“Un-Block The Music” often talks about sound design. Most of the time, I talk about it in regard to musicals, however, I want to clarify that there are sound designers for plays as well. Most of the time sound designers for plays and musicals are different. Then, there is Curtis Craig, who was recently sound designer for Dominque Morisseau’s Confederates at the Signature Theater in NYC and now is the sound designer for Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.
“Musicals and plays require a totally different set of skills. I understand why different people do musicals and plays. It’s a lot of cognitive load, but, I don’t want to do one or the other,” Curtis said. It’s truly wonderful that he feels this way as he heads the sound design program at Penn State. Students can truly benefit from his expertise before forging their paths in the real world. Curtis takes only two students a year because, he said, to be trained well you need to be hands on for everything. That has been Curtis’ teaching strategy for the 20 years that he has headed the Sound Design Program. How did a kid from Western Pennsylvania who literally wanted to be a rocket scientist end up with this esteemed career?
Curtis’ parents are not music people, but he always loved music. As a woodwind musician since high school, he always liked the idea of touring and/or mixing bands and “doing” theater. “But I didn’t know what that career would be or what it was even called,” he said. Where Curtis grew up was rural, so despite the good music program in high school, his guidance counselor didn’t point him in the direction of music or sound. It was an interest out of the ordinary. Even going to college was not mainstream in that town. So…. Curtis went to Clarion University to study aerospace engineering. “But a year in, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Where does every aerospace engineer turn? Opera,” he laughed. “I didn’t know any better so I had that kind of audacity!”
Since he could play music, Curtis earned a living during the summers playing in pit bands, but by the time he got to summer of junior year, he thought, “I should probably look for something I really want to do. I got a job working on musicals with big orchestras. I understood the music as a musician and singer, but I knew nothing about theater.” He learned on his feet and figured out how to mix a musical and realized what sound design was and the artistic control you could have with it. “I could write music and sound design. No one told me the same person doesn’t usually do both!”
“Music made sense to me from the pedological standpoint. And…I had enough engineering background that I could make sense of the sound design technology. From the hear standpoint, I could hear what I wanted and I knew how to achieve it,” Curtis said. “I worked in theater that summer and I went back to school in the fall and knew that’s what I wanted to do. Everything I did then became about theater. I kept trying to fit music and theater classes into my schedule. I wanted to learn more about how theater works and I had to learn about composition and theory.” And, he did! When Curtis graduated, he was offered a job as a sound supervisor at a regional theater in Dallas. “Six months into that job they asked me if I would like to design that show. That started the ball rolling. From there I became a freelancer.”
At Penn State, there is a big musical theater program. Curtis was approached because the theater department wanted to bring on someone who could make their musicals sound better. Curtis said. “They wanted students to understand how microphones work. They said, ‘we just want you to do shows. We don’t want you to start a program. You can teach one class a year. I told them, ‘I am going to start a program’. They said, ‘ok, but you are on your own.’ That was fine…I was always on my own! “It was obvious to me when I started the program that there was a big hole in the industry…there was no place to learn sound design.” Now, the program has an identity.
Curtis has a slew of musicals and plays he has worked on in addition to teaching. “Un-Block The Music” spoke to Jimmy Keys this past spring about his work on Confederates, and he told me specifically to talk to Curtis. “When Jimmy and I started talking, I felt it should be no different than other shows…someone does music, and someone who does sound design. They are related, but they shouldn’t be the same person. Two people working in concert, you will be better off.” That’s not what happened. Curtis has worked with Jimmy’s music in other shows, but they never worked as they did on Confederates. “I don’t know boundaries and neither does he…we did everything together!” A true collaboration.
What’s interesting to “Un-Block The Music” is that Sound Design sets the mood of a show. At one point the Tony Awards stopped awarding the designers. Thankfully it has been reinstated. Curtis said, the danger of doing your job so well is that the work almost melts into the show. “People don’t separate the music from the sound. Sound design is taken for granted!”
After Confederates, Curtis went to Cleveland to work on The Three Musketeers. He created all of the music and sound that you hear. “One of the things I love about my job is being a chameleon. I did a lot of research for the Three Musketeers; a lot of digging around in period music and French music for style.” He loved it.
Curtis always has several projects rolling around in his head. “It can be a bit psychotic at times,” he joked. He often has to convince Penn State student parents that Sound Design is a real job! “It drives me crazy!,” he laughed. But, as they say…proof is in the pudding! Curtis certainly has a career to prove the worth of studying sound design.
To see and hear what Curtis is doing, check out his website at https://curtiscraig.com/
For tickets to his current show, The Hot Wing King, go to https://www.studiotheatre.org/plays/play-detail/2021-2022-the-hot-wing-king
And…. read about Curtis’ partner in crime for Confederates at https://unblockthemusic.blog/2022/03/10/jimmy-j-keys-talks-about-sound-design-hip-hop-confederates-the-new-broadway/