Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to a discussion with a number of – I’m gonna say it – legendary designers and engineers (Rob Milburn, Andre Pluess, Toy DeIorio and Goodman sound head David Naunton) and equally heavyweight Chicago-area Equity stage managers to talk about a common challenge that we now face as technology rapidly evolves: when, whether, and how to use rehearsal and placeholder sound effects in the rehearsal room. While the technological challenges nearly solve themselves as new solutions and software rapidly evolve, the ethical challenges of maintaining the right support of all artistic processes in the room remains something that isn’t discussed as a community as much, and it was wonderful to witness some of the most experienced minds in the city tackle the problem.
Some of my takeaways from the discussion, which must have synthesized the collected experience of nearly a thousand productions:
- The challenge of incorporating an element as young as sound into a rehearsal process boils down to the entire team’s ability to effectively estimate the scope of the resources required to achieve a smooth level of operation. That means: know how many people and how much time it takes. There’s no one-size-fits-all process that works for every production, and if a stage manager is tied up running sound cues that means they’re not on book or capturing blocking changes. Especially in devised-work shows where sound playback is as integral to the development of the work as music is to a musical, a reasonable estimate of the labor required to effectively run rehearsal sound needs to be made, and the theater needs to make a programming decision with those costs in mind as to whether rehearsal sound should be incorporated. In many theaters right now, this estimate of priority and expense exists in a limbo, and by asking SMs to “just press go” we may still be at risk of asking SMs to do so much that they’re unable to do the core of their jobs.
- The line that both stage managers and designers seem to want to draw in terms of who takes what is that designers want to manipulate cues, and stage managers don’t like manipulating cues. However, everyone acknowledges that stopping creative flow for a director or cast by saying “let’s not do that until the designer weighs in” is often counter-productive. The ideal solution seems to be either a) theaters and designers evolving the contracted relationship to secure more of the designer’s time so that they can be contracted with in-rehearsal development time (which might be seen as an early tech, for better or worse) or b) creating a basic technological infrastructure to have a more 24-hour turnaround of new sound cues and programming files in rehearsal. This would allow stage managers to adjust things like cue timing in the moment, and allow designers and directors to have to have more close communication about how cues need to evolve.
- and yes, because I know Chris Ashworth is listening in, all of the sound designers and many stage managers in the room said one word about how to solve this particular technological need: qLab. Which is to say: use software with a high level of flexibility and repeatability (the Go button is always the Go button) and a minimum of cost. So great was the buy-in for qLab that for the first time I’ve seen, it was mentioned that for many reasons it may make sense for theaters or SMs to invest in Macintosh rather than PC computers for the simplicity that the mac platform lends to this and other processes – to say nothing of the flexibility mac offers in being able to run windows. This is not to say that it is suddenly the SM’s responsibility to supply equipment for the operation of the theater – I made a point of saying the opposite, in fact. But if SM & Sound Designer is on the same platform for the first time, suddenly that kind of communication gets a LOT easier and more virtuosic.
- The picture of this system looks a lot like what I and other designers have been using for short-timeframe or remote designing (yes, because we’ve overbooked ourselves):
- Laptop running a free sound program that both designer and theatre/SM have access to
- Web server or site through which designers can upload cues to the SM
- Data files updated when needed that contain the cues and programming so that SMs can ‘just hit go’
- A quick-and-easy manual or lesson to help SMs or their assistants with the technical challenge of downloading and loading the new version of the show file
- A minimum of two speakers – just to be loud enough to be heard – or more as specified and provided by the needs of the production
- Back to the question of finding better ways to estimate the NEED of rehearsal sound, there is the problem of our eyes being bigger than our stomachs. From the director’s perspective, and often the sound designer’s perspective, having the ability to have complete working prototypes every step of the way would be great. Also great: enough staff to reassembles and reworks that prototype into different configurations whenever we want to experiment. Of course that bumps up against the financial limits of the theater and it’s production management’s creative job to find ways of getting as much experimentation as possible to be able to deliver a quality product that’s under budget. Sound has evolved SO rapidly in the last ten years that every theatre, production manager, director and sound designer have a different method of determining the exact time and money cost of that reworking and retooling a sound design. If a team won’t be able to be virtuosic with implementing rehearsal sound, sometimes the right answer is: hold off. Especially when dealing with new works, if a play’s text is going to be evolving until late in the process, a good sound designer will often get better results by NOT weighing in until the breath of the text has been worked out in rehearsal – sometimes in that last week before tech. Again, every one of these decisions is a case-by-case estimate of need that has to be done by the whole team for each production.
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