Faculty Feature: David Remedios
Knowing the technology behind the sound design of a theatrical production is necessary for sound design students, but David Remedios teaches students that there’s more to the technology. The secret lies in connecting sound to the story. “Thinking about sound in a musical sense is very important when thinking of sound as storytelling,” says Remedios, a sound design professional with over 30 years of experience in theatre.
In this CFA Faculty Feature, Remedios, assistant professor and program head of sound design at BU School of Theatre, shares with CFA the reasons why BU’s MFA in Sound Design program stands out from other programs across the country. Remedios further explains how the program offers a balance of thinking about sound in a conceptual way while learning practical skills, and how faculty members encourage young artists to make mistakes, and ultimately, trust the process.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID REMEDIOS
CFA: How would you describe BU’s MFA in Sound Design program?
Remedios: As a designer, I like to think about the musicality of sound, specifically how sound can be used as a design element in theatre. How does sound contribute to the dramatic effect of the story we’re telling? I tell my design students that what we designers do should serve the text and the actor speaking the text for any given production. I trained as a musician; my degree is in music. I was encouraged by my sound design teacher to pursue this career because of my interest in music. So I do like to think and talk about sound in a musical setting; composing with sound, not just providing sound effects, although sound effects can be part of it, of course. I want to get students thinking about sound, its rhythmic possibilities, its rhythmic and timbral possibilities, and how you might orchestrate it. It’s about how you choose the right sound, the right mix of sounds to not only convey what it is you’re trying to represent but also to give a scene or a speech or transition emotional impact.
In our MFA program, we offer a balance of thinking about sound in a conceptual way while learning practical skills. My colleague, James McCartney, teaches two semesters respectively, of production audio and systems design. That’s where the students get the methodology: thinking about the components of the sound system and audio gear, and how it all works together. The technology serves the artistic idea. That is where I come from as a teacher and artist.
CFA: The philosophy seems universal in CFA graduate theatre programs, that you’re all theatre artists serving the story and the audience’s experience. It’s not so much about technical skills as it is about telling a story through sound. Is that right?
Remedios: Yes. You may have a mix of students who are more adept at the conceptual and others better at the technical. Some have a balance in both areas. Knowing the technology’s capabilities is necessary in order to execute your ideas. But that is a means to an end. We need to ask, why are we doing what we’re doing? If we’re calling attention to ourselves in our design, is that a good thing? It depends on the production. Ultimately, if your design is not serving a dramatic purpose then what are you trying to do as an artist collaborating on a project?
The challenge of mentoring young artists is getting them to think beyond the parameters of technology and the fear of not wanting to make a mistake. Art by nature is a messy endeavor and when you get into a theatre production, which is a collaborative environment, you will have a lot of messiness. There’s a lot of planning that goes along with it. [When you execute] that first idea — that first attempt at an effective theatrical gesture — you don’t know what will happen.
A lot of experimentation happens in the creative process. We foster the notion, especially in young artists, that it’s okay to make mistakes because [of where] it will lead you. That exploration is valuable, especially as you develop your voice. That [experimentation] will lead you to what you ultimately want to say. The heart of it is: what do you want to say, not how you’re going to say it. [The how] will come to you but do you have that initial idea that you want or need to convey?
A lot of experimentation happens in the creative process. We foster the notion, especially in young artists, that it’s okay to make mistakes because [of where] it will lead you. That exploration is valuable, especially as you develop your voice.
CFA: What kind of student are you looking for in the graduate program?
Remedios: The ideal graduate student has some notion of who they are as an emerging artist. They need to be willing to experiment and have discussions with the director, other designers, actors, and the playwright to figure out what they are going to do with their design.
For us as sound designers, [the question is] how are we saying something with sound and/or music in the most succinct way of expressing an idea? We often don’t have a lot of time to explore in technical rehearsals and we need to keep the machine of the production going. I’m looking for people who have some experience on their own and who have a sense of who they might become as theatre artists. They should have some work under their belt. We can discover what else they can do with that set of skills they have already acquired.
CFA: How do you judge that they will be a good fit for the program?
Remedios: I look at their resumes and listen to their portfolio samples. They may submit paperwork of how they designed something. I look to see how creative they’ve been in making a simple cue. Say, it’s 45 seconds or less: what do they do with this and how do they orchestrate it? How creative do they get with transforming a sound? Did they create original music content? And, after meeting with them, how was their personal interaction with James McCartney and me?
CFA: Do applicants need to have undergraduate theatre degrees?
Remedios: No. Most people in my program currently do have undergrad theatre degrees but may not have degrees specifically in sound. It’s been interesting to teach people who have a more general theatre undergraduate degree or an undergraduate degree in a different discipline. I’ve had a student from the BU School of Visual Arts for example take my class and produce incredible work and they’re not a theatre person. They don’t know the protocols of theatre-making but are able to express artistically in sound something quite amazing.
I find that MFA directing, production management, and technical production students coming to my classes bring a wealth of imagination, even though they find that learning the software, the technical stuff, a little cumbersome. I don’t tend to teach software. I respond to creative work and offer technical advice based on those explorations.
In terms of software, I can provide basic rules on how you record sound and how to create a good recording. Now, you can use your iPhone or a small digital recorder. The key is listening to what is present in those recordings, not just what you’re trying to record, but what is in there, what are the musical possibilities of the sound that intrigued you? From there, we look at music in a compositional way, arranging sound and noise in a musical fashion like musique concrete (a 20th-century genre that took prerecorded sounds and non-traditional musical instruments and arranged them deliberately in a composition). Digital sampling comes directly from that.
After [a student] learns how to make a decent recording, they arrange that in an artistic way and then we work with a script, choosing imagery or contrasting images that reflect something about the script as a whole. Then we make a sonic response to those images, using what you’ve already learned about composing with sound and then applying that to the script.
CFA: So, you’re supporting the thrust of the story, but also going a little deeper?
Remedios: It could be something textual and certainly, in theoretical designs for class, the sky’s the limit. You’re not working with a director who has an idea, you are the director and designer. The exploration is: what does the script say initially at face value, and subsequently, what do you discover about the meaning of each scene and character — that is all fair game. [You need to ask] what is it about the scene that inspires you to think about [the sound] in an environmental way or an ambient way or an abstract way and how do you take the elements of those sounds that occur to you as you read the script, and meld them together [or even] transform them to make them into something they’re not?
When working with the director, they share an idea of where they want the production to go. In the classroom, designs should tell the entire story but shouldn’t be limited to a specific approach. Don’t try to assign ideas to specific characters or aspects of the story and don’t box yourself into a concept. I want students to fully explore what the story and the characters are about. First, see what the playwright has put into the script, and then as a designer, [determine what] could also help with that story. There’s a time when sound is at the forefront, there’s also a time when it’s not.
CFA: In another faculty feature, we were told if we notice a tie on somebody in a production more than three times, that’s not good. It’s interesting, the balance. You’re putting on Rent and the sound plays quite a big role. Then there’s other times when it’s more subliminal, perhaps.
Remedios: I encourage my students to participate actively before tech so that they are in the room when choices are being made and ideas are being fleshed out. In rehearsal, you can have an impromptu conversation with the director, and try it out alongside the scene work with the actors. You can develop really good ideas doing that rather than working in a vacuum. Design teams are often hired and design discussions begin before shows are cast because scenic and costumes have their fabrication schedules. Lighting drafts plans but can’t execute their design until they’re in the theater space. But sound, especially now in the digital age, has a very plastic presence because we can now curate and manipulate sounds fairly readily.
I try to get into the rehearsal room at least a few times before tech so I can listen to the actors, even if I am under my cans [wearing headphones], free-associating and assembling a palette of sounds. That’s enormously helpful to me — to feel the rhythms of the speeches. What initially occurs to me before rehearsals may sometimes be completely at odds with what the director hears or seeks, and that’s where the collaboration starts to happen. But until I hear those actors speaking alongside what I’m doing, I don’t really know anything.
CFA: Are there unique or distinctive features to the program as compared to others being offered elsewhere?
Remedios: The progression of the course sequence Sound Design 1 through 4 is quite special because I take the students on a journey, beginning with how to listen to the environment. Then they learn to apply it to a script in a stereo concept before adding multiple loudspeakers. Sound Design 4 class becomes a composition class. I don’t teach music theory, but as a sound designer, you might be asked to create some sort of original musical content or an atmospheric musical environment. So that’s ultimately where the exploration leads us.
The classes give them a great balance of the artistic approach to sound with a practical approach. It then all comes together in our productions. Our School of Theatre production season provides ample opportunity for the students to try out designs and with varying levels of inventiveness. They could be working in a space that has two just loudspeakers or in a space like Booth Theatre where you have multiple opportunities and great flexibility to explore.
Production work is valuable and I’m certainly there to mentor and advise our students. However, I also feel that productions should not be emphasized over the class work. I think they work hand in hand. You have the freedom to develop ideas and ways of thinking about sound and the design of it in the classroom. Then you have the practical application in production. The one feeds the other.
We regularly discuss what’s going on with the current School of Theatre productions. We have weekly departmental meetings to touch base about the productions in progress and any other items of interest. All students get together and have a free exchange of ideas on the process, what they’re learning and the obstacles they’re [encountering].
What’s also unique about our program is the interplay between graduate and undergraduate students. The graduate students have a certain amount of experience and can offer some guidance and instruction to undergraduate students. We also have some really talented undergraduate students who bring a lot to the table. I try to structure my production teams into groups of designers and engineers. But I don’t want to silo them in those roles on any given project. I see them working as a team to get the production done. There’s not a feeling of hierarchy; they’re all working together to get this production done and support each other in their endeavors. Hopefully, my colleagues and I can then offer the next level of support. The program is about them exploring their artistic voice and not our dictating a specific style to them. We offer them our own experience, with an eye and ear to the professional world.
Our classes give students a great balance of the artistic approach to sound with a practical approach. It then all comes together in our productions. Our production season provides ample opportunity for the students to try out designs and with varying levels of inventiveness. They could be working in a space that has two loudspeakers or in a space like Booth Theatre where you have multiple opportunities and great flexibility to explore.
CFA: When you say thinking about sound in a musical sense, can you elaborate more on that?
Remedios: Yes, [I want students to think about] what the rhythms, the timbre, and the orchestrational possibilities of sound combinations can mean for a production. The balance between classroom work and production work is an important part of our program as well. [The student should get] a very substantial footing in each area, thinking in terms of concepts and skills that you learn in the classroom and applying them in production.
Also, bringing your experiences in production back to the classroom. Essentially the classroom and production become a lab with an ideal balance. I know it doesn’t always balance evenly but that’s the idea. The general approach for all of us in the School of Theatre is to encourage students to find their own artistic voice. That’s not a methodology where we say: this is how to do it. [We do show them] accepted protocols and parameters at different levels of production, but how they express themselves as artists, that is for them to discover.
CFA: Why should a student choose BU, located in Boston, an arts and cultural capital?
Remedios: It’s a very robust theatre scene here and I try to give a reality check to my students. You are not necessarily going to be working as a designer at the highest levels when you graduate. You might assist and work with established designers. You will need to establish yourself and eventually join the union. There are ample opportunities here [in the Boston area] not only to assist people but also to meet people in the business and potentially work as a technician.
[Graduates] can find ample design opportunities to build their portfolios. Coming to Boston and to this particular university, [places] you right in the middle of that. Since our faculty and staff all work professionally in theatre, we have the opportunity to offer professional experiences to our students. With our relationships with Wheelock Family Theatre and Boston Playwrights Theatre, I think Boston University would appeal to someone interested in a multi-faceted experience.
CFA: You mentioned joining the union. Is that key for your graduates to get into the union and is it difficult to get in?
Remedios: It is not difficult to join. I am the current chair of USA 829’s New England design exam committee, so I’m committed to recruiting young talent into the union ranks. After at least two years of professional experience as a designer, you can be invited or you may apply on your own to take the exam. We utilize a committee of judges from varying disciplines to look at their portfolios and then we make a recommendation for membership to the union. I am never hesitant to talk to my students about the benefits of being in the union.
Attending this program can be an important step to gaining entrée into the sound design world and the union. You can do it without attending our program but the contacts you make here not only with the faculty and staff and visiting artists but also with your classmates can have an impact on your career over a lifetime. There’s a network of people [who will be] out there working and they’ll know you are an alum of BU, so, therefore, you know how to do this or that. I think that’s a big advantage. The program involves all the faculty and staff working with students on a day-to-day basis. I think the students really benefit from the amount of time and attention we give them.
CFA: So if it’s between here, Los Angeles, or New York… where should a graduate of the program head to?
Remedios: I think it’s important that we have theatre going on all over Boston and that means there is ample opportunity for students to experience [professional] theatre. I have colleagues teaching at universities where it’s hard to encourage students to experience theatre outside because there’s none in the immediate area. In choosing a particular university or city — some cities may have more cache than others — but I think that if you have gone through a program that has had rigor, then you are primed to go out and work.
The idea that we are a trade school is not what I’m getting at. When you leave here, you should feel confident as an artist to engage professionally with other theatre professionals. You’ll know that you can hold your own, but also that you still haven’t learned everything. There are a number of graduates from our program who work at the highest levels. There are graduates who have remained here in Boston and are actively working.
In my professional work as I started freelancing full-time in Boston, the amount of graduates from the BU program that I have encountered is quite substantial. I really hope to inspire in my students enthusiasm and passion for the medium that we’ve chosen and what it does for the life of a theatre production. [The sound design field] is still defining itself and that’s also exciting. Things have certainly changed since I was in school but we still essentially tell stories through sound.
In my professional work as I started freelancing full-time in Boston, the amount of graduates from the BU program that I have encountered is quite substantial. I really hope to inspire in my students enthusiasm and passion for the medium that we’ve chosen and what it does for the life of a theatre production.
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