Noel Nichols, a multihyphenate sound designer, has joined the USC School of Dramatic Arts this year as Assistant Professor of Sound Design. With credits spanning the country in theatre, film, and new media, Nichols brings their talent, experience, and passion for teaching and representation to SDA’s already excellent sound design program.
Nichols’ career started in lighting design. Growing up as female-presenting in a Mexican family, Nichols felt themselves steered toward activities like acting, singing, and performance.
“From a young age, the messaging I received about how to be was very performance-oriented. There was a sense that to be valued was to be a singer or a performer of some kind,” they said.
And while they flourished in the realm of self-expression and artistry, it wasn’t until they began adding an engineering and technical aspect to storytelling that they found their calling.
“The work was to sit with the greater piece and track along, emotionally, using things like tempo and music tools to tell a story in a different way,” Nichols said.
Nichols takes great pride and inspiration from their ancestry, which spans the American West and includes roots in Chicanx culture. They identify as gender-fluid and feel that representation—providing young female-presenting and students of color a chance to learn about engineering and sound design—is a huge part of their drive to teach.
“I have never been taught sound by anyone who looks anything like me,” Nichols said. They cited a female-presenting mentor, Jennifer Setlow, then at Arizona State University, as an important influence, a personal example of the critical importance of representation among faculty. “She got me. And her influence is a huge part of the career I have today.”
Nichols gained practical experience in many different aspects of lighting and sound design via work in the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, which provided them an entry into New York, and later they served as the lead technician for the Manhattan School of Music. While Nichols earned their MFA from Yale University, they mastered many of the aspects of sound design via doing, a process they hope they can provide a short-cut to via formal education for students at USC.
“I know that I’m in a position to teach people useful things that will get them jobs tomorrow, and that itself is thrilling,” Nichols said. “Having just moved out of the New York/East Coast scene, I know what they need, what skills are valuable, and what to expect.”