Feature: Rob Kaplowitz
This Tony Award-winner is making CFRT’s sound system sing
BY KIM HASTY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CINDY BURNHAM
For someone who said he loathed the idea of ever becoming an actor, Rob Kaplowitz certainly earned considerable applause on the stage of Cape Fear Regional Theatre recently. Kaplowitz, a Tony Award-winning sound designer and composer, was in town in April to discuss the new custom sound system he is crafting as part of the theater’s $950,000 renovation. He twice gave a presentation to fans of the theater, including members of its Board of Directors, to resounding feedback.
“The two biggest pieces of constructive feedback I hear from patrons in the lobby at intermission are about the seats being uncomfortable and
not being able to hear the sound well,” said CFRT artistic director Mary Kate Burke.
Burke and her team have used the time the theater has been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions to fix both issues. The renovation is extensive, including the removal of all the old seats.
“We will add a mid-house cross-over aisle, which will allow for better audience flow within the auditorium,” Burke said. “We will have handrails on the lower half of the audience, increasing safety and accessibility within the theater itself. The theater will have several rows of demountable seats, allowing us to accommodate more wheelchairs and creative seating options like the party tables we featured in ‘Music City’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ At the heart of this renovation is the installation of brand new, luxury seats.” Burke added, “We didn’t want to fix the patrons’ comfort in the house renovation, and have the sound remain a problem.”
Enter Kaplowitz, a longtime friend of Burke’s, who won the 2012 Tony Award for sound design for his work on the Broadway production of “Fela!” The musical depicted the life of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Kaplowitz won an Obie Award in 2007 for “Sustained Excellence in Sound Design.”
When Burke realized Kaplowitz had more than his usual amount of free time available due to the pandemic, she enlisted his help. Over a couple of trips to the theater, he came up with three different models to fix the uneven sound that diminished the experience of live theater. His design also will help CFRT catch up with the technology that has advanced in the years since the sound system was installed.
“What he’s doing is setting the institution up for success for the next decade,” said Burke, a longtime friend of Kaplowitz’s. “We are so lucky he could come.”
Kaplowitz’s first experience in live theater was in high school when he was enlisted to play a young King Richard in “Richard III.”
“I hated it,” he said. “I was so nervous.”
His high school, however, offered a class in technical theater, allowing him to realize he had a passion for sound design.
“I loved the people but didn’t love acting,” he said. “I’m very happy being me in the theater. I just don’t want to be someone else. In essence, the sound designer is trying not to be noticed.”
He went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from New York University with a focus on production and design. Based in Philadelphia since 2010, he has worked for a wide range of theater companies. “Broadway,” he said, “is the heart of commercial theater, but it’s not the heart of American theater.”
He is the composer of two musical works – “Minors,” an exploration of the Luzerne County “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal, and “Leviathan.”
“I look back and feel very lucky that I had a couple of wonderful mentors,” he said. “People who do sound for musicals as well as plays.”
Kaplowitz already has crafted a legacy in theater and now he’ll be leaving a legacy at Cape Fear Regional Theatre for generations to come.
“In every city,” he said, “there is a beating heart of art. It’s important to me that artists get the best toolbox so that they can express the heart of the community. Mary Kate invited me to help make a space that would allow this community to sing out.”