Tony can you hear me?

Dear Tony Awards Administration Committee,

Hi there! My name is Chris. You don't know me, but I wrote the code that runs your shows.

Specifically, I wrote the audio playback code that runs this program, which runs the sound in your shows.

Last Wednesday, the theater community learned the news that you have decided to eliminate the categories for Sound Design from next year's Tony Awards.

Many folks have been writing to share their thoughts about this decision. I've seen a series of eloquent letters from artists I look up to, in both the sound design community and other disciplines. Lighting designers and directors and costume designers and stagehands and actors and theater makers of all varieties are adding their names to the list of people who feel this decision merits a second look. Famous Broadway stars have contributed their support on Twitter with #tonycanyouhearme, and although I don't have a Facebook account, I'm told people are spreading the word there, too.

I am not a famous Broadway star. I am not even an unfamous Broadway person. I am not a sound designer and I am not, in the end, a professional artist.

But I do have one experience that others don't, and if you'll allow me a moment, I'd like to add one more perspective to the mix.

In Which I Speculate

At the time I write this, I am not aware that you've explained the reasoning behind your choice. But on the face of it, the message seems pretty simple: you're telling the world that either A) sound does not constitute a consistently integral function in modern theater, or B) that function is not fundamentally of an artistic nature.

The first possibility — that sound might not be consistently integral to modern theater — has a glorious counterpoint in every musical ever staged.

It's similarly impossible to imagine many "straight" plays without sound. (I don't know exactly what War Horse would be without its 40-odd channels of meticulously crafted soundscapes and effects, but try pulling the plug on the next production and we can find out soon enough. It may be prudent to process ticket refunds in advance.)

I therefore speculate that there's possibly some question as to the fundamental artistic nature of sound design. If that is the case, then I'd like to share a few...

Thoughts From a Geek

I mention above that I wrote the code that runs the sound in your shows. I want to make this point quite clear, because I am perhaps uniquely qualified to describe to you which parts of the sound in your productions are engineering rather than art.

The product my company sells is called QLab. Since 2008, when the first Tony Awards for sound design were introduced, QLab has been utilized in some capacity to run audio for the following productions:

  • Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (2014 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play)
  • Beautiful - The Carole King Musical (2014 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • The Nance (2013 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play)
  • Kinky Boots (2013 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • Peter and the Starcatcher (2012 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play)
  • Once (2012 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • War Horse (2011 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play)
  • The Book of Mormon (2011 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • Fela! (2010 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • Billy Elliot, The Musical (2009 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)
  • Equus (2009 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play)
  • South Pacific (2008 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical)

(That's 12 out of 14, if you're counting.)

In short, if you check the tech booth of your favorite Broadway show, the chances are quite high you'll find QLab running the sound.

QLab doesn't just do sound, and I did not write all of QLab. (I am joined by extremely talented teammates in building this program). But I did write all the application-specific parts that do the sound.

And if, as a matter of logic, sound design was fundamentally a technical matter, one might imagine I would be in great demand as a designer of shows. After all, no one knows the technical details better than I do. I can describe to you in excruciating detail how every single one of those 44100 bits of sound you're hearing every second traveled through your show's computer on their way to the ears of your patrons. (Guilty secret: I sometimes amuse myself by doing this when attending a less-than-enthralling production.)

But the thing is this:

I am not a sound designer

Not even close.

And the reason I know this, the reason I can write with unwavering conviction that sound design is deeply artistic, is simply from the experience of hearing what an artist can do with the tool that I made.

The times I've sat slack-jawed. The times I've laughed, or wept, or literally lept about with joy. The times I've witnessed something I didn't even know was possible to make using the tool that I built.

These experiences were not products of engineering. Yes, they required engineering. Yes, they required science. Yes, they required technical proficiency, which is often (but not always) one of the many skills that makes a good designer. But these experiences transcend the mechanics of their construction, and in so doing it is the art of the designer which lifts them from the realm of the technical into the realm of the beautifully human.

And they are, I stress again, experiences I am myself incapable of crafting, even though I wrote every line of code that delivers the effect.

Hell, I don't even have to go to a show to know I am not a designer. In the course of supporting our product, I'm often sent sample show files with which I run tests — trying to recreate a problem or track down a programming error. Even in these moments, devoid of every other piece of theatrical context, presented in the least artistically friendly environment imaginable, I press "GO" on a sequence of cues for a show I'll never see... and there I am, covered in goosebumps.

I don't even, in the end, need to use my own program as an example. I have literally sat in a mini-van full of sound designers deconstructing the emotional content of the chime that tells you one of the doors is ajar. It was a background sound, something I did not conciously consider. But I was completely amazed to discover how much they could unpack from that simple sound. They did it as a joke, but I sat there in very real amazement. (Then we all bundled out and went swimming at the hotel.)

Perhaps I Have Misunderstood

It may well be I've misinterpreted the reasons behind your decision. If you stand behind this choice, to discontinue recognition of sound design among the other artistic disciplines, perhaps it is for other reasons. I don't wish to put words in your mouth, and I am hardly privy to the many factors that must influence the shape of this event.

But if there is anything to my speculation, I hope this letter is useful. I hope it can be combined with the feedback of many other folks who are even more qualified to comment, and I hope in aggregate it will encourage revisiting your initial decision.

An award can serve a good purpose. It can help us hold ourselves to high standards. It can help us aspire to do great work. It can help us show love to people who have given us something special. But it's hard for an award to do those things if it loses respect, or legitimacy. I humbly offer that if not reversed, the decision to ignore an entire artistic field will send the Tony in that unfortunate direction.

But don't take it from me, I just write code. Go talk to the artists who make your shows.

This letter has been printed and mailed to:
Tony Awards Administrative Committee
℅ The Broadway League Inc.
729 Seventh Avenue, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10019

Chris Ashworth is the founder of Figure 53