SoundBox is a musical laboratory designed by the San Francisco Symphony to attract a younger, more diversified audience to classical music, increase the profile of musicians in the orchestra, and enhance and expand the institution’s brand without sacrificing artistic excellence. The SoundBox venue was designed to be as flexible as possible, transforming a retrofitted rehearsal space
with moveable club seating and immersive lighting, video and audio. As the lead producer for its first three seasons, I solved new experience design challenges for every show. We discovered that when you strip away a lot of the things that make people uncomfortable (and add some cocktails), audiences will enthusiastically embrace complex and challenging material.
A Venue Designed to Immerse and Engage
In order to test the limits of audience engagement, I pushed our team to consider new options for venue layout and performance locations whenever possible. Once we got a string quartet in the middle of the crowd, it was clear that this kind of physical intimacy was an essential component for strong engagement with unfamiliar music. In designing future productions, I placed performers in all corners of the venue, surrounded the audience with players, and even featured a chorus sprouting up amongst listeners like a forest of voices.
In addition to physical engagement, we wanted every show to have momentum from the moment people entered SoundBox from the street. Often, this meant a curious installation in the large pit at the front of the house to prime curiosity about what might come next. I also worked with the designers, musicians and crew to make every transition as seamless as possible, so that we could shift focus in a flash. This allowed us to evolve the psychological feeling of the room and send the audience on a journey without ever leaving their seats.
Granting the Audience Freedom to Roam
With a flexible space, we sought to grant the audience permission to behave flexibly as well. We took a leap of faith that people could, for instance, navigate the space successfully with drinks in hand. I also structured programs with breaks every 20-30 minutes to allow people the chance to process everything they’d just witnessed, especially in conversation with their friends. This created a mutual code of conduct, reflected in the audience’s rapt attention during live performances, and in our granting freedom for them to relax, sip, cuddle, whisper, text, escape (and return!) whenever they desired.
Having a comfortable, relaxed audience allowed me to play around a bit with the design of the show. I’d often find members of the crowd sitting on the edge of stage platforms not in use (otherwise a symphony taboo), so I got to turn the tables. When a particular Frank Zappa piece called for an instrumentation so large that it inadvertently spilled into the house during rehearsal, I felt quite happy to work “the eviction of the audience” into the middle of Act III. People giggled and got out of the way as if they were thrilled to be displaced, and post-concert surveys ranked that show as one of the favorites of the year.
Crafting Narratives On Many Levels
But none of these tricked out toys and fun drinks would matter if we weren’t fundamentally telling the audience a good story. Since orchestral music is a complex subject, we needed to leave intellectual arguments aside and communicate along emotional, cultural or sensory lines. And most importantly, we had to embed all the necessary information into the show itself! No more homework assignments for the audience before they show up.
One of the most straightforward narratives was to have the artists construct the program around their interests and then have them tell the audience why all these works were so meaningful. A great early example is when I worked with percussionists Jacob Nissly and Steven Schick on a showcase for the full range of percussion repertoire. Absolutely everything about the program was unfamiliar to audiences, but I challenged Jake and Steve to focus on some compact takeaways for the audience. Why the piece was unique in this setting, why it was fun to play, or something the audience might listen for.
I ran with these kernels and highlighted them through the show’s design. We installed an overhead camera to broadcast the intricate stick movement on a piece for gongs, and used huge shadows to highlight a work for hand gestures. One piece called for the audience to tap small stones together to create a rainfall effect, so I worked stones into the tabletop decor for that night. This show memorably allowed the audience to “nerd out” right alongside the musicians.
While straightforward communication with the crowd was always useful, a lot of our artists were eager to tell more complex narratives in our venue, given the ability to speak through movement, texture, visuals and more (we even brought smell and taste into the mix at one point, although that experiment is best left to waft into distant memory). I encouraged artists to lean into these narratives, with an additional challenge to see if they could use music from multiple periods to support their thesis.
This led to a lot of really interesting projects, like an evening curated by conductor Edwin Outwater and the performer Meow Meow that explored how the art of song had evolved from romantic-era salons to gritty Weimar cabarets to avant garde performance art. Or the show depicted above, curated by CHROMATIC, that showed a lineage of obsessive-compulsive artistic statements outside the mainstream for five centuries in a row. In bringing these shows to life, I kept track of pushing the experiential qualities of each show, posing questions like “Why can’t we put the audience underwater for a ballad about drowning?”
Every show posed unique challenges, and I was often at the middle of artistic, logistical, and budgetary challenges. By keeping a strong grasp of the central narrative, I made sure the artists in the program could present a unique and compelling end product in a size and shape (and price point!) the rest of the organization could live with.
Press and Media about SoundBox
SoundBox sizzle reel. Visit the SoundBox website here.