If you go the the theater much in Chicago, there's a good chance you've experienced the compositions and sound designs of Chistopher Kriz. Sound designers rarely get top billing and often remain unacknowledged in theater reviews, but if you pay attention to the design credits, you'll start seeing Christopher's name all over the place.There are currently six productions running on stages around Chicago that feature his designs, with another six to open next month. As if that wasn't enough, he also works on commercials and TV. CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath recently spoke to Christopher about his approach to design, the relationship between sound design and music, and the challenges of working across different media.
To what extent do you engage with the text when you’re working on the sound design for a play?
The text is, of course, the first step. The play is read before any meetings or discussion with the director. However, I tend to not develop any concrete ideas about the design until the director’s concept for the production has been discussed. But ultimately, what I’m reacting to is the actors. I can’t design the play just based on text; I can only design a particular production. I’m very influenced by an actor’s performances or an actor’s interpretation.
Do things ever work the other way around, so that you’re giving the world of the play to the actors?
Absolutely. I’m helping to create a world for the actors to live in. Often actors will come up to me after tech and say, “Wow, you really informed this scene for me.” I can help to lead them in a direction based on what I bring to the table—or maybe just take them further: I see something they’re doing and I present an idea and that might bring them someplace new. It’s lovely when that happens.
We’re often said to be living in a highly visual culture. Do you think that the visual design elements in the theatre get noticed more than sound design? Or that sound designers’ work on productions gets less recognition?
When I’m doing my job well, my work should go unnoticed. Or at least it should be operating on multiple levels, and some of those may be subliminal. You’re shaping the audience’s experience, so an audience may not be aware of what they’re hearing or how they’re being influenced by sound.
In this way, I think that I have more of a cinematic approach to design in the theatre than some. But if you think about film, there’s just quite often sound and music all the time and you’re not aware of it consciously. That’s harder to do in the theater, but it’s the same principle.
People are aware of music, and underscore perhaps, or things that are very upfront, but a lot of the other sound I don’t think they should be aware of, at least not consciously.
Do you think that audiences’ relationship to sound has changed since they’ve become accustomed to the surround sound experience and the sonic environments that are created in movies? Does theater have to compete with that, or does theater have a different edge through its liveness?
There are two things. One is that audiences expect the level of fidelity that they’re used to hearing in movie theaters and that’s largely duplicated in live theater now. But the biggest change is in the way that sound is controlled in theaters now and how it can be manipulated. Today we have multi-channel computer playback that can execute the most elaborate cues that you can imagine at the push of a button, whereas fifteen years ago we only had tape, CD or Minidisc players. So we were very limited by what we could produce. What’s possible now is not just more, but a level of control that you just didn’t have before. So you can create those underlying layers of sound that were much harder to pull off with an analog mixer and a CD player.
Could you talk about the relationship between sound design and musical scores? Do you see them as extensions of each other, or are they entirely separate things in your mind?
To me, nearly everything is music. I mean if it’s a telephone cue or a door slam or something like that—OK, it’s a door slam. But if you’ve got crickets outside, or wind, or birds chirping, or traffic, or any kind of environmental sound like that, to me it’s just another layer of music. In a lot of my work I create textural layers of sound that are not necessarily identifiable, things that are sort of musical, but also textural. They might be tonal, they might have some kind of musical foundation, but they might also sound like wind or something else in the environment. It’s just meant for emotional support or to evoke a particular response. Whether or not that’s something that someone else would call music or not isn’t that important to me.
I do write a lot of music for plays, but I often reserve the credit “original music by” for when there are overt “pieces of music” written for a show, rather than just textural sound and underscore, even though I very much perceive them as the same thing. I just usually approach design from a musical point of view.
As a sound designer, is there a big difference between working in theater and in TV, film, commercials, etc.? Is it a different process? Or is the work environment noticeably different?
It is different. With TV or film, so many parameters are defined for you. The total length is set and you’ve got to sync up to the edits or moments. Some of those decisions are already made for you, so perhaps it’s easier in that respect. But then again, it’s can be challenging because you can’t just do whatever you want to do: you have to do this. Theater is less defined. The show changes every night, so it’s hard to have things that are a specific length because if a transition is held up or a monologue runs long, there has to be some flexibility built into the design. So the process is different.
Does your résumé and your reputation carry over from one area of sound design to other areas? Are you simply known as a sound designer, so that people will hire you for dance projects, and film, and commercials, and all types of different work, or do you have to really break into each area individually if you want to build a reputation there?
I think I’m primarily known as a theatrical sound designer. I haven’t done a ton of commercials and films, and most of those things come about through completely different avenues. TV and film doesn’t intersect with theater too much, so you have to establish yourself in those different arenas. Live concert engineering—which I did a lot earlier in my career and still do occasionally—is a whole separate area in itself.
Compared to some, I think I spread myself out a bit more. There are certainly people who are just live sound engineers and people who are just composers. But I try to have as rounded an experience as possible. There are composers who work in theater, who are just composers and don’t design; and vice versa, there are sound designers who don’t compose. To me, I don’t know how to design sound without being a composer; because that’s who I am, that’s what I do. I wouldn’t even know how to approach it without approaching it from a musical standpoint as well.
Is there any advice you’d give to up-and-coming sound designers and composers about breaking into different areas?
For anybody starting out in any discipline, I think it is important to say yes to everything you can. Whether you want to be A, B, or C, you should still say "yes" to a lot of projects because you never know who you’re going to meet and how it might influence somebody down the road. Experience is your best teacher. You become better at what you do by doing something that you wouldn’t normally do.
A lot of the work you get is based on professional relationships and recommendations rather than a résumé or a portfolio or a website. It’s important to have examples of your work and things that you can show and send out, but it's really cultivating relationships with people that can lead to new opportunities. In my career, that’s been true. I do send out things cold just like anybody does, and I’ve certainly gotten some work through that, but you get more work based on recommendations.
Christopher Kriz is a composer, sound designer, and sound engineer based in Chicago. Over the course of his career, he has worked with more than 50 Chicago area theater companies, including Northlight Theatre, Steppenwolf, Writers Theatre, Victory Gardens, Next Theatre, TimeLine, First Folio, Theatre Wit, Chicago Dramatists, Rivendell Theatre and Pegasus Players. He is the resident composer/sound designer for First Folio, Redtwist Theatre and Chicago Fusion Theatre, and a member of United Scenic Artists 829.