Since the announcement of the elimination of both Sound Design Tonys broke, many eloquent voices have put forward the (pretty bomb-proof, IMHO) case for their re-instatement. I’m not going to try and re-make those arguments, but there’s one facet of the whole affair that no-one’s touched on yet – hence this blog post. Let’s look at the reasons two anonymous Tony wonks gave for the change, quoted in the NYT:
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.
Now, the first two reasons (and the wilful disinterest they imply) have been covered and rebutted well, but on the third point, the response has been more defensive. And, fatally, the responses have often implicitly accepted the premise of the statement: that the technical and the creative are opposing principles. Well, to that I say balls. And I think that in pushing for an open, egalitarian, and above all honest theatre, we should all say balls. Let me tell you for why…
Working in and around theatre, I often feel a tension between two opposing visions and sets of assumptions about what our work actually is. The first, let’s call it “The X Factor Model”, sees creatives and actors as innately gifted beings, reaching down to touch the lives of the mortals in the audience. It is consonant with this view that there should be an above stairs/below stairs division between the creative people, and the black t-shirts who scurry about realizing their vision. Now, I’m aware that a certain amount of what Roland Barthes calls “the mystification which transforms petit bourgeois culture into a universal nature” is required to sell tickets, but those of us working in theatre (including the Tony committee) should beware of internalizing this claptrap.
In contrast, what I believe that we should aspire to as theatre-makers is to share our craft with each other, and with the audience, as equals. And I don’t think this idealistic – in my experience it represents the reality of good theatre-making. In this context, I think asking if Sound Design is technical is meaningless – it involves technique, but then so does everything else in making a show. The fact that it often involves black boxes with knobs and dials is massively irrelevant – we’re there for what we can give to the show.
Seen like this, the decision of the Tony committee looks like an attempt to preserve an illusory status quo, damaging the status of Sound Design in the process. We won’t win the argument by saying “we’re creative really – please let us in to the club!” – we need to reject the creative/technical dichotomy. We should trust our craft to make the technical aspects of our work irrelevant – if we accept the dichotomy and seek to hide anything “technical”, we’ve already accepted second-class status. We’ve already accepted that people have a right to look down on part of what we do. And, I would argue, we’ve accepted an elitist, disingenuous view of what theatre is.
One final thought – I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a “creative person” either – it’s as divisive and unhelpful as labelling someone “technical”. When you see someone being creative, you know two things about them – first, that they’ve put in the hours to develop their craft to the point that it’s almost invisible, and secondly, that they’ve overcome the self-censorship that we seem to beat in to kids to the point that they can be generous and open with their work. This should be celebrated in every single person that works in theatre.