SpongeBob Sounds Like a Winner: Walter Trarbach & Mike Dobson

Walter Trarbach & Mike DobsonThe thrilling sound effects in SpongeBob SquarePants add a whole new level of wow factor to the wildly entertaining production. It’s no wonder that Walter Trarbach & Mike Dobson are Tony nominated for their brilliant sound design. We asked the duo to talk about the challenges of translating a beloved cartoon for the theater and how they use Foley to create all the whizz, bangs, zonks, squishes and boings during the show.

It is wonderful that the Tonys are recognizing Sound Design as an integral part of Broadway shows. What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated and that SpongeBob had 12 nominations in total?

WALTER: It was pretty overwhelming. I got a huge outpouring of support from my friends and colleagues, a lot of congratulatory messages. That was kind of the best part for me, the nomination announcement, there was all of this great news for SpongeBob already. It was really fun and exciting and I was so happy for the show and for all of the nominees, and then by the time they got to sound, it was just another layer and so it was – it’s everything you would think. It’s an incredible feeling and everyone has been so sweet and welcoming and the Tony Organization is so wonderful, so it’s been a great experience.

How did each of you get involved with theater and where did you learn your craft?

The cast of SpongeBob SquarePants
The cast of SpongeBob SquarePants

MIKE: My background is in music in percussion. I grew up playing percussion in school. I went to Music Conservatory for college and I did a little bit of theater as a pit musician in kind of normal situations, and then when I was in grad school I started this random job which was playing drums for a circus and in the circus I started learning the techniques of the drummer. In old‑fashioned shows before recorded sound, the drummer would always do all the sound effects for what was happening on stage. That tradition kind of died because theater moved towards recorded sound – in traditional circus though, they still use that technique and I started learning about it and I became fascinated with it. I was living in New York and meeting all of these people in circus and people who do physical theater shows. All of this became a niche for me, doing live sound effects to physical performers. Through that I met our director, Tina Landau, who brought me into SpongeBob a lot of other theater shows proper and so it’s sort of that progression for me.

WALTER: I come from a more traditional theater background. I started working backstage when I was 14 in community theaters in Wisconsin. I did high school theater and I went to college for sound design at Boston University. When I got out of school, I was lucky enough after a couple of years, I caught on with the sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy and he kind of taught me how to be a sound designer. He is one of the most successful sound designers ever to live and he taught me. All the while I have been doing my own shows as well. I finally got involved with this project through the producer Susan Vargo, who is the head of live entertainment at Nickelodeon. I had done some work for them before like the Dora The Explorer tour, and I did a few other projects with her over the years, so she called me and asked if I wanted to come help out with the reading of SpongeBob. That’s where I met Mike and Tina Landau, our director.

Lilli Cooper & Ethan Slater in SpongeBob SquarePants
Lilli Cooper & Ethan Slater in SpongeBob SquarePants

Did you have to binge-watch SpongeBob cartoons in preparation for the show?

MIKE: I did not. I was already a superfan. I was definitely the biggest fan in the room.

WALTER: You binge-watched. You didn’t know you were preparing though.

MIKE: Right. I didn’t know it was homework at the time, but I was diligently binge-watching. I am a superfan so I was ready.

WALTER: I had never seen a SpongeBob episode when we started the workshop process, but now I have seen several. I watch them for research and enjoyment.

What was the process like in translating SpongeBob from cartoon to live stage show and what challenges did you face?

MIKE: There are so many layers of nuance. For my short answer I would say something that Tina talked about, a lot of pulling the DNA of SpongeBob. That being the primary thing that we are focused on, the way that it feels, that it is not necessarily the way that it looks or even sounds. Taking the DNA and using that to create a new piece of theater was I think what made it so successful, that we weren’t trying to replicate a two‑dimensional world on stage but we were able to create a three‑dimensional world that has the same sensibility as the cartoon.

WALTER: And I think part of what we try to do in the show is bring some of the zaniness and cartoon feel of the show to live stage. That’s really why the Foley element is such an integral part of it, because when somebody hits their head, Mike bangs on a cowbell, which is a classic cartoon Foley sound. So it reminds us of that world without quoting it too directly.

Ethan Slater in SpongeBob SquarePants
Ethan Slater in SpongeBob SquarePants

There are so many unique sounds effects in SpongeBob, can you tell us how you create some of the sounds during the show?

MIKE: Some of them are acoustic instruments, like an actual cowbell, so I play those live. Some of the ones that I recorded are anything – I remember Walter and I in the basement of the theater in Chicago holding a microphone to a cymbal that we dropped on the ground. It’s all kinds of combinations of things. A lot of the fun is finding oh, this sound will work well for this, and maybe when you hear it, it doesn’t. You don’t know what the sound is, but it translates to what’s happening on stage.

For example, I have these little toy stretch tubes that are multicolored, and they make a kind of clicking sound as you pull and push them together. Sandy has this weird book of science facts that she is showing SpongeBob, but it’s also a little bit of a trick illusion book that looks infinite when she opens it. It’s like a pop‑up so the pages keep going. When she drops it to the ground, I am pulling those tubes. I feel like in a lot of ways it is a great sound for that book falling. It’s not literal in any way, it fits the sounds, but I don’t know exactly what the literal connection is beyond that it’s this toy –

WALTER: It kind of feels right.

MIKE: – that works for the book. Yes, it feels right.

WALTER: But I would say, we made a lot of sounds with our voices and our bodies. Mike made a lot of sounds with balloons. Anything you can think of, we hit it and recorded it.

You’re using so many different types of equipment and toys to create sound, do you find inspiration in everyday objects and then incorporate it into your work?

MIKE: Yes, I mean there is a level of this going to even traditional 20th century percussion from about 100 years ago or a little later where contemporary composers were experimenting with sound objects and taking something like a coffee can or a fork and using it as a musical instrument. So I would say that because I trained in that music, that was my eye‑opening time where, oh, anything can be an instrument. By the time I was doing Foley and sound effects, I was fully immersed in that type of philosophy. We do use a lot of garbage and sound objects and I hit a frying pan and a trash can and a lot of these little toys. That sensibility is really important for any kind of sound design because you are getting a sound and so that might come from anywhere. It might be a traditional or non-traditional way of making the sound.

Mike, you’re playing the sound effects live during the show – have there been any mishaps or missed cues?

WALTER: Yes, Mike. Tell us about every time you failed.

MIKE: You know, I try to pride myself on a very high accuracy rate, but there are definitely times where stuff happens. The things that are easiest to deal with are when I realize, oh, I just messed up, and then all the actors get to make fun of me. If it’s something with the equipment it’s much scarier, because if there is something going on in the computer, you don’t know what it is.

There is one time – in the end of the show where Ethan [Slater] slowly walks forward and it’s really a game that he is playing. We used to do this in rehearsal, I would be following his footsteps and then he would do something to trick me out or to make me mess up and that game has made its way into the show. At the end, it’s just him on stage and I am doing steps and he is actually trying to get me off from the step. He has successfully done that one time.

WALTER: But Mike is so practiced and so good at following along with the action, that any time there is any kind of show control system in the musical that needs to happen contingent on a certain actor movement, Mike is in charge of it. So in addition to firing sound effects and playing percussion, at times Mike is triggering lighting cues, video cues. He triggers the steam jets on the stage at one point. Basically we just realize that he is our most accurate way to make sure things happen at the right time and he has got a lot of responsibility.

Are there any sound effects or specific moments in the show that you’re particularly proud of?

Gavin Lee and the SpongeBob SquarePants ensemble
Gavin Lee and the SpongeBob SquarePants ensemble

WALTER: I just want to say I am balanced. I am proud of the whole show in its totality. I mean, it’s the biggest show that I have certainly ever seen or been a part of. We have so many sound effects and we have so many musical styles. We have crazy reverb effects that has people in different locations. We do it in slo-mo and we do that through sound. We have tap dancing. The actors play their instruments. Basically, if there is a sound thing, we have it in the show, so I think the thing I am most proud of is the totality and you know, the gestalt of it.

Similarly, I would say that it’s just the way that it actually works. I mean, Tina had a crazy idea to say we could do this in live theater and the number of logistical problems that it’s put forth for every department was amazing. It really took everybody bending along and being game for what we were trying to do for these ideas for the big picture sound ideas to work and for the Foley to work, so I am really proud that we were able to make this happen. It was many years in the making from when Tina first said, “oh, Foley, cool, maybe we could use that in the show and started experimenting with it.” It’s just been such a family of people making everything happen so it’s no surprise that this group was super-flexible and game for everything.

What advice would you give to young artists who want to work as Sound Designers?

WALTER: I would suggest two things. One, I would say find someone whose work you admire or find someone whose design you are impressed with and try and figure out how they do it. Call them, ask them. Try and learn from them. Maybe you can work as their assistant or their intern and just find out how they work and try and learn that way. But I think the most important thing is try to find a group of collaborators with whom you enjoy working, because I really believe that people do their best work when they are in a good work environment and when they are happy and content and having fun and everyone’s ideas are welcome. So I would say find people with whom you would like to make theater or art or whatever and just start doing it and see what happens.

What is your favorite part about living and working in New York City?

MIKE: I have always sort of assumed I would live here as a little kid. My whole family is from here, but then they left and I grew up in Florida, so I sort of was a fan before I got here and it’s never worn off for me. I love being able to see shows and see weird stuff and do whatever you want in that moment. Working in theater and music and working in the arts in general, New York has this feeling of being the pinnacle and everyone latches onto that and they all come here. So you work with these incredible people who want to work at the top of their game. For theater it really is Broadway, so it has to be here.

WALTER: Yes, and I would agree. I think working in New York and the New York area, we get access to the best equipment because we are working on the most high‑profile shows. We get to do the biggest shows and play with all the new stuff and really do the best job possible, and I think that’s a really enjoyable thing. Right now though, I think the best part of being in New York is that taco shop on 43rd Street.

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