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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Josh Schmidt is one of the top sound designers in the country, and an unsung hero of modern theater.

Behind the curtain: sound designer Josh Schmidt


There are a lot of people who make theater in Milwaukee who you never see on a stage. They make music and make sure the costumes are right. They design sets and make sure you see them in the right light. They make sure the audience hears what they are supposed to hear and they put all of this together into one complete package. In this series we introduce you to some of these people who work so hard, often without much public acclaim, to bring great theater to Milwaukee audiences.

It could be the sound of a soft breeze whistling through a leafy glen or a rickety train chugging by an open hotel window. It could be the music that you hear when you watch someone cry or fight or die.

It's the sound of life, of a story being told. We hear the sound, but more than that, the sound gives us the freedom to feel more deeply, understand more clearly or feel the wonder of a moment.

Those sounds, and a million others, make up the world where Josh Schmidt lives. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate is one of the top sound designers in this country and a man who knows how to create the sounds that make a visit to the theater a memorable one.

Schmidt is only 36, but has an impressive record of accomplishment and while sitting over coffee at Alterra on Humboldt, you get the impression you are talking with a much older man.

He sounds and looks like an old soul. He has a reverence for things past and a burning curiosity about what the future may hold.

In its simplest form, sound design is easy to understand. When a phone rings, you want to hear the ringing. When someone is at the door, you need to hear the doorbell. When an actor presses play on a CD player, you need to hear the song.

But sophisticated sound design is so much more.

"In New York people are paying $125 for a ticket to a play," Schmidt said. "You have to make sure they are able to hear. You make sure that people know they are in a theater."

Schmidt understands the role of sound design clearly and has well-developed views of the part it plays in a theatrical production.

"It's possible to push design to such a degree that people can't see that there are actors on stage," he said. "The design overwhelms most of the play. You want all the design elements to stack on top of each other, support what's going on, not be all 'Flashdance' for themselves. The best work that I have done over time are the ones when people walked away remembering the play. And all the elements around it made it a unique experience."

Schmidt used the example of "Golden Boy," currently a big hit in New York.

"There are eight distinct locations in the play and there is no curtain. You don't want people looking at their watch, waiting for the scenery to change. Sound design has to support that and you need to make sure the show never stops."

He has created his own shows from scratch, most notably "The Adding Machine," which got wonderful critical reviews in New York. And his creative side is taking control of his professional life.

And he's built an enviable reputation in the theatrical world.

Jeff Frank, the artistic director at First Stage Children's Theatre counts himself a fan.

"Josh is quite simply brilliant." Frank said. "He's a gifted composer, but I think what separates him from many others is his deep understanding of story. He is deeply aware of how all the pieces must fit together to convey a true moment on stage - that is a rare gift - and one that I'm glad he has shared with us at First Stage. We are the richer for it."

Schmidt has a delightful and firm sense of self and knows that despite his success, there are still mountains to climb and horizons to cross.

"I am going to do less design and more composing. I want to be part of the engine that produces things from scratch," he said. "Before, I was just a cog in the process. What I used to be very good at 15 years ago, researching and finding the right piece of music, is now three clicks of a mouse if you know where to look.

"I will continue to compose for the theater and film, but this will enable me to travel less."

He and his wife, Amy, have a home in Brooklyn and another in Mequon and he can't see himself ever totally leaving Wisconsin, either physically or emotionally.

Schmidt has been driven for 16 years and his drive has paid dividends. He's at the top of his profession. But he doesn't seem at all afraid to be switching the arc of his career at this point. And as long as he's still helping tell the stories that grace our stages, we are all winners because of it.

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