the production. The end result of the collaboration of theatre artists for a given production should reflect a level of experience, entertainment, and joy unequalled in related media. The best artistic works are those that remain truthful to the theme of the production while concealing the artist’s mastery of technique behind the mask of simplicity. Of course, the ultimate goal of a theatrical sound designer is to collaborate with other artists to support the director’s vision of the playwright’s text with unity as an objective.

This design approach assumes no plastic elements of any kind are really necessary to tell the playwright’s story. The only required components for a dramatic production are the actor(s), the audience, and the space. I approach each production from this perspective. Sound components should only be included if they are complementary to the script and the director’s concept for relaying it. Sometimes the best choice a sound designer can make is silence. The sound designer can also suggest an emotive setting for a play with a single sound.

I think of the entire process of sound design as a composition. It is important to draw upon all of my skill to enrich the final product. Each sound and music composition, amplifier, speaker, microphone, and signal processor used for a design is part of the artistic statement and carries meaning. The sound design for a production is like a “dependent” installation piece. In fact, the actual content of the design should reflect an analogous metaphor when heard without the text because the sound design is a sort of deconstruction of the play’s larger action.

I strive to understand and command the wide spectrum of disciplines covered by the umbrella of sound design. Art should be the focal point, but an understanding of physics, electrical engineering, computer science, and craft are required to comprehensively design. Although I believe that no technology can produce art without the artist, I keep updated with current developments in sound and sound technology. Advancements in sound help me better relay my work to audiences. Technology is not a necessity for designing with sound. Equally compelling statements can be made using acoustic instruments and techniques. 

The sound designer must be an effective manager and planner, and possess abundant creativity in the presence of pressing deadlines. Sound design for the theatre is a comprehensive process requiring knowledge and skill in a wide array of correlated fields. A sound designer’s process continually matures as discoveries are made in sound control, composition, and sound related research. Sound design is a facet of the total production, equal in importance to the work of the scenic designer, lighting designer, costume designer, properties designer, and other participants. The primary goal of the sound designer’s work is to collaboratively support what occurs on the stage, driven by the director's concept and actor’s interpretation of the script.
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