An Interview with Jenni Lou Russi, Sound Designer for The Last Schwartz

What is your theatrical background?

I earned my MFA in Acting at Kent State University. I’ve enjoyed acting in productions and projects with Alaska Festival Theatre, Anchorage Opera, The Cleveland Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theatre, Porthouse Theatre, summer theatres, dinner theatres, tent theatres . . . around the country.

What is your history with Theatre B?

I’ve enjoyed seeing shows, taking workshops, and collaborating with production teams. I approach design as an actor and I like design challenges, approaching them from a collaborative perspective. When I designed costumes for The Art of Bad Men there was a play within a play, so I designed the costumes for the characters’ play from pieces worn/used by the characters in other scenes. For The Last Schwartz I liked exploring what might be heard in Simon’s head based on his cultural traditions, research, and professional experience.

What does a sound designer do?

I create the sound context for the show, establishing location, setting the mood, defining space, time, occasion . . .  If you notice the sound I’ve done something wrong. If you’re immersed in the story I’ve done something right.
In addition to design with scripts, I choose pre-show, intermission, and curtain call/post playlists. For this show, I began with music the characters would have heard in the home in which they were raised. Then I focused on music the characters would have chosen in their own spaces, and I finished with Hanukkah music because this is a holiday show! Happy Hanukkah!!

What part of the design process do you find to be the most fun?

Research. The script says a car leaves the scene. Who’s driving that car? What car would they drive? How many doors do they have to open/shut before they leave? Does the car have keys? Does it have auto start? Does it need a muffler? What kind of mood is that character in when they pull out? How far away is the car parked? Where are we in relationship to that car?  The answers to these questions (and more) determine where I put the cues to be called and how the cues are recorded/edited.

What about the most challenging?

Time. I love to edit. I don’t have the time to edit.

What are some specific aspects of the Last Schwartz design that make you really happy or proud?

Playing the tea kettle from BACK STAGE rather than through speakers. I go absolutely nuts when I attend a show where all recorded sounds come from the same speakers. I’d rather use practical sounds. For instance, if someone slams a door, I don’t want to hear the door slam from a speaker – and if I don’t have a speaker placed in the space from which we’d hear the door, then I’d rather just hear a door slam – live.
Now . . . here’s an exception. In Schwartz there’s a passage of time without action – and we have a significant mood change. This very short passage is actually written more like a screenplay than a stage play. I replaced what would have been “dead air” with a cue designed to tell the story of what happens as time passes between scenes – sound that is similar to what we would hear in a film with a visual montage to inform the audience. I hope our audiences understand the story this sound file is telling.

What is something an audience member should listen for, or pay attention to, when they see the show?

I research the songs I choose for pre/post/intermission music, and my favorite song for this show is the first Yiddish song about reefer.