Spring Arts: Sound Shopper

Rob Witmer creates the audio scenery for theaters all over town.

Rob Witmer may be the most exhibited Seattle artist you've never heard of. His sound design is featured in a new Seattle show almost every month—including, most recently, Seattle Shakespeare Company's Electra and Seattle Public Theater's The Violet Hour. Not bad for someone who was previously content as a composer, performer, and musician. (A member of the band "Awesome!", he plays mostly accordion and clarinet.) As a designer, he builds acoustic worlds and atmospheres.If a theatrical production team is a band, Witmer says "Lighting designers are the guitar...flashy. Set designers are the drums, 'cause they've got the most equipment and the set designs the 'field.' Sound designers are the bass players. Bass is the instrument that you don't really notice unless it's not there, then you know something's wrong. It's felt more than it's noticed."To design a show, Witmer listens in on production discussions from the beginning, and to the rhythms of the play in readings. But he generally lets the other players figure out their moves before he makes his. "Often sound is the last to come on board, because it interacts least with the other design elements," Witmer explains. "The lights need to know what color the costumes will be in order to do the right gels, and the costume designer needs to know what the set's going to look like so they don't dress characters Victorian in an Edwardian set. But sound kind of stands on its own once the other things are determined."Witmer's brain seems to automatically archive sounds, perhaps for future use. His tactics for collecting sound are sometimes no-holds-barred guerrilla—from requisitioning actor Jennifer Lee Taylor's own childhood soccer videos for a sideline-conversation scene in New Century Theatre's Orange Flower Water at ACT this past summer to creating a pastiche of his own answering-machine messages for a "cell-phone ballet" in Dead Man's Cell Phone at ArtsWest. He's also been known to discreetly hang out with a recorder in hospital corridors.Just as Foley artists from the days of radio drama knew that thumping a watermelon produces the best-sounding body blow, Witmer knows that sound's meaning comes from context rather than source, so he holds his cards close until tech week, right before a production opens, to unveil the sound. "Playing an effect in my living room or even in an empty theater, it's going to sound too loud 'cause we're listening too closely...I can play the same sound effect and a person will say 'Oh, that's a rooster,' when, no, it's a squeaky door—which would be obvious in a play when someone walks offstage, but the same sound can have different effects. Specificity is key.""Rob knows how to work in symphony or when discord will be more challenging and create greater dynamic," says Sheila Daniels, Electra's director. Witmer brought five "flavors" of wind to the Electra set, which he created by layering archived sounds, stock recordings, and some wind he recorded at Cannon Beach, and applying various types of processing. The results were dubbed "Desert" (dry, warm), "Canyon" (whistling, airy), "Desolate" (hollow, sparse), and "Bunker" (dense, dark). Given the play's themes, he didn't use "Mint" (clean, refreshing). He also found an ancient instrument called the bowed psaltery, wrote some music for it, and hired a musician to play it. "Its plaintive, ethereal, scratchy sound puts you on edge," says Witmer. "The vocabulary of sounds was fairly limited, but different combinations of wind, drums, [chimes], and psaltery created 'the world.'"Modern theatrical writing tends to be cinematic, which means more location and scene shifts despite tighter budgets. Sound can help the imaginations of both audience and actors make these jumps. Pinter's Betrayal includes the prodigious comings and goings of a love affair, so for the Rep's production, Witmer portrayed these transitions with conveyance sounds like footsteps, subway turnstiles, jet engines, even gondolas. During the one-minute transition to Venice, we heard upward of 10 different "layers," including accordion, church bells, footsteps, water, and a pigeon."Rob is very good at honing in on what's happening...directionally and emotionally," says Cell Phone director Carol Roscoe. "But he also knows when and what to hold back. It's about the story. That's what keeps us all in line."Witmer's gig list this spring includes Two Gentlemen of Verona for Seattle Shakespeare, which will be set in a Kardashian/O.C. world of privilege and money, and will showcase what director Marcus Goodwin calls "naive, clueless behavior." From iPods to club DJs to ringtones, Witmer will aim to convey how music permeates the characters' lives.Later this spring, he will design sound for New Century's next show, the premiere of On the Nature of Dust by Stephanie Timm. Middle America itself is almost a character in the play, Witmer says, and the production team has been using Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands as a reference. In addition to the ambient sounds Rob will create for a grocery store, school, church, etc., he is thinking marimba. "There are references to the Galapagos, to Africa, so something darker than piano would be good," he muses, citing the eeriness of marimba on the American Beauty soundtrack.The challenge of creating a spirit of place is not unlike the one his band "Awesome!" faces in designing their upcoming show West. Through music, video, movement, and sound effects (e.g., shoveling dirt, the spinning of a movie projector), he says, the show meditates on the emotional landscape of the western United States and the psychological drives behind Western expansion and Manifest Destiny. As a Mercer Island native, explorer, and imaginer, Witmer is already there.stage@seattleweekly.com

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