Grand Rapids Civic Theatre is thrilled to have Sam Johnson, Sound Designer on our staff. We sat down with him to hear more about ‘a day in the life’ and his advice for aspiring theatre professionals.
How were you introduced to the theatre world?
From 3rd-6th grade I attended Vandenburg Creative arts (the precursor to Coit Creative Arts) and that’s how I learned about theatre. It lead me to build a stage in my basement and I was the director, scenic, prop, costume, light, and sound designers. I cast neighbor kids and their parents came to watch. From there my dad contacted Civic and I started volunteering at 13. I never had any desire to be onstage, I’ve always been purely tech theatre driven.
What is something that a lot of people might not know about your job?
In order to achieve the clearest sound, I have to actively mix the entire show. This requires me to turn on and off actor microphones between each line. During dialogue there is only one microphone on at a time; it’s a lot of work, but worth every minute, cause the show sounds so much better. Musical numbers are simpler to mix than dialogue because singers come in at the same place, at the same rhythm, easier to anticipate. Dialogue can change slightly night to night, making it more difficult to mix. Being focused and being locked in with the actors is key.
What does a ‘typical’ day in the life of Sam look like?
After I get my family up and out the door in the morning, I always check my calendar. Then respond to my emails (theatre is very email based). I have meetings for productions that are coming up, usually at least one a week, but typically more. During production weeks I usually will be at the theatre most of the afternoon fixing things from the night before and prepping for rehearsal that evening. On my downtime between productions I focus on maintenance, so our sound equipment is in a tip top working condition. I have much more of a routine when I’m in a production because I’ll have a show 5 days a week.
What have been some of the most rewarding shows to work on thus far?
Les Miserables (2014)- ever since I saw it on Broadway, it was a dream of mine to mix this production and that dream came true in 2014. The musical is gorgeous and I loved every minute of it. Tomorrow Morning (2008)- I designed this show in Chicago, it was the world premiere. I was 21 years old. I felt like I was over my head at times, but I rose to the challenge. It was fun to be part of a show that was evolving, new songs were added and parts changed every rehearsal. I had never been a part of something like that. Wizard of Oz (2005)- My first MainStage musical sound design. To say I felt overwhelmed is an understatement. I learned so much on this show.
When you aren’t working on a show, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I love spending time with my girlfriend and 5 year old son, theatre takes a lot of my time, so I cherish the moments I spend with them. I play piano, I can’t sight read very fast, so I usually make things up. I enjoy music and DJ on the side. I don’t play any sports, but I do enjoy being outside on nice days, especially since the theatre is a dark windowless place.
Advice for people interested in pursuing a career in theatre?
Meet people and ask questions. This industry is very much the “people-you-know”. It’s a lot of simply doing it. Many times it’s baptism by fire. You’re going to be overwhelmed and that’s okay. Each of us have been there and theatre folk tend to be quite supportive.
Although our community is home to many wonderful theatre, Civic is the only one to provide the extensive training and tools needed to learn and grow as an artist/technician. Over the years, I’ve heard many young people (myself included) say: We are given opportunities and responsibilities that sometimes we think we can’t handle, but we rise to the challenge.