Sound designer Chris Bakos may have the respect and admiration of Houston's theater community but his mother still isn't quite clear on what he does for a living.
"My mother still asks me, 'Now what do you do?' I try to explain it to her. I tell her, 'You know when you hear a phone ring in a play? That's me.'"
We can imagine the "My son is a telephone?" concept is a little difficult to grasp, so we don't blame Bakos' mom for being a bit fuzzy. And there's another good reason she might not be clear about his occupation. Part of his job, according to Bakos, is to have his work remain invisible.
"There's a joke," he tells us. "Someone will say, 'Hey, the review came out for the play.' [Then the sound designer says,] 'Great! Did they mention me? No? Excellent, I did my job perfectly!'"
Even if Bakos does his job perfectly, there's no guarantee that the play will be a success. Case in point, Catastrophic's recent production of The Pine.
"The Pine was a huge design for me and it was without question the hardest design I've ever done. It required so much more in terms of storytelling. There were actually several characters in the play that were only indicated through sound. There was a fly for example. He moved around the stage and interacted with other characters, but the only way you knew he was there was because of the sound he made. Some characters were disembodied voices.
"It was a very long play, it took a lot of work. When we were done, we felt like it was a major accomplishment ... and everybody hated it. (Laughs) That happens all the time. I was really crestfallen when we had worked so hard and then it got so little recognition, so few people liked it. It can be really depressing but the transitory nature of theater means that I can move on to the next thing and do that."
What He Does: Over the last 15 years, Bakos has been a sound designer for Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Stages Repertory Theatre, Main Street Theater and Theatre Under the Stars. He currently works with Catastrophic Theatre. Bakos, who has a bachelor's degree in music from University of Houston's Moores School of Music, is also a composer and performer, most often working with Two Star Symphony.
"If somebody asks me what I do, I tell them I'm an independent sound designer, composer and musician working primarily with theater."
"There are two main parts in sound design for theater. There's the technical aspect, which is the wires and the speakers and the cables. The technical part of the process has become more and more standardized, advanced over the years and you can fake almost any sound you need to these days.
"Then there's the artistic design, what's happening in the world inside this play. The hardest thing about it is not overdoing it. You don't want to just pummel people with sound. There's always a fear that you're going to step on the play. I'm always asking myself, 'does this help tell the story that the playwright intended? Is this enhancing the experience for the audience?' If the answer is no, then sometimes you have to cut it and that can be hard to do."
Why He Likes It: "One of the best things about my job is getting to work with the people." Bakos works most directly with the director and other designers on a show, as well as actors and occasionally playwrights.
"The most fun of any show is Tech Weekend, because that's when all things are possible. By then, you've read the play, you've had six weeks worth of meetings about the play. You've worked with the director, worked with the other designers and actors. Tech Weekend is when you make all of those things come together into a unified story that you're trying to tell. That's the best part of it."
Bakos also likes the transient nature of theater. "Once it's done, it's done. I know that when I'm finished, I'm done and I can move on to the next project. I can put the same kind of vigor and effort into the next project. That was part of what steered me away from being in a band. When you're in a band, you learn ten songs and then you play those ten songs forever. If a band goes on tour, they have to play those songs 600 times. I don't ever have to work about that. When a play is done, it's done. I like that."
What Inspires Him: "It comes down to collaboration, that's what inspires me most. You have the sound designer, a lighting designer and a costume designer and set designer. You have a director and actors. In seeing what they're doing, it inspires me to do a larger, better picture on my end."
If Not This, Then What: "I'd probably want to do more music, more performing and composing both. I work with Two Star ... and a couple of times a year, we're writing soundtracks to silent films. I probably be pushing to do more of that if I wasn't doing any theater. It would likely be composing for a performance with some kind of visual aspect."
If Not Here, Then Where: "I'm in love with Washington state as of late. I'd probably go to that part of the world. [My wife and I] have been there a bunch of times, we just keep being drawn back there. It's so beautiful. Of course, I've never been there in the winter, so I may change my mind about that, but right now, we're in love with it."
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What's Next: Bakos is scheduled to design the rest of the season at Catastrophic Theatre. The next play there is a new one by Miki Johnson called clean/through.
On the music front, Two Star Symphony has a performance of Harold Lloyd's 1924 silent film Girl Shy coming up. And Bakos is involved in an ongoing project to perform with his wife. "My wife and I are fooling around with doing a duet between marimba and guitar or marimba and ukulele. If we ever perform, that will be fun, but even if we never perform, it's already fun."
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