Student sound designer immerses audience

By S. Hennessy Machado-Hidalgo

Student Stephen Alvarez uses sound as a palette to augment visual arts, as sound designer for East Los Angeles Colleges’s production of “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

Alvarez is also the production’s sound board operator. 

Alvarez said a sound designer is responsible for creating and choosing sounds that convey a play’s ideas, while the sound board operator runs the technical sound levels and cues as the show happens.  

A sound designer aims to invoke feelings in the audience while a sound board operator maintains that mission in real time. 

“It’s fun to be the sound designer for the show and then being the sound board operator working the show. 

“I know what’s coming next because I designed it and I also fully understand it. If something goes wrong, I know where to pick up and how to fix it,” Alvarez said.

Aside from the fun of occupying the two positions for “Skin of Our Teeth,” Alvarez also enjoyed the opportunities for exploration the source material offered.

Alvarez said, “This play is not your average play. It’s out there. There’s a lot of experimentation to try new things… It’s actually freeing because you can go in any direction stylistically. It’s liberating as a designer.”

Alvarez said his favorite moment to build is the cuckoo clock chime that ends an act just as the lights blackout.

“There’s a cuckoo clock that makes the weirdest sound ever heard. It starts out normal then slowly descends into madness and insanity. (The clock) screeches all kinds of weird noises very loudly. It’s jarring, and that’s the point,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said the moment’s conception came from Director James Buglewicz. 

He  wanted a reprisal of previous sounds in the act to build the climax. Alvarez decided to reprise the cuckoo clock chime with the Antrobus family’s theme music and to then distort them.

“I wanted it to sound like a dream, like waking up from a nightmare. Some sounds seem very distant and as you’re coming to consciousness the sounds sort of come closer, but also get more intense and you suddenly wake up and it cuts out,” Alvarez said.

He said sound design starts with reading the script, but is completely transformed by opening night. Getting the audience to feel what the play conveys is a collaborative effort between all designers, actors, crew and head of production.

“If the idea comes across and people feel that, then I win; we all win,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez graduated from ELAC in 2018 with a music degree and a recording arts degree. 

He then transferred to Cal State Los Angeles and got an undergraduate degree in jazz studies and piano performance. 

He is a jazz pianist and is interested in post-production for film, video games, podcasts and music production. 

Alvarez is now exploring sound as a theater student. “The Skin of Our Teeth” is the second play Alvarez has designed sound for. Alvarez said post-production is linear, while theater is live and mistakes can happen.

“It’s kind of like being a jazz musician. There’s no wrong notes when you’re playing jazz. And that’s how I feel about (“The Skin of Our Teeth”). It hits all the notes. Every note, every feeling,” Alvarez said.

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