Phil Allen knows just how rocky the road to success can be. After struggles in his personal life led him to take a ten-year hiatus in the middle of his college career, Allen returned to USC to finish his degree as a design major in 1997. He went on to work at the Ahmanson, the Pasadena Playhouse, and on various tours and in multiple theatres around the US—including the national tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." He has won a multitude of awards for sound design, including the 2003 NAACP award for Sound Design for his work on "Jesus Christ Superstar," and the 2001 Ovation Award for "Flower Drum Song." Allen eventually returned to USC to create the Sound Design program for the School of Dramatic Arts.
Allen and I sat down recently to talk about his struggles, triumphs, and how to survive a life in the arts.
Allen shares that he returned to school after overcoming personal hardships because of a promise he made to his mother: "My mom insisted 'you must finish your degree,' and because I didn't want to let my mother down, I came back to USC." By the time he returned to school, Allen had already worked as a professional sound designer in Los Angeles. Recognizing his experience in the field, the then-dean of the School of Theatre, Robert Scales, asked him to teach a sound class. "So during the last part of my college education, I was actually a part-time teacher. I was an adjunct professor while I was still in school, which also helped with the tuition because as a teacher, I got free tuition, which made getting my degree possible."
After graduating, Allen joined the national tour of "Ain't Misbehavin'" with The Pointer Sisters. He smiles as he recounts his story of unexpectedly getting to perform with the famed female band: "Oddly, my rock star dream came true because we did a benefit in Denver and The Pointer Sisters agreed to sing at an AIDS benefit. There was no guitar in our traveling band because the show doesn't need a guitar, but they were going to play a bunch of their hits, and their hits all have guitar. So I got to play on stage with The Pointer Sisters as the guitarist in their band, which was so cool."
Another pinch-me moment Allen shares is that while working as the original sound mixer for the first-ever professional production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," he was actually in the room when the then-unknown Sutton Foster took over the role of Millie. He recalls how Foster "got through about the first half of the first song, folded the script up, handed it to the assistant stage manager and whispered, 'I got this,' and crushed it, just totally crushed it. And the next morning the other girl left the show for 'creative differences,' and Sutton Foster was Millie from then on."
In 2011, Allen returned to USC to create the Sound Design program. He wanted to design a program that provided students with hands-on experience, not just lectures and PowerPoints. "You have to take those students who have learned something in a lecture, and you have to send them to a lab where they can actually put their hands on a computer, or a sound console, or a microphone and actually figure out how it works. Not with some teacher or group of their peers standing over their shoulder, but by themselves… for that first year and a half or two, you really have to let them get there. They're practicing on their own and you have to facilitate that."
Allen also teaches, along with his wife Vicki Lewis, the School of Dramatic Arts' voiceover class. "That's been something I never would've guessed 10 years ago that that's what I'd be doing," he says.
When asked what he thinks every student should do while they are still at USC, Allen inspired me with his parting words:
"I think the most valuable thing you can do while you're in school is start learning how to be happy where your feet are right now. If you can get to that point where you walk into a room and you do work, and you feel good about it, then it doesn't matter if that turns into a job or not because you can take satisfaction from having done good work in the room. And I think for people in our program that's the thing I would want them to come out of a school with, is that understanding that this is a process that is going to be very long and not always go the way you want it to, but if you can learn to be happy where you are at the moment, then I think you can enjoy a career in show business."