I Can’t Hear You: Sound Design in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance Department

By: Chloe Vollenweider

Imagine you are watching a play on the West End. Typically you sit down- there might be  either pre-show music or there some kind of soundtrack playing to set the mood. Imagine that you went into the theatre and this wasn’t happening. Fair enough, it doesn’t happen at every show. Then the play starts. A phone is answered, but you don’t hear a ring. Then, this continues throughout the entire show; the only sounds you are hearing are those of the actors.

Now, imagine you are sitting down one night to watch the 1978 version of Halloween. Michael Myers is stalking Jamie Lee Curtis, but the iconic background music is gone. The intensity of the moment is diminished. Several youtube videos exist that show the impact of the soundtrack on a film.

Finally, think about the last concert you went to. Imagine the show started, however, there are no microphones and none of the instruments are set up to amplifiers. It would be a bit odd, wouldn’t it?

Sound is a key component of most forms of performance. The examples of how sound impacts performance are numerous. Given its impact, it may be surprising to consider the lack of recognition in the theatre community given to the importance of sound design. Currently even the leading theatre and performance collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, does not showcase the importance of sound design and sound technology. It is not an issue of the availability of material, as the collection is home to thousands of examples of technical design that are not on display.  Although highlighting every aspect of performance is impossible, the omission of sound design seems to be a particularly alarming one which contributes to the continuing ignorance of the work of sound designers and technicians.

The American Theatre Wing presented the first Tony Award for sound design in 2008. The category was then eliminated in 2014, which led to a major uproar from theatre practitioners who called out the elimination of the category. This outcry led to a social media campaign backed by the hashtag #TonyCanYouHearMe. Sound designers and technicians expressed that the lack of acknowledgment of their work undermined the years of education and work that they had put into the industry. Most professional sound designers have spent their educational careers not only learning the practical side of producing sound, but also music and sound theory, as well as the science of how the brain processes sound. A sound designer’s training spans far beyond the process of learning how to operate a soundboard. This neglect to recognise the work of these designers by The American Theatre Wing was a massive oversight.    

The American Theatre Wing’s reasoning for eliminating the category stated: “Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor.” (https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/tony-committee-decision-to-drop-sound-design-awards-prompts-noisy-outcry/?_r=0)

While the category was reinstated in 2018, the initial choice to remove the category plays into the continued omission of recognition of the work that designers and technicians face. When the Tony Awards are aired in the United States, all of the technical awards are given and accepted during the commercial break. The crowning achievement of many of these designers careers is depicted as less important than the achievement of their performing peers. This rhetoric of silencing the achievements and impacts of technical design, needs to be addressed in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum; an institution with an outstanding reputation, that can set the standard for these practices. The lack of education about the technical design of theatre, is why institutions like the V&A have the ability to educate the masses and in particular sound design. These institutions need to step up.

http://www.playbill.com/article/the-tony-awards-will-reinstate-the-best-sound-design-categories

While it is can be difficult to demonstrate in exhibitions how sound design impacts performance, this impact needs to be attempted. The Theatre and Performance Collection’s most successful exhibitions have been based on the career of popular musicians. For example, the David Bowie exhibit was so successful that it has toured internationally, the exhibit received over one million guests worldwide. A major aspect of the Bowie exhibition were two immersive audio installations. Bowie’s iconic music enhanced the atmosphere of the exhibition which included costumes, his personal memorabilia, and several of his own works of art. There are certainly a number of difficulties when approaching the addition of new content into the museum, however, immersive audio technology has been utilised before and should be revisited.

http://59productions.co.uk/project/david-bowie-is/

Similarly, it can be tricky to represent lighting design, as it typically dependent on being utilised in a performative space. With that being said, in the V&A an attempt has been made to represent lighting design with an interactive, miniature light-board. Museum-goers can operate the board to see some of the lighting effects for a production of Sweeney Todd. Even though several of the lighting cues are no longer working, this broadens the reach of the collection into the technical sphere. This attempt to allow guests to look into the lighting process is an important step in the representation of these areas of technology.

In February of 2018, the V&A Training and Development fund sponsored a sound design workshop led by Gareth Fry. The workshop took place at London Southbank University instead of at the V&A. The class was based on Gareth’s background working alongside the Complicité Theatre Company. This two-day workshop cost £300 and required those interested in attending to fill out an application which included a cover letter, a cv, and a photograph. As the workshop was only partly sponsored by the V&A it is important to consider the inaccessibility of this workshop to the public. Most people are unable to give up two days and £300 to learn about the basics of sound theory and sound design. This workshop was targeting a specific audience. That specific audience is typically already being served in institutions like the V&A. The audience who should have access to these types of workshops should be individuals who will not only find them engaging, but who are also typically underserved in the institution. The availability of the workshop could have lent itself to students and individuals who are in the process of developing an interest in sound design. Creating a workshop that not only requires a fee, but also has an application is limiting the participants to an elite group of people. The workshop also happens to be the only major work the V&A has done with sound design in recent years.This does not correlate to the V&A’s commitment to arts education and access for all. If the V&A had a stronger commitment to displaying sound design this lack of access would be less problematic. However, it remains that this is the only way the V&A has made examples of sound design available in the past two years.   

https://soundgirls.org/event/london-the-story-through-sound-design-led-by-gareth-fry/

Perhaps, the blame should be placed on the culture of the art form and not on the institution of the Victoria & Albert Museum. However, with the thousands and thousands of examples of technical design sitting in the archives remaining unseen, the question has to be asked why does the story of sound design remain unheard?

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