Tony Winning Sound Designer Rob Kaplowitz Talks About Bringing A Car Factory To Life

It always surprises me to find that so many “behind the scenes” theater artists start out in acting and later find their true passion is in other areas of creation. Case in point….Tony Award winning sound designer Rob Kaplowitz. “Un-Block The Music” got the chance to speak with Rob when he was working on Skeleton Crew recently.

As Rob did with Skeleton Crew, sometimes he wears more than one hat; composing and sound design. “It is super fun to do both, and I have done a crazy wide number of projects,” he said.

“I went to a high school that had unbelievable theater department. I was not really interested in acting, but did so my first year because I didn’t know better. We did 30 shows a year! Every trimester, there were three shows produced by faculty and seven shows written by the high school students. It was nonstop learning.”

“Un-Block The Music” is a former president of the parent Drama Club at my daughter’s high school. I can’t even imagine pulling that off. We were lucky to get two shows to the stage in a school year. However, Rob reminded me that the arts used to be a priority in schools until they became obsessed only with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and deprioritized it.

In any case, when people think about Sound Design, I believe music is what comes to their head at first. But, its sooooo much more than that. Rob said, the first sound design project that he did was Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (not at all a musical). “They needed humming sounds, so I was recording undersides of sewing machines on my portable tape recorder!” Rob was hooked!

“When I finished high school, I knew I wanted to study sound design. I looked all over the country and there were probably only two or three colleges at the time that were teaching sound design.” Rob applied to NYU Tisch and another in Santa Barbara. He wanted to go to New York so he chose Tisch. However, “you didn’t get to study sound design until your sophomore year. By the time I was ready, they cancelled the program! However, I ended up studying other kinds of design which gave me a starting place,” Rob explained.

Although Rob’s family attended a lot of theater, no one worked in the industry. So, how did he actually learn his craft? Mentorship, he said. “My key mentor was Composer and Sound Designer Mark Bennett (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). Rob also got a job working for PRG, an entertainment and event production company. “I learned how shows got put together. I did a lot of assisting on musical theater and was being mentored in two directions,” Rob said.

“At one point, Mark was doing a production of A View From The Bridge for the Roundabout Theater Company. He wrote music for it, but also did these incredible sound collages (sound effects). Mark said, ‘you know how to do this!’” So Rob did it!

He recounted this story to “Un-Block The Music”. “I was working on a show and I wanted a piece of music. I couldn’t find it anywhere. So, I wrote a piece. I built the track and brought it to the director and he said…’that’s exactly what we need. Where did you find it? You write music too?’ I thought ‘I guess I do!’” 

Rob stayed in New York after college. The big change in his career came in the early 2000s when he did a tiny show with lighting designer Jane Cox (The Color Purple, The Secret Life of Bees). When the show was done, “I told her, for the first time in nine years, I would have a month off in July.” Afterwards Jane went to work at The Eugene O’Neill Playwright Center. When she heard they were looking for a sound designer, Jane recommended Rob since she knew he was free in July! “I packed my bags jumped on my motor cycle and pulled up in front of the theater as they were having their first sound design meeting,” he laughed.

At the O’Neill, Rob learned about new plays, he said. “When I came out of college, I thought the key to sound design was putting myself into it, but what I learned at the O’Neill was sound design is in no way about me, it’s about finding the best idea to move the story.” Without the sound designer, the story is a totally different one.

“Un-Block The Music’s” favorite anecdote from Rob comes from his experience with director Liz Diamond. He brought her some cues. (Sound cues provide audio designers freedom to dynamically change parts of a sound effect’s design). Liz said, “This is great, but my bread already has butter. Stop buttering my butter. Bring me something different!” Rob explained. “The bread is the script, the butter is the words the actors are saying. The key is not to do the same thing the actors are doing. She said, ‘bring me another flavor…jelly… nutella…..’” He did…and he learned.

“I never expected to design on Broadway. So much of what I worked on was experimental, and that’s what I loved most. I also have spent most of my career in African American Theater.”  Fela! was a unique show that unexpectedly catapulted Rob onto the Broadway stage.  It is a musical with a book by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis based on music and lyrics by Nigerian singer Fela Kuti who smoked pot and married 29 women in one night, Rob laughed. “The show opened off-Broadway. No one thought it was going further, but the producers believed in it and moved it to Broadway. It was an amazing trip!”

“Un-Block The Music” asked why he was chosen for Fela!. Rob said that as he heard it… Bill Jones had already done a workshop of the show, but it was just dancers, singers and a band. “He said, ‘I can’t hear anything, I need a sound person.’ So, the person who produced the workshop called a sound shop and ordered a basic system and someone to mix it. The poor guy was thrown in over their head. On the second day of the workshop Bill said ‘I need an opinionated sound designer.’ The General Manager of the show spun through his rolodex and spun to my card. Bill and I talked for an hour and a half on the phone. He said, ‘go learn more about my work and call me back.’ I did, and then he hired me do another workshop, then off Broadway, then Broadway.” Rob won a Tony Award!!!

Rob has a lot of ongoing projects including Nine Hostage Arts a rehearsal and recording studio in Philadelphia which he opened with his wife Kittson O’Neill  who is an actor, director and dramaturg. After Fela!, “ we thought we needed a change in living space. She was getting a lot of work in Philly, and I thought I wanted to get away from the Broadway grind. I was receiving a lot of offers to do classic book musicals, but I felt, there are other people who do that really well. It is not what excites me.” So, they moved and opened this studio designed to support and foster creation of new theatrical and musical work.

You can’t take New York out of the boy! While Rob always has a lot of projects on his plate (including teaching as well), Skeleton Crew is what drew “Un-Block The Music” to him. “Skeleton Crew is one of the most collaborative works I have every done,” he said.  

Written by Tony Award Nominee Dominique Morisseau (Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations), Skeleton Crew had a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club this past winter. It was directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Remember him on Castle??? He also won a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam…And, well, he is also a director and playwright !

Skeleton Crew takes place in 2008 Detroit in a small car factory on the brink of foreclosure. The plot focuses on four characters and their uncertainty and how the line between blue collar and white collar becomes blurred. Workers come to understand their personal loyalties, their instincts for survival and their hopes for humanity.

Rob’s journey started in a conversation with Ruben. “We talked about the fifth character in the play which is the factory itself. Ruben wanted to embody the factory, but we needed to create the factory and the world the characters live in. Dominique is a genius writer and left room for that creation,” Rob explained.

“I am a big music nerd and I know that Techno music started in Detroit. As far as I can tell, it started in the factory. (Most musicians have day jobs while waiting for their musical break!). Anyway, I told Ruben I wanted to build the world around factory sound. He said, ‘that is cool but I want serious hip hop in there as well.’” Dominque’s husband, Jimmy Keys (J Keys) is an amazing rapper and writer. The two met.

“I built a beat around industrial sound. At the very first rehearsal Jimmy heard it and already heard a rap. Two days later he came back with a rap and we kept passing it back and forth. And then we had an off-Broadway run. Ruben loved it.” By the time, the crew was thinking about a Broadway run, Ruben thought it would be good to bring on a beat boxer. So, he brought on Chesney Snow. He does a great job bridging what feels like is human and what feels like mechanical.”

“We had a lot of ZOOM meetings during pandemic, and we started passing stuff back and forth online. What hit the Broadway stage has cues with all of our DNA in it. Working this way, felt a lot like being part of a band! It was thrilling and one of the most satisfying collaborations I have ever been a part of!,” Rob said enthusiastically.

“There were compromises of course. I don’t have control of all the sounds in the room, and the budgets are always too small. The subwoofers in the theater are small and getting the extent of the sound system with their budget was a journey, but we pulled it off!”

The team more than pulled it off. The show brought the prodigious talent of Phylicia Rashad back to the stage. Do you think “Un-Block The Music” can get interviews with Dominique and Phylicia for my upcoming book on Women in Theater? I am sure going to try!

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