Backstage Profile: Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop

by Vincent Olivieri
in Features
Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop
Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop

Sound designer and composer Elisheba Ittoop is always working to maintain a good balance between various aspects in her life. She balances her theater design career with other sound design work. She balances her work life and her family life. She balances maintaining professional footholds in multiple American cities. Every designer must find their own balance, and Ittoop works every day to constantly adjust hers, taking advantage of her background and skillsets to craft a life that has the right balance for her and responding to changes in her life to adjust her professional activity.

Ittoop grew up in Raleigh, NC. She was an introvert as a child, and after she froze, petrified, during a middle school class presentation, her mother enrolled her an improv class at the Raleigh Little Theatre. Improv classes did more than just build Ittoop’s confidence and speaking skills; the ‘yes, and’ nature of improv, which encourages performers to build on each other’s ideas instead of rejecting them (and destroying the moment) became a foundation of Ittoop’s collaborative technique. Those classes also led directly to her early work as an actor. In high school, she continued to perform with the Raleigh Little Theatre, and when it was time for college, she was accepted into the BFA program at NYU.

‡‡         New York City, Part 1

Surrounded by motivated classmates at NYU, it took Ittoop only a few weeks to realize that she wasn’t cut out for doing the hard work it takes to be an actor. Her professors saw this, too, and pointed out to her that she wasn’t as invested as her classmates in acting. Nevertheless, Ittoop stayed at NYU, and due to a scheduling mishap, she accidentally found herself enrolled in a sound design class. Instead of dropping the class, she decided to give sound design a shot. Walking into the classroom full of computers was intimidating, Ittoop recalls, particularly since she had no experience using computers as creative tools. Her teacher, Mark Gwinn, taught her how to edit on a DAW, and one of her first projects was to create an instrumental loop of Elliot Smith’s Waltz #2 that she used to underscore a directing class scene. Her classmates were impressed, and soon Ittoop was designing much of the work happening at NYU. She was hooked by this new way to explore the theatrical narrative; with sound design, she got to “put on headphones and tell stories.”

‡‡         A Musical Upbringing

Ittoop comes from a musical family (her siblings are both singers, and all three Ittoop children play instruments), and her background as an actor and musician informs her work as a designer, both in terms of craft and collaboration. She thinks about sound design gesturally, much as a musician would regard individual phrases within a larger piece of music. In a production of Wizard of Oz at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Ittoop created a pitch-shift effect for the Wicked Witch of the West’s voice. But, rather than implement the effect consistently during the Witch’s scenes, she worked with director Alan Poindexter (who also played the Witch) to identify key words and phrases. When Poindexter dropped his own voice into a growl (such as on ‘my pretty!’), Ittoop enabled her pitch-shift, underscoring the terrifying danger that the Witch poses to Dorothy. On a more recent production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at Chautauqua Theatre Company, Ittoop’s background as a musician helped her work with an actor whose character was a talented pianist, but who herself was a novice. Ittoop worked with CTC staff and another cast member to make sure that the actor had the music early and had enough coaching and rehearsal time to portray a reasonable impression of live performance during the production.

‡‡         North Carolina

Ittoop received her BFA in three years and immediately began pursuing her MFA at North Carolina School of the Arts. Much like her initial experience in the sound studio at NYU, she was intimidated by all of the things that she didn’t know that NCSA had to teach her. Grad school, Ittoop, recalled “kicked my butt for the next few years.” She came to school with experience creating content, but she was still very green when it came to sound engineering; as a direct consequence, her faculty at NCSA assigned her projects that focused more on developing her engineering skills. She initially resented the push towards engineering, but now that she has been working professionally for a decade, she is grateful to her faculty for driving her to improve those skills. Even though she works primarily in content design, having the facility to work with and talk to engineers has helped her and her designs grow over the years.

After receiving her MFA, she moved to Charlotte to begin her design career in earnest. She secured three contracts with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, but she quickly discovered that despite the lower cost of living, the lack of opportunity made Charlotte a tough place to make a career as a designer. Many of her friends had moved to Washington, D.C., and Ittoop started visiting them, seeing shows, and feeling the city out as a possible artistic home. She started picking up more and more work there, and less than a year after leaving NCSA, she relocated again, to the nation’s capital.

‡‡         Washington, D.C.

One of Ittoop’s first designs in D.C. was with Gregg Henry at Catholic University. Henry is affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and through him, Ittoop learned about the Kenan Fellowship, a program administered through the Kennedy Center that provides young artists with artistic and financial support as they begin their career. Ittoop was the first sound designer to be awarded the Kenan. Her goal, through the program, was to build a network of contacts within the LORT system, using Washington as her home base but expanding nationally. She interned with The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis on their production of Caroline or Change, and she connected with Broadway sound designer Nevin Steinberg on a production of Bernstein’s Mass that was being produced with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

While in Baltimore with Steinberg, Ittoop learned an important lesson about overstepping bounds. She wanted to do everything, learn everything, and she had the physical constitution that allowed her to exist on no sleep. Her supervisors had to reel her in. “You’re doing a really good job,” they told her. “Just slow down a little bit.” Ittoop took the advice to heart, and she stayed with Steinberg and Mass when it moved to Carnegie Hall and then down to the Kennedy Center, where her experience let her be a very effective pair of boots on the ground. Even today, Ittoop and Steinberg remain close, meeting for coffee every couple of months.

After the Kenan Fellowship, Ittoop stayed in D.C. for another few years, building a career and a name for herself. But, as she was growing her career in theater, she was also starting to reconsider the potential for growth in her adopted hometown. Theater was creatively rewarding, but not financially rewarding, and Ittoop had spent her entire life creating it. She was having a quarterlife crisis. Was theater the only thing she loved? Was it all she wanted to do? Was there something else out there that she should be considering? A different kind of challenge? Something that had a better schedule, or better pay? Something that she could do to more effectively balance her career with her family? Something that would let her pay her rent? As she pondered these questions, she realized that D.C., while home to great art and artists, did not offer her the opportunities for growth that she was seeking. So, over the course of many months, she started to plan her departure.

‡‡         New York City, Part 2

In the summer of 2012, Ittoop emailed Broadway sound designer Jill DuBoff. A number of mutual friends thought that they would get along well, and shortly after they met for coffee, DuBoff offered Ittoop an assistantship at Playwright’s Horizons on The Call. Within a year, Ittoop had moved to New York and gotten a place in Queens. She continued to do work in D.C., but she used her new home base in New York to start exploring other avenues to use her sound design and storytelling skills to create work. She polished her resume and sent it out every job posting that seemed remotely relevant, and found some traction in the podcasting community.

Theatrical sound design and podcasting share very similar ideas and techniques about using sound to tell a story, and thanks to her own perseverance and some help from Steinberg and DuBoff, Ittoop found herself as a finalist for a producer position with the second season of the wildly popular podcast Serial. Ittoop was as shocked as anyone when that happened — she had virtually no podcasting experience, but her theatrical background was strong enough that she had almost landed a job with one of the top podcasts in the country. This inspired Ittoop, and she eventually connected with Michael Garofalo, an executive producer at StoryCorps. Garofalo, whose wife was a classmate of Ittoop’s at NYU (which Ittoop notes now as a reminder that since you never know how your network will develop, you should always “be cool to people”) knew that he could teach the ins and outs of radio, but that he could not teach sound design, and he took a chance on Ittoop because her design background was so strong.

Ittoop continues to keep feet in both theater sound design and podcasting. Recent theater credits include 1001 at Columbia University and Duat at Soho Rep, and she also works consistently with StoryCorps as the podcast producer and with Masterpiece Theatre, the companion podcast to PBS’s Masterpiece Studio, as the podcast editor. Keeping her feet in both communities has allowed her to continually challenge herself with interesting work, but to also do so with a level of financial stability that she was unable to maintain as a freelance theater designer. She ascribes her success, in part, to putting in the effort to build and maintain professional relationships. From design mentors, such as DuBoff and Steinberg to theater colleagues such as Poindexter and Henry to other professional colleagues such as Garofalo, careers are built on relationships, and Ittoop’s advice for young designers is to not “be a douche.” Also, seek out and meet the designers whose work you like. Make the effort to build these relationships. This is how your career starts. And for Ittoop, this is how her career transformed.

This story first appeared in FRONT of HOUSE’s affiliated publication, Stage Directions, in the March 2017 issue, page 10.

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