Performing Arts

In South Florida theater, Matt Corey paints mood with sound

Matt Corey has designed the sound for dozens of shows at GableStage, including the current production of ‘New Jerusalem.’
Matt Corey has designed the sound for dozens of shows at GableStage, including the current production of ‘New Jerusalem.’ Miami Herald Staff

When Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre presented Conor McPherson’s The Birds in 2012, there were no avian actors. But thanks to Matt Corey, birds seemed to be swooping, fluttering and crying out everywhere, a menace made real.

When GableStage did Sarah Kane’s Blasted in 2010, the sound of a bomb blast filled the darkened theater, and when the lights came up, a previously tidy hotel room was in shambles, debris still floating in the air. But there was no bomb. The audio portion of that shattering theatrical moment came from Corey.

And when Palm Beach Dramaworks did Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town last fall, audiences could hear a horse traveling across the stage, pulling a milk wagon with clanking bottles. But there was no horse. No bottled milk. That was Corey too.

Corey, arguably South Florida’s most acclaimed and in-demand theater sound designer, has won five Carbonell Awards — South Florida’s version of the Tony Awards — for his sound design work since 2006 and has two nominations this year in that category. But even ardent theater lovers who have experienced Corey’s textured, mood-enhancing work on plays from Miami to West Palm Beach probably don’t know who he is, beyond a name in a program.

That’s cool with Corey, 41, a multi-talented musician and composer whose main instrument is the bassoon.

“The bassoon is the perfect instrument for me,” says the soft-spoken, 6’2” Corey. “You sit in the last row of the woodwinds, you’re part of a team, and the instrument is in front of your face.”

Not that the busy Corey can’t be forceful and out front when he needs to be. He became president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale’s Insight for the Blind, an agency that creates digital audio recordings of books and magazines for distribution through the Library of Congress, in 2013 after working there for a decade.

But as far as the arts go, Corey never intended to become so enmeshed in the world of theater. That’s what his father, Dave Corey, an actor and 101.5 LITE-FM commercial production manager, does. Music was it for Matt Corey.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bassoon performance at the University of Miami, then did Ph.D. coursework there. He plays bassoon with The Symphonia of Boca Raton and the Boca Festival of the Arts orchestra. In the past, he was bassoonist and personnel manager with the Florida Philharmonic and played in the pit for the Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet and numerous Broadway touring shows.

Fate, however, has a way of opening up new career pathways.

The Florida Philharmonic went bankrupt on a Friday in 2003. The following Wednesday, Corey met with Caroline Mansur, founder of Insight for the Blind, who gave him a tour of the facility that he’d often noticed on his way to music lessons across the street. She hired him that day to lead Insight’s transition from using reel-to-reel tapes to digital Talking Books.

Corey got his first shot at theater sound design in 2005 when Meredith Lasher of the Women’s Theatre Project asked him to do the design for Joanna M. Glass’ If We Are Women. Shortly after, GableStage’s sound designer, Michael J. Hoffmann, decided to leave South Florida, and he recommended Corey to the company’s artistic director, Joseph Adler.

“Joe invited me to come down to see Misery and meet with him,” Corey remembers. “The ‘meeting’ consisted of him slamming the script into my chest — he was busy — and saying, ‘If we have a good time, we’ll talk about the rest of the season.’ I think the only sound cues in the script were a doorbell and a toilet flush. But I composed music for it, and 90 percent of what I wrote he liked, and it ended up in the play. I’ve worked there ever since.”

Over the decade they’ve been collaborating, Adler and Corey have developed a shorthand.

“Matt reads the script, then we have a conversation. We talk for 10 to 20 minutes about his ideas and mine,” Adler says. “Then a week before technical rehearsals, he sends me samples via email. Almost always, those things are used in the play. I give him ideas on timing. He comes in to play everything at the beginning of tech.”

Adler loves the original compositions Corey writes and records for shows, very short pieces of music that help unify the play, create a mood and bridge scenes. For Blasted, though, Corey used industrial sounds that were rhythmic and percussive “because we wanted it to be devoid of anything beautiful,” the designer says.

“Matt’s sound design on Blasted was crucial,” Adler says. “He’s masterful, knowing where to have sound and where not to. Sometimes, having sound underneath dialogue helps to create tension.”

Other directors who have worked with Corey, including J. Barry Lewis of Palm Beach Dramaworks, Paul Tei of Miami’s Mad Cat Theatre Company, John Manzelli of Miami’s City Theatre and Richard Jay Simon of the now-closed Mosaic, are quite different, as are the kinds of shows they do. But all praise his creativity, imagination, collaborative flexibility and the extra asset he brings to the work as a musician-composer.

“For my shows, Matt has created a soundscape with feeling and mood,” says Lewis. “Sound sets the imagination in motion. When sound is at its very best, you’re not even aware of it. It’s a seamless part of the fabric of the play.”

Simon calls Corey “the crème de la crème in sound design ... When John Manzelli directed The Birds for us, I came in during tech and said everything needed to be up in the air, so you felt the birds coming at you from everywhere. He said, ‘You can’t do it.’ But he did. Since you couldn’t show the monster, you had to hear it. I wanted the audience to be afraid.”

Manzelli has worked with Corey on full-length shows and on City Theatre’s popular Summer Shorts festival, which requires not only a unique design for each short play but a unifying soundscape for the entire production. He, too, finds that Corey easily takes his notions and runs with them.

“Matt is selflessly collaborative. I bring him what’s in my head, and he actualizes it and enhances it,” Manzelli says. “It’s a wonderful thing as a director to know your vision will be actualized, even if you have no idea how.”

Mad Cat’s Tei calls Corey “the George Martin” of the company, referring to the Beatles’ genius producer. He’ll often work with the sound designer at Corey’s home studio, seeing what Corey’s classical training and Tei’s deep knowledge of alternative music can produce.

“Matt’s best work is complicated, layered and subtle,” Tei says. “Matt brings an energy into the room. He’s very present. He listens and asks intelligent questions. He’s developed relationships with all these different directors, and you can hear it in the different work he does for them.”

Corey, who married actress (and Insight for the Blind colleague) Lindsey Forgey last summer, is passionate about “banging the drum louder” for the agency he runs, so that its first 40 years will be followed by another 40. He stays busy as a musician and composer, and he gets more requests for theater sound designs than he can accept. Still, he loves working in theater, which has brought him deep friendships, the love of his life, those awards and another creative outlet.

“With sound design, you get the first chance at setting the mood with pre-show music. Usually, the first cue will be a sound or a music cue to cover the sound of the actors coming onto the stage,” Corey says. “Outside of that our job is to assist with the other elements of the show. I’d like my work to not be noticed — unless we’re trying to be.”

Behind the Scenes is a new monthly feature in Thursday’s Tropical Life section. In it, we explore the vital work of South Florida artists and arts professionals who most audiences or museumgoers never see. Got a suggestion for someone to profile? Email Christine Dolen at