Carnegie Mellon University
July 14, 2020

Designing the Future of Performance

CMU alumni are mixing it up on and off Broadway

By Alexis Trbovich

Although New York theaters are dark at this time, we highly anticipate the return of stage entertainment in the Big Apple. We shine the spotlight on two Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama alumni who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that their productions are top-notch.

A Sound Foundation

For Becca Stoll (A 2014), the Broadway magic happens backstage. A School of Drama alumna in sound design, Becca began her post-college career freelancing in Dallas and Connecticut at regional theaters such as Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut. After jumping to New York City and working on “We are the Tigers” and touring with “Million Dollar Quartet,” Becca landed her current job with the off-Broadway musical “Rock of Ages,” where she is the production audio engineer/sound mixer.

Becca is responsible for mixing the show live every night, knowing exactly when each microphone needs to be on or off. She mixes vocals line by line, balancing that with the orchestra, and runs sound cues. Though it’s her job to execute someone else’s sound design, Becca appreciates the opportunity to use her own creative judgment during a show: “I make decisions on the fly,” she says, crediting her ability and confidence to do so from her training at CMU.

“I felt prepared to meet people and put myself out there,” Becca recalls. “There are so many successful alumni to reach out to who will answer my questions, and I always appreciate their insight.”

When deciding on schools, Becca was initially interested in CMU for its BXA Intercollege Degree Programs. The BXA programs allow students to combine their discipline within the College of Fine Arts with one of four other colleges on campus. Becca initially considered the BXA track to combine her love of theater with computer science.

“That went out the window once I was here,” she says, realizing that pursuing a BFA in sound design was the right choice for her. This allowed her to specifically focus on sound design for the arts and entertainment industries. The sound design major thrusts students into production roles on projects ranging from musicals, theater and cabaret to dance, television and events. Students also have the opportunity to learn from visiting professionals in their field and to present their work at the School of Drama showcase in Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles.

Becca continues to draw on her knowledge from CMU courses, including electives she took in the stage and production management track. Knowing how to have a productive meeting with a director and to collaborate with different people on a project are priceless skills she honed at CMU, she said, and she uses them every day.

She still reaches out to her former professors, such as Chris Evans, adjunct faculty of system design and sound design. “He is in my most directly related field, and he can speak to my questions on a first-hand basis,” she said. Professors Sarah Pickett and Joe Pino also served (and still serve) as valuable resources to her.

As far as future opportunities in sound mixing goes, Becca is setting the limit at the sky. “My goal is to mix a Broadway show and to be a woman with kids, and prove that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Looking to the Future

Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama alumnus Bryce Cutler (A 2013) hears this all the time from cast members and fellow creatives on various theater projects in New York City. “CMU is great for networking … it truly opened so many doors for me.”

Bryce chose to pursue his studies at CMU after meeting Professor Anne Mundell at Chicago’s Unified Auditions. In the whirlwind of the audition process, CMU captured his attention: “The technology, theater, conservatory aspect — all those drove me to go [to CMU]. I was really interested in technology, video and virtual reality, and CMU really laid the groundwork for that.”

Bryce’s degree, scenic and media design, is a four-year undergraduate program that prepares students for media-based careers across a scope of arts and entertainment disciplines. Students graduate with the necessary skills to be leaders in the industry, thanks to the program’s rigorous training and a challenging, unique curriculum. For Bryce, a cornerstone of that curriculum was the “Future Stages” class. In this class, directing and design students collaborate with senior actors to create technology-driven work.

A focus on the future of theater and technology is the most cutting-edge difference CMU’s program has over others, Bryce says. Having lectured and taught at other universities, he has seen the difference first-hand: “CMU is really one of the only schools thinking of the future of storytelling. CMU has the ability to say, ‘this is the history of where [theater] comes from, but it’s up to you to have a theory and idea beyond that and a perspective for the future.’”

With this futuristic approach under his belt, Bryce headed to New York City after graduation. He spent five years honing his skills through internships, various Broadway shows, and the Metropolitan Opera. He worked with director and fellow CMU alum director Leigh Silverman on the off-Broadway musical “Soft Power” and the Broadway play “Grand Horizons,” using his knowledge of scenery and video projection.

Now that he is doing his own design work, Bryce hopes to take his experience further into theater and beyond. “I think now having done a Broadway show, at the end of the day I want to make cool things with cool people. We want to team up and do more music and concerts and expand beyond theater ... to work with different artists on concert design, live musicals, and television.” 

Thanks to his time at CMU, Bryce feels prepared to combine his design training with his own original ideas.

“CMU is all about ideas. If you can’t have a good idea, how can you make anything good?”