After receiving a total of 15 Ovation Award nominations over the past 13 years, sound designer John Zalewski seems pretty level-headed about the upcoming Ovation ceremony on November 12. His three nominations this year — for Theatre@Boston Court’s The Children (shared with Veronika Vorel), MainStreet Theatre’s A Wrinkle in Time and the Antaeus Company’s Peace in Our Time — reveal an artist constantly searching for the perfect sound, utilizing discreet effects to suggest and sometimes even instigate action on the stage.
Zalewski quotes a saying that most sound designers have heard at some point in their schooling or in books: “‘The best sound design isn’t heard’ — I used to think that expression was, you know, bullshit,” Zalewski says with a smile. “I thought, ‘why do it if it won’t be heard?’ But I’ve learned that subtlety is preferable. It’s more important to tell the story than to make a brilliant sound cue.”
After studying journalism for one year at the Federal University of Para in Brazil — a country where Zalewski also went to high school — he moved back to his birthplace, Los Angeles, with the intention of becoming an experimental rock performer and producer. He studied audio engineering and music synthesis at Cal State Dominguez Hills and then switched to Cal State Long Beach’s BFA program for drawing and painting.
After a few years in Los Angeles, Zalewski was introduced to Reza Abdoh‘s work at Los Angeles Theatre Center, circa 1990, through one of Abdoh’s sound designers and a colleague from Dominguez Hills, Raul Enriquez. An Iranian-born American director and playwright famous for his large, experimental shows, Abdoh made spectacular use of all theatrical disciplines, Zalewski recalls.
“It was around this time that I had became more involved with the visual arts,” Zalewski says. He started following Abdoh’s company, which at this point had moved to New York and was touring Europe extensively, as a performance photographer and sometimes as a tech operator. When Abdoh died in 1995, parts of the company (Dar A Luz) moved back to LA, which continued to be Zalewski’s base. “I made myself available as a designer for people like Abdoh’s choreographer/performer, now creating theater on his own, Ken Roht.”
Zalewski’s budding career as a sound designer took off. “Ken’s friend Laural Meade needed a sound designer for her play Leopold and Loeb, a Goddam Laff Riot and I said sure. My first big lesson,” he continues, “was — wait, I can’t make one long cue and have the actors sync to that the whole performance?” Once he realized that sound had to be broken down and massaged through more nuanced means, things went fairly smoothly. “That play (Leopold and Loeb) was at the ASK [Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre] festival in ’95,” Zalewski recalls, “where several LA theater makers saw it, including Bart DeLorenzo from the newly formed Evidence Room and Mark Seldis who was at the Actors’ Gang. In a couple of years I was working with them, besides Laural and Indecent Exposure [a company that was active at LATC in the ’90s].”
Nowadays, whether it’s an adaptation of a famous children’s novel (A Wrinkle in Time), a re-working of a little-seen Noel Coward piece (Peace in Our Time) , or a contemporary riff on Euripides’ Medea (The Children), Zalewski unearths everyday sounds that help ground these plays in something both real and visceral. “I like to use very basic tones,” he says. Then he points up to the ceiling. “Like the air conditioning unit…something in this room right now is tuned to something.” But we seldom notice such noises, he says. “I like to put that in a scene. and then if it needs complication I’ll add things to it. Maybe I’ll add another tone or code or bring in something low.” He says that he provides an aural equivalent to “the gesso layer in a painting” that he then uses as a foundation.
Without proper sound design, live performance becomes a battle between acting on stage and distracting sounds from outside, Zalewski notes. Many people think that there shouldn’t be any sounds on stage when the actors are talking. But there are already plenty of distracting noises — such as traffic or buzzing stage lights that you don’t have control over. “You have to assert your control as a sound designer by using simple sounds that take up the space — even if the audience doesn’t consciously register them. It really does make a difference.” He refers to his inclusion of low-level drones in both Peace in Our Time and A Wrinkle in Time — drones that, in his mind, made their way into the audience’s subconscious and ratcheted up the tension on stage without ever drawing attention to themselves.
The second half of Peace in Our Time depended on Zalewski’s nearly undetectable level of atmospheric sound to conjure up a considerable amount of suspense. “We began with sonic artifacts of radios in order to put us into that time period. But then as the play progresses, we kind of get into a darker mode. Nazis start cracking down on characters… So sonically we started amping up the low frequency and low drones.” This was a discreet attempt, he says, to hint at impending danger from bomber jets and air raids without turning the noise into something bombastic and unbelievable. The audience, he continues, “might not even notice [the noise] but deep down something significant has happened. There’s a lot of really subtle things that you can play with that go beyond the car crash or the telephone ringing.”
Of his three nominations this year, the Peace in Our Time nod surprised Zalewski the most, “because it was a very subtle show in terms of sound. There were only a few explosions,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not sure why it became so popular with the Ovation voters. I suppose what worked with people was the effect of tension in the piece. The tone of it is like looking into a window at something actually happening” as opposed to the more abstracted theatricality of The Children and A Wrinkle in Time.
The Children injects puppets, a Greek chorus and a category 5 hurricane into a psychologically-bent environment with no concrete or reliable narration. As such, it depended heavily on the technical elements of lighting and sound to lend controlled mayhem to the proceedings. “This was a very complex story with a lot of nuance and emotionality,” Zalewski says. “Puppets descend from the grid. Following that, there’s a lot of sounds of descent — the sense of things shifting downwards.” The Children moves in and out of memories, he explains, that change as the protagonist grows older. “There are many emotional dimensions to play with. You need a palette of sound that represents those many different motifs. The main thrust of Children is figuring out what the hell is going on. Who do we trust? Who are these characters? That’s what [the audience] has to figure out.”
For Zalewski, working with the show’s director, Jessica Kubzansky, presented ample opportunity for him to dive into the material. “She trusts me and does her own thing and allows me to respond to what she’s doing and what the other artists are doing.” Even after he was given free rein artistically, Zalewski still took the time to observe much of the play’s rehearsal process before making his choices. This need to collaborate, he says, is not just the case with The Children but with nearly every show he’s worked on. “I look at what people are doing. Lighting designers are so important. It’s hard to make sounds with only the house lights on. There’s a lot in tandem with the light designers as well as the actors — checking their emotional temperatures, playing against it, reinforcing it. [The players must] trust my response to what they’re doing.”
He talks about a scene near the end of MainStreet’s A Wrinkle in Time when the imperiled child protagonist Meg defends herself against the villain, IT. “She remembers something her guardian angel told her and she realizes how to turn things back. She’s losing the battle and then she thinks of something, and that causes a slight shift in the sound. The low, dark sounds shift and guide you and reinforce what’s happening, what the actor’s giving.” For Zalewski, this was a huge moment in the story that required the tiniest shift in sound design to make its effects known to the audience, without calling attention to what he had done.
So while Zalewski acknowledges that his individual work, and subsequent nominations for sound design, reflect well on his own process — “like an extra pat on the back,” he says — they’re still reliant on the evolving choices of his cast and crew. “When the actors read [a script], I can tell by the way they approach it what I need to do to help. If you have the actor turning the story, the lights and sound shift with it.” All the elements on and off the stage reinforce each other. “I try to subtly reinforce what’s changing in the plot and what’s changing in the character.”
Asked why he loves a job that often doesn’t register consciously with the audience, Zalewski concludes, “I really love working with the artists. There’s a lot going on in the theater. Everything that live theater involves — being in the now, doing something that’s happening in front of you and everybody else in that one moment, in that one place — it’s the collaboration.”
Harry Vaughn is a grad student at USC’s Specialized Journalism Program (in the Arts) and a script reader and film screener for the Sundance Film Festival and Feature Film Program, International. For three years he covered film for the Weekly Dig in Boston, and he is now a contributing writer for Artillery magazine. He received his BFA in acting at Emerson College as well as a certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Vaughn lives in South Pasadena.
***All Peace in Our Time production photos by Steven Brand.
***All A Wrinkle in Time production photos by Jim Carmody.