Of Sound Mind: Fitz Patton Sees Theater As Tonal Adventure

Sound designer? Composer? Photographer? Publisher? Call him what you like. But call: he's listening.

Fitz Patton. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Fitz Patton is a Drama Desk and Lortel-winning composer and sound designer who has built an extensive and varied body of work on Broadway, Off-Broadway and across the country. While building his portfolio, Patton also channeled his frustration with the static conventions of theatrical production photography into Chance Magazine, a publishing experiment that he calls a “serial art book.” (Full disclosure: I was founding editor of the magazine in 2012 with Fitz, set and costume designer Dane Laffrey, and costume designer Camille Assaf. The magazine’s six print issues are now available online.)

My chat with Fitz wandered fluidly among specific productions and his life philosophy. His is, obviously, an expansive vision that offers a thrilling glimpse into a theatrical life. The following is a condensed, lightly edited version of our recent interview.

Martha Steketee: Do you have a personal or professional statement or vision for your design work?

Rajesh Bose and Ben Graney in Oslo. Repertory Theatre St. Louis. Photo; Peter Wochniak.

Fitz Patton: Oslo — a play I just designed in St. Louis — is a good example of how I approach my work. In that play, Israelis and Palestinians in 1993 are litigating this very complex thing, a declaration of principles on how they’re going to resolve conflict. I learned that my role as sound designer could be to evoke the ancient tribal energy that underlies and charges the entire conversation. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is built on top of an ancient Jewish religious site destroyed long ago; you’re looking at a conflict that stretches back at least 1,500 years. That tribal energy, woven into the DNA of the people having the conversation, is profound. I underscored only the negotiations — the coming together of these people. The subject of the underscore was this tribal vibration, which I thought tensioned the jokes and worked as a salve to the more emotionally explosive moments.

Dylan Baker, Janet McTeer in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

For Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway this season, Beowulf Boritt designed a revolving set. I had this idea that the piece should be set and scored with a Brahms-ian orchestra, contemporary to the 1897 of the play. I thought the score should be made of things that revolve, tiny motifs that go round and round and then pile on top of each other. The set was this circular thing, so I thought it should have an aural equivalent. There was utility to that. I didn’t mix it down as one piece. The brass were in the center cluster and a little bit to the side; the strings were only in the side and the rear surrounds; the woodwinds were over here. It was like you were sitting in the pit with the orchestra, and I thought that helped unify the space.

Story continues below.

From those examples and my sense of your work, you design as an aural element of an immersive experience.

Immersive is a great word. I see my role very much as placing the audience inside of something. It’s determining the strongest position I can take that is not simply making an aural copy of something that’s already there. For Oslo, I could have read the play and said, “All right, what’s the top-of-show cue as they enter the play?” and scored it that play. [But] that would say, “Oh, we’re watching a play.” If the actors enter in silence and go straight into dealing with the problem, then when the music emerges it can lay a tribal, timeless, spiritual space, which is both healing and wounded. Then you’re not watching Oslo, the play. You’re watching this negotiation under which this other thing happens.

The decision in Bernhardt/Hamlet was to ask: “What is the landscape of Paris?” “What kind of poetic project is this city that would produce this amazing woman and validate the profoundly impactful, spiritual capability of her voice?” The recordings I heard of [Sarah Bernhardt] — I’ve never heard anything like that in my life! She’s capable of playing four, five, six-minute arcs that are really shocking.

I asked a general question about mission and vision that got us into very specific work that illustrates your approach. This feels very organically Fitz.

It used to be that I thought my job as sound designer was that you decided where the cues go, and the music should be really cool. Where I’m at now is to ask: what role or character do I take on to add a specific dimension to a production so that my role binds it all together and gives it a certain uniquely identifiable resonance or gestalt or presence?

Trying to do Bernhardt/Hamlet without music would be ridiculous. For me, I commit to self-transformation: “I’m going to be Brahms or Puccini for Bernhardt/Hamlet“; “I’m going to be Aphex Twin for Oslo“; I’m going to be Bernhard Leitner for [Samuel D. Hunter’s play] Lewiston/Clarkston.

Lewiston/Clarkston. Edmond Donovan and Heidi Armbruster. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

With Lewiston/Clarkston, we didn’t hang any conventional speakers, but 24 little speakers. There are speakers underneath the chairs, speakers lining the walls that look like PA speakers from a high school auditorium, and in the ceiling we removed lights and installed little circular PA-style speakers. Every speaker got its own individual line of content, so ultimately the audience was inside 27 discrete channels of sound. I rented an Ambisonic 8 channel ambient recording system, and drove into the woods for two days and recorded. I used stochastic math to synthesize cicada fields based on temperature and time of day, and installed that in the space.

This is an unpacking of the sound designer role. There was a time when I saw design as this procedural thing that you do, and that every time it happened it should be as cool as possible. Now there is this desire to really dissolve into the project, to take whatever form or shape that I need to do that.

Story continues below.

Tell me about your experience designing sound and music for Choir Boy, both Off-Broadway in 2013 and the current Broadway production.

Jeremy Pope in “Choir Boy.” Photo: Matthew Murphy.

I started with a very candid conversation about the fact that the Friedman Theatre typically does not sound very exciting; the sound system is behind the times. I said we have to lift this up with the energy of a musical, even though it’s not a musical. I kept writing Trip Cullman, the director, saying that generative creativity really needs to be in evidence. If we just play known CD tracks, it will collapse the production. When you play someone else’s music from another time in a neatly edited cue, people feel the deadness. You know in your bones it’s not real.

The Broadway sound and music design came out of the decision to commit creatively, to evoke something fundamental out of the text and space, to manifest the thing. Part of why people love musicals, I think, is that everything is alive, is being made now. A cello line is not canned, but there is a cellist drawing a bow across an instrument. Jason Michael Webb [credited in the Broadway Choir Boy with music direction and arrangements, and co-credit for original music] and I had an incredible collaborative mirror. We traded sketches and completed each other’s work. It was truly a co-composition.

Story continues below.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I was born in Austin, Texas, in 1963, and soon moved to Oklahoma, so I identify Oklahoma as my home, and that general region of north Texas and Oklahoma as my birthplace. I discovered the modern world and people who could think clearly and articulately in Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to high school starting in tenth grade. It was a friendly place to get in touch with some European influences with a great orchestra and a heavy post-World War II European population. From there I went to Vassar. I got an MFA at Bard in music composition, worked with composer Nicholas Maw, and then spent some time in the Financial District while making theater at night. When my day-job gave me a promotion, I realized I needed to get out, and left to earn an MFA from Yale in sound design.

I’m most happy in a big theater. It doesn’t have to be a Broadway theater, but I’m most happy in a space with 600 or more seats and undertaking something really special. I suppose I’ve been a denizen of NYC for so long that to some degree I may have lost touch with more natural surroundings. My brain is now so wired around the pressures of creating in a theatrical space.

What do you consider yourself — sound designer, composer, photographer or publisher? How do you describe your professional self to the world?

I feel most at home when I’m constantly creating, making a present into which I’m always stepping. There’s a way creativity illuminates the present. So even if it isn’t design, it’s taking photographs or attacking the question of how to publish this art book or producing a radio play. In an art form that’s so ephemeral, the only way to capture it for a moment and look at it for what it really is takes extra energy and effort.

Story continues below.

For a multi-hyphenate like you, creativity has a range of forms and pinning down “firsts” is less straightforward. I don’t know if single silos fit you.

You and I have talked in the past about vertical subcultures. When people make a play, they close the door, circle around each other, go to work, build this amazing thing, and reveal it. The work of Chance Magazine was to cut across vertical construction projects and find something to connect them. In each little subculture, there’s a kind of not-knowing what’s going on. Our job was to say: if you look at 30 of these projects, what do we find? The nice thing about the magazine is we never answered the question. But when you held an issue, these 30 things were concurrent, and you could draw your own conclusions.

Do you think of yourself having a main area of expertise — which opened you up into this perspective on making theater?

It certainly is steeped in the organization procedures of modern music, which are intuitive and poetic, and involves a fair degree of math. There’s rigor that goes with composing and orchestrating, part of which is technical, part of which is craft. When you break these things down, you find that everything lies on a chromatic spectrum of naming: this is music; this is sound design; this is lighting design; this is photography; this is text; this text is poetry; this text is prose. The labels all apply, but at some point, there’s a place where these things all swim together and resonate from a deeper place of unvariegated connection…

Story continues below.

What projects are over the horizon? What’s your vision for future work?

My piece called The Holy Land, a 45-minute work for baritone, tenor, mezzo-soprano, and orchestra, is a setting of eight poems by Israeli and Arab poets about the physical landscape of the Holy Land. It’s a series of eight songs with three orchestral interludes that I have to record. I’d like to get a residency at a place like Yaddo or MacDowell and have a solid four weeks to finish the orchestral parts. My friend Robin Guarino from the Cincinnati Conservatory has connected me with three extraordinary singers who are willing. I’m hoping that if things go well there will be a performance in New York of the piece.

Which sound designers and composers inspire you at the moment?

In the world of theatrical sound design? I really like Peter John Still, based at the Boise Contemporary Theater. He’s also creating a Buddhist retreat there and is an eccentric, profound fellow. I really love Palmer Hefferan’s EDM — she has a really nice way of using loops and contemporary groove-based dance music to make fascinating compositions. I wouldn’t call her my student, but I would say the word protégé is not unreasonable.

Story continues below.

If you weren’t composing music and creating these beautiful soundscapes, is there any other field that you’ve considered?

Probably photography. I was recently organizing some of the images for Chance Magazine into different categories: portraits, immersive, from-the-audience style, site-specific, couture, and still-life. It was nice to look at those shoots again and feel the ways in which the point of view helped bring something to life in a good way. It’s probably photography.

Tell me your legacy.

For my daughter Julia to remember me as the best father she could have had. That’s easily the first one. I think of legacy as being that thing that sticks. I know so few of the people that came before me. American theatrical life has been going full bore for over 100 years, and that encompasses thousands of lives of incredible people. We’re the meniscus on top of this long column of people who gave us everything that we have to work with. They built theaters, they built the practice, they taught us how to do what we do, and we’re doing it. When we stop doing it, others will do it. We’re part of this continuum. I suppose the legacy would be that I took my part in this history, which is a living and evolving thing, and will go past me, that I took my part in that and handed the people who will follow me ideas and work and a commitment that ennobles the form to the highest I was capable.