Tony Awards 2018: Experts Explain Nuance in Lesser-Known Categories

The 2018 Tony Awards, the biggest night of the year for the theater community, are right around the corner. The awards celebrate excellence on Broadway.

When viewers tune into the 2018 Tony Awards, the biggest night of the year for the Broadway community, they easily recognize the big categories.

Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score are the most prominent theater awards handed out at the Tonys - the equivalent of Best Movie and Best Director at the Oscars. 

But what about the other categories? It can be easy to ignore categories that honor work in lighting design, costume design or scenic design - especially when the awards are given out before the live broadcast, and viewers only see snippets of the acceptance speeches. 

And who knows, exactly, what a lighting designer or set designer does? 

But all of these elements of a production contribute to the storytelling. 

NBC 7 San Diego sat down with theater experts, many of whom have worked in the local theatre scene for decades, to help explain what exactly different designers do on every show, why theatergoers should care about the smaller categories at the Tony Awards and how the work helps carry the play or musical as a whole.

Scenic Design
Robert Brill is a two-time Tony-nominated set designer and UC San Diego Theatre alumnus with experience working at La Jolla Playhouse. Brill most recently created the set for the Tony-nominated "SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical," a show nominated for several Tonys for its stars. 

As the set designer on a show, he said, he's responsible for the visual production of the show, including physical sets, but also other factors that contribute to the environment of the show. 

"That's the architectural role you're looking at on stage," Brill explained. "It's every visual treatment that you're looking at in terms of the setting, in addition to all the props - and there's also then all the work the scenic designer does in collaboration with the director and the creative team."

It can be difficult to tell what exactly sets a show apart in terms of set design, Brill said - mostly because it's hard to define exactly what Tony voters are looking for. This year, "Once on This Island," "The Band's Visit," "Mean Girls," "My Fair Lady" and "SpongeBob Squarepants" are all nominated.

One way to look at set design in a show is to consider how the set functions and serves the larger production. 

"(The Tony voters are) looking for something that feels like it really supports the vision of the production," Brill said. "It creates a dynamic and an incredible environment for the play and the musical. But I don't think it necessarily means 'showy' or that it has to be outrageous."

It's tricky to predict what shows may be nominated and what show may ultimately win, Brill said. 

"I don't think there's any one thing in particular that they're looking for," Brill said. "It's not like they're trying to see if it meets criteria, I think it's about your imagination and how well you've conceived the design that supports the world of the play or musical."

Lighting Design
Charles Means, stage manager for "Junk" (which started out at La Jolla Playhouse before moving to Broadway), worked closely with "Junk's" lighting designer, Ben Stanton. 

The lighting designer on a show creates and manages all aspects of the production's lighting, Means explained. 

For "Junk," for example, Stanton's job was a crucial one. Because the play had a minimal set, Means explained, Stanton used lights to define spaces and locations at any given time. 

"So the lighting designer is really creating what season is this, what time of the year is this, what would it look like - and so he's using lights to do that," Means said.

What many people may not know is how technical the job of a lighting designer can be. 

"It's all computerized, there's a lot of programming that goes into building just one light cue," Means said. As stage manager, it was his responsibility to call the cues. "In 'Junk,' they had well over 150 light cues."

Sound Design
The sound designer on a play or musical is responsible for every noise you hear in the theater, Means explained, from composing music for sound effects or transitions to installing the physical sound system in the theater. 

When a show first comes into a theater, there's no sound system. That's where the sound designer's job begins: installing a sound system for the specific show, given the needs of the show, Means said. 

"It's a mysterious position because there's nothing to see, but what's funny about sound design is, the moment it's not good, you know it immediately," Means explained. "Because you're going to say, 'I can't understand what they're saying,' 'I'm only hearing music,' 'I'm not hearing the singers,' 'why can't I tell who's speaking right now.' All of those things would be questions a sound designer would find the answer to."

For example, Means said, the sound designer for "Junk," Mark Bennett. composed all the music in the show (played during transition scenes) and designed the sound system for the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 

"'Junk' had a lot of transitions," Means said. "Between every transitions, we had some moving scenery, and Mark composed music for every single transition in the show."

The sound designer and lighting designer work closely together, Means explained, to build the atmosphere of the show. The positions become more important when you're working with a minimal set like "Junk," where certain things need to be created through light and sound instead of set pieces, Means said. 

"The job as a lighting designer, sound designer, is a little more intricate when you're working on a set that doesn't define any of that for you," Means explained. "That was designed that way for 'Junk' because we needed to move very quickly from scene to scene, scene to scene."

Costume Design
Tony winner Paloma Young, who is working on the costumes for La Jolla Playhouse's "The Squirrels," says costume design looks at how the costumes of both plays and musicals help tell the stories for the show. 

For people who aren't steeped in the world of Broadway theater, Young says, they should think of it as similar to the Academy Awards.

"There is an element of 'the tyranny of the corset,' as some people call it, which is, if you have a period show, which is a lot of beautiful dresses from another time, that will tend to get attention," Young explained. "People see that and know those are costumes and think about them as costumes, and so those are the kinds of shows that get nominated."

Sometimes those period shows will win the Tony Award, Young said, but sometimes voters tend to go for shows with a different type of costumes. 

"But also, because our nominators are from within the community, they look for new innovations in storytelling and you get interesting things," Young added.

Young said she most appreciates a show that has costumes that help tell the story and support the scenes, moods and feelings of a show - without going overboard. 

"It's a very hard line, especially when you are designing for something that requires something over-the-top, super fancy, super period, you want to find the perfect balance, and I'm looking for that as a consumer, to feel like the costumes are naturally the costumes in the show and couldn't be anything else," Young explained.

There's no right answer for costume design, Young says. Even though one person gets the Tony Award every year, everyone goes to the theater looking for different things out of a show. 

"When (audiences) go see shows, think about what people are wearing for a second if they want to, but really don't dwell on the costumes and let the show hit you as a whole collaborative piece of a lot of different elements," Young said.

When people see theatre, Young says, they should look for what resonates with them. 

"I think when people go to the theater, they should look for what brings them joy, or what makes a full experience for them, and that's going to be different for everyone," she added.

The Tony Awards air Sunday, June 10 on CBS. 

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