We had the good fortune of connecting with Rebecca Kessin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rebecca, what role has risk played in your life or career?
It’s interesting, I’m not sure I’ve ever asked myself quite this question before. Until I began to write an answer, I truly didn’t think of myself as a person who took a lot of risks. But looking back, maybe not! In the moment, a lot of the biggest decisions in my life were not something I saw as a risk. I viewed them as chances – opportunities to explore, to try, to learn. In early 2004 I was preparing to graduate from SUNY New Paltz with a BA in Theatre Arts. The logical move would have been to return home to Long Island and try to start working in shops, calling in to IATSE, and earning my way into the NYC workforce. But I had become intrigued by sound design my last year at New Paltz – and the program only offered one class (no shade meant – it was a very new discipline academically). I had learned all I could learn there, so I started looking at graduate programs instead. Things moved quickly, and August found me packing my car up and driving 3000 miles from home, ready to start my MFA at CalArts. It wasn’t until I dropped my dad (and cross country driving companion) off at the airport that I realized I didn’t know anyone for the length of a continent, and I cried all the way back to campus. I really hadn’t thought far enough along to be scared – the reward so outweighed the risk that I hadn’t seen the risk at all. In that sense, I’m still a risk taker to this day. I have spent the interim years building a career as a designer, which often meant turning down other opportunities that were more stable, lucrative, or both. To me it was worth it – being a sound designer is my dream job, and I’m good at it. Without that one risk fifteen years ago I could never be where I am today. While I don’t want to walk around with the mindset of “what risk can I take today?”, I do hope I keep seeing risks as opportunities first and foremost.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am a theatrical sound designer – what I love most about my metier is the psychological element involved. With the right design you can creep right into someone’s brain! It can be overt, like sourcing a sudden punctuation right behind the audience (or just over their heads – muah ha ha…), or subtle, like creeping in a longer verb to make something have more yearning to it. There’s this sound design joke; “Can you make it sound more purple?” That’s what delights me – creating new language and narrative through sound. Yes, I can make it sound more purple and am going to enjoy discovering how. I took a fairly typical early career path, which was working in as many audio production roles as possible while I tried to get design jobs. At the start I would earn two or three hundred dollars designing a show! At the same time I was working as an A1, A2, loading in theme parks, mixing elementary school plays, anything! I don’t miss the years of taking every job that came my way just because I had to – it’s how you go months without a day off. I started to get hired as an assistant and that was an incredible education. Watching other designers work with their creative teams in real time, and stepping in to work with those teams myself, was a wonderful challenge. I built up a reputation as a solid associate – someone who can make good creative choices for you and the show when you are not in the room. I was the assistant you hired when you double booked yourself and needed to be in two places at once. I began forming relationships with directors and theatres on my own merit, and that’s when I started getting hired as a designer. It was not easy! I won’t lie – my kind of career is feast or famine, and right now it’s been a solid year of famine. I am fortunate in that I am also a part time college professor, and have been able to spend the last year working remotely. Not only has it allowed me some financial stability, but teaching is good for my soul. (Don’t get me wrong, it is also EXHAUSTING for the soul.) Right now the only way I get to be with my beloved art form is with my students, and to use their parlance, they give me life! You have to put everything (Seriously, everything – EXHAUSTING) in to giving a class that is informative, useful, and inspirational. Becoming a better professor has made me a better designer. Teaching has underscored the idea that I will never be done learning. My field is evolving constantly. Normally we are learning about new technology, and how to best use it to tell a story. I never would have thought I’d spend the past ten months learning resiliency, and patience, and hope. (These are never bad lessons, just unexpected.) I want the world to know that my field isn’t going away – theatre has existed for thousands of years, plagues and all. I want to ask your readers to please wear your masks, and get your vaccinations, and make the community minded choices that will let us go back to work. I can’t wait to see you at a show.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I live near Griffith Park, and it’s my outdoor home! I would take a visitor all over the park, on the kind of long meandering walk I like to take in the late afternoons. Sunset from the Cedar Grove is just spectacular. I also LOVE a good roof. The bars at the Ace Hotel and and Perch are wonderful places to sip a manhattan and watch the world go by. Vegan food in LA is flat out amazing! For fancier nights out I adore Little Pine, Crossroads, and Gracias Madre – they’re all the kind of places you go to for your birthday. But go any day! Masa of Echo Park is always worth the wait. Also – go get some tacos. Find a local, and ask them to point you to their favorite taco stand/truck. Finally, go see some theatre! Not only does LA boast an array of venues large and small, but there are some very exciting immersive pieces that have come out of LA in the last few years. From a walk along the LA River to ghosts haunting a storage facility, there is something out there for you. (And your friends! And your parents! And your kids! Theatre is for everyone!)
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My parents! I have been destined for a career in the arts for as long as I can remember. My amazing parents never once discouraged me, belittled my choices, or told me to go get a real job. They have always encouraged me to follow my passion. Thank you Janet and Henry Kessin – I love you!
headshots by Heidi Marie Photography