I must say, in undermining one element of the program I’ve pushed so hard to help establish (amongst many other hardworking folks out there) that sound portfolios are, in the long run, very, very, very difficult to evaluate.
One thing I do really push for, in any sort of portfolio presentation, is the messy stuff. I want to see the designer’s PROCESS more than anything else. The notes in the original script, the notes from the production meetings, etc. I’m going to learn a lot more about a designer from seeing 4 different versions of the same cue – the original presented to the director, the revision after that meeting, the revision after the cue was played in
rehearsal, and the final version that went into the show. I think every show I’ve ever done has at least one element that’s gone through that journey. And I delete nothing when I build a show… so, as a professional designer, it would certainly be possible for me to pull out each version. If each one was accompanied by a note… I’ll make up an example:
Version 1 – director presentation. After a couple of phone calls & emails back and forth, I thought I should go with something in the "hipster lounge" world – so I brought the director these 10 various tracks of stuff from the 50’s 60’s like this Martin Denny track. The inspiration for this was the deep "quest for cool" that the characters seem to be on – this notion that, whatever they’re doing, they’re right for doing it because they’re so hip. So, even though they never actually go INTO a lounge or bar during the play, I wanted to use this sort of thing to underscore their scenes as every time they meet to plan their heist.
Version 2 – the director responded strongly to this stuff, but didn’t want it to feel ironic or or tongue in cheek. She also wanted a more contemporary feel. So I went through my music libraries (and a couple of
bars/lounges filled with characters like those in the play) and came up with some of these contemporary riffs on lounge, from the Hotel Costes and Buddha Bar music series.
Version 3 – It was bound to happen – they really responded to the music, but a couple of the actors recognized the track and started humming along. I don’t want to pull the audience OUT of the play when they hear the music, I want them to stay inside – I can’t use recognizable stuff. So I spent some time listening to the Costes and Buddha Bar stuff that worked, figured out its structure, and went to the studio drawing board. I sampled some chunks of the initial lounge stuff the director liked, and mixed in some beats, made some loops… created these lounge mixes of my own. Every seemed to respond really well in rehearsal.
Version 4 – Playing these tracks as underscores in the venue, for them to be present enough to be heard meant that some elements (if you listen to version 3, about 26 seconds in, for example) just popped to much, and others disappeared. I went through and remastered, so that these tracks could live in the play as smooth underscores, keeping the energy up, but living more on the unconscious level. I ended up playing stuff mostly through the subs and upstage speakers, and a drop in the surrounds (see drawing #X) – interestingly enough, when I put it in the cluster and proscenium, it pulled to hard on the ear.
(Now I need to get someone to write the play that demands this…)
THAT would allow me to do, in a portfolio, what I can’t do otherwise. I cannot, in a portfolio, evaluate how the sound worked in the room… but with something like the above, I can understand a designer’s PROCESS, and their art – from how they come to an idea, through its evolution into the way they delivered it to an audience. It would include drawings of signal flow and speaker plot, because, even if the speaker positions are predetermined, as an outsider, I DON’T KNOW THE ROOM… so I don’t know how it is set up. I need the designers to have done these drawings, because I need to know that they can do them, and that they understand them. I also need them to understand how the designer delivered the sound.
NOW – ON THE OTHER HAND – let me say this. Most of my friends/collegues in the industry do not have ‘portfolios’. I’ve never been asked for a portfolio (tho, as a composer/designer, I have been asked for demo CD’s.) A director would never want to see a speaker plot. They hire me based purely on my resume, the work of mine that they’ve heard, and the way we connect in our meetings. They need to hear me talk coherently about ideas, and execution of ideas. A producer wants to know if I’ve worked with X sized budgets, and if I’ve kept to them, and if I ‘ve done good work.
And, I can also say this – most professional lighting designers I know acknowledge the fact that the cool photos in their portfolios in no way convey their abilities as a lighting designer. They convey their abilities
to take good pictures, and create dramatic, momentary looks. Hell, I have photos in some drawer somewhere from my college lighting designs – the PHOTOS are amazing. I used tungsten film, pushed exposures, had actors who held cool poses, etc. But was I a good lighting designer? Not really. I made GREAT tableau vivants and super-saturated shows with 14 lights and a 2 scene preset lightboard. But give me 150 lights, a set with challenging walls, and a single day for focus and I’ll make a giant pile of mud out of your Don Giovanni. I promise.
So we have to acknowledge (and it’s part of what I do in my weeklong time with the regional winners of the ACTF) that you cannot truly get to know a designer from his/her portfolio – you can only get to know them by worked with them, and watching them work. And this is why I’ve pushed so hard to create personal interactions between these young designers and the people who are "evaluating" them.
Is it a contest – who is better? Hell, no. It’s a chance to explore a person’s work.
If you wanted an even "contest," you’d need to assign every college the same production, with the same production tools. Then you could (based on personal aesthetics ONLY) determine who was "better" – but it would still be personal. And it would never happen.
From my perspective, the ACTF (and SETC, and every other theatre conference) is mainly good for one thing: exposing young designers to other young designers, and beginning a dialogue. Every time I guest lecture somewhere, the students are far more interested in "true tales of show business" than in how I built cue 274.
If we can help open the minds of our younger designers to the fact that they are artists, making vital work for the theatre, and help encourage them to take giant risks, try crazy idea, and even make really big mistakes as they evolve as artists, then we are helping move the very notion of sound design as an art forward. If we can teach young directors, writers, producers, and designers in other fields the way sound can help them express their visions, then we pave the way throughout the country for more interesting theatre. And that, my friends, is worth all the mishaps, confusion, and even frustration of plans and programs that may not work perfectly the first (or second, or third) time around.
I’m sorry to keep coming back around to this topic. I guess it’s just a hot-button for me. I often feel, as a designer, that I’m not "impacting the world around me" enough. Which is why I’ve gotten involved in this other side of things.