Right now, from the rooms down the hall, I can hear the irregular flow of keyboard strokes, like a unit marching out of step. The ventilation system lays its constant buzz underneath. It’s almost musical, like an exhale through pursed lips that didn’t quite become a whistle. Over the hum, I can just hear my computer running, its inner processes clacking like an old film projector—though a muted one.
Think of all of the layers of sound—from the most obvious to the most minute—that are contributing to your environment at the moment. Now, if you had to recreate this environment on a stage, could you reproduce those sounds?
That is exactly the task Ryan Rumery ‘99 undertakes as a sound designer for theatre productions in New York City and throughout the United States. “A lot of the theatres, especially in New York, don’t own any equipment. So I’m responsible for going into that space and figuring out what the right speakers are and where they should go,” Rumery explains of the technical aspect of his work. “Then there is this whole world of sound within a play that needs to be created.”
It is Rumery’s job to read the script and collaborate with the director and playwright to decide what best serves the show. For some jobs, this means creating sounds that are as realistic as possible. Others should be surreal and interpretive. Finally, he has to be certain the audience will interpret the sound in the right way. This can be difficult when the sound is coming from offstage, say from the street in front of the house the audience sees.
“You want them to know right away that it’s rain outside, not frying bacon,” he half-jokes. “In a film, you would see the rain; you would know what it sounds like because you can see it. In theatre, you don’t always see the sound, you only hear it.”
In order to craft a sound that the audience can instantly recognize, Rumery has developed an awareness of the depth and complexity of even the most commonplace sounds. By spending countless days walking with a recorder capturing sounds, he has developed a heightened sense of their quality.
“The ear is a really tricky thing,” he explains. “You have to make a sound iconic right away or else the ear doesn’t know what’s going on. For example, you can mess up thunder really easily by just making it rumble. It actually has a lot of high-pitched crackles to it.”
A communications/marketing major at Central, Rumery grew up a musician and stayed active in bands and ensembles during college. His interest in sound design began after taking theatre courses and working on productions. Even though it wasn’t his major, he decided to pursue work in theatre after graduating.
“When I left Central, I actually worked as a board operator for two or three years,” Rumery says. “I would just watch different designers and learn from them. After a while, I started thinking it was something I could do myself.”
Since taking the design reins, he has made a name for himself and built an impressive resume of productions. Working mostly on newly written plays and the occasional revival, he has been featured in theatres in Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Diego and, of course, New York. He has even worked on shows played at the venerable Broadway theatres.
In recent years, Rumery has also taken on a new aspect of sound: composing. This work may include underscoring, the music you hear in a film to add emotion, or transition music. Rumery says that many of his compositions are rooted in the Indie scene he experiences every day in Brooklyn. The music features mainly guitar, piano and drums.
The artist has found that the disciplines of composing and sound designing are not as dissimilar as you might expect. In fact, he has always noted the musicality of the sounds he uses in productions. “Sound is really music,” he insists. “It has its own sort of musical quality to it. It’s not perfectly written, but there is a rhythm to it.”
With music and sound, Rumery is influencing the way the audience relates to the every moment of the production. “It’s a fabric that runs throughout the entire play,” he says.
Listen to three of Rumery’s compositions: