It sounds as if it could be some kind of mystical mantra for a theatrical sound designer: Listen to the crickets.
In fact, it is literally what Melanie Chen Cole found herself doing late one night not long ago at the lip of a canyon in Mira Mesa, as she was working up ideas for the soundscape of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere work “At the Old Place.”
So she had ventured to the edge of her own back yard to tune into the local crickets and try to get the distinction clear in her head.
Short of an entomologists’ convention descending on the Playhouse, it seems unlikely many theatergoers would’ve noticed a “wrong” note in a cricket symphony during the show.
But for Cole — a UC San Diego grad who has become one of the most in-demand local theater artists — that level of authenticity is just part of the bargain.
In the case of “Back to the Old Place,” the question was, “How do we bring this environment into this place?,” she says. “It was supposed to be an Eastern location, and all of us are in La Jolla right now, so how do we illustrate that?
“I’m really focused on, How do I create something that’s the most real?”
Since then, she has designed sound for 86 theater and dance productions — including 17 shows in 2017 alone.
Melanie Chen Cole works with Krystin Cline, an Old Globe audio engineer technician, on the sound for “Romeo and Juliet.” (Nancee E. Lewis)
Her latest project is the Old Globe/University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Program production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which runs through this week at the Globe’s arena-style White Theatre.
That show will feature variations on hip-hop, including needle-drops of classic tracks by Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys. But Cole is also composing music for a scene in which the fated lovers first meet.
“I rarely compose, because I feel that’s a completely different side of your brain to use,” she says, speaking during a break near the Globe on a recent afternoon. “And sometimes directors want a certain feel, so they already have artists in mind.
“But if I feel it’s a piece I’m moved to compose, I always mention it (to them).”
Hunting and gathering
The fact that writing music can be part of a sound designer’s job hints at the huge range of responsibilities the job can take in, depending on the size and type of show.
Not only does Cole create, record or otherwise acquire scads of sounds and musical tracks for most shows — sometimes going out into the field to record birds and the like — she also chooses music (in collaboration with the director) and takes on such technical aspects as where speakers are placed and how actors are miked.
The job seems ideally suited to the skills and academic background of Cole, who initially majored in biology at UCSD but has a deep background in music, the field in which she eventually earned her degree.
But to hear Cole tell it, the sound designer’s role also fits her personality.
As a high-schooler in Orange County, she was a competition-level pianist and played flute as well, but was a self-described shy kid who did not do theater.
Becoming part of the performing-arts community here, she says, has helped her feel more confident. But she also appreciates the subtlety and relative anonymity of her art.
“I feel as though a lot of times, the best sound designs are when you don’t even notice it’s happening,” says Cole, whose swiftness of speaking — a bit like a tape on fast-forward — seems to match the pace of her theatrical output.
“And it matches who I am, I guess. I like being in the back and kind of hiding there, but still being a part of the group.
“And sometimes the physics of everything really blows my mind, and makes me think, oh, we’re just a small part of this whole universe, and these math and physics things are helping (or hindering) us.”
For Cole, it all began when she took an intro design class at UCSD: “That’s what introduced me to this world of theater,” she says.
As she tried to find some way to apply her music experience to stage work, she signed on to assist La Jolla Playhouse sound and video supervisor Joe Huppert on a show he was designing for Ion.
“He kind of just took me in — that’s how I jumped into it, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” says Cole. “He really changed my life, and I’m really grateful about that.”
After graduating, Cole returned to UCSD for her MFA in theater, earning that degree in 2014 under the tutelage of faculty sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari.
Over the past six years she has worked at numerous local theaters, with some 20 credits at North Coast Rep in Solana Beach alone. (She is now married to that theater’s director of education, Ben Cole.)
Cole also has assisted on several productions at the Globe, including last summer’s “Hamlet,” designed by Sten Severson.
She has been nominated four times for the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s Craig Noel Award, winning in 2011 for Ion’s “Angels in America.”
Cole says the “craziest thing” she’s ever worked on in the sound realm is a massive, immersive adaptation of “Peter Pan” that’s now running in Beijing; she spent a month there last year serving as designer as well as interpreter. (Cole, whose family is of Taiwanese heritage, speaks Mandarin.)
And the most unusual so far in a local production? That would have to be the sound cues she gathered for a particular variety of online porn that figured into the opening scene of “The Whale” at Cygnet Theatre two years ago.
Over time, Cole says, her philosophy of the job has evolved.
Early on, “I was interested in being very cinematic with my work,” she says. “So a lot of work I did with Ion focused on learning how to underscore and highlight emotions onstage.
“I really wanted to play with people’s emotions – almost manipulate them a little bit.”
“I’m trying to be as realistic as possible — so you just feel transported.”
Melanie Chen Cole says she divides her job into three general parts: technical engineer, creator and designer. Her thoughts on each:
1. “The technical engineer part of the job makes sure that all the speakers and microphones are prepared and ready to be used. Tasks might include deciding where speakers live, what kind of microphones to use, how I want things to be connected in the hardware and software, and making sure I have all the technology needed to connect everything together.”
2. “The creator part of the job is the part of me that looks for all the music and sound effects. Sometimes I am asked to compose. Sometimes, this is when I find the best doorbell and put together a soundscape of crickets. This part of the job is spread though the whole time I am with the production. This creative part of the job is when I look for the perfect transition music. This job continues through until the show is ‘frozen’ at opening.”
3. The designer job is the most important and largest part of being a sound designer. The designer is the collaborator who communicates with all the other departments. It is my job to be able to convey information to who needs it. As the designer, I create paperwork to track my cues that will help the stage manager keep (them) on track, and I strategically work with the director and try to communicate my information in the best way so that they understand. Some directors like it when I use a lot of technical words or numbers when I talk about sound cues. Other directors like using feelings and color to express sound ideas. As the designer, I have to learn that ‘language’ with them to best communicate with them for that process.”