Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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The Generation Gap

November 09, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

0.jpegThere’s nothing like Radio Lab to make you delighted to change the way you look at the world.

The few times I’ve worked with folks of a different generation in theater (why doesn’t this happen more?) I’ve noticed a peculiar gap in perception, especially when it comes to sound. You’ve perhaps witnessed the great ongoing debate over vocal reinforcement on stage, but something new seems to be cropping up since the rock age took over: our audiences have collective hearing loss. As the Mickey Mouse Club cranks the compression and other sound-wave science in on the airwaves and in musicals (creating a dynamic blast of boy band bravado to give it that CD sound), audiences are literally becoming dependant on reinforcement to hear performances, and get angry when they don’t hear those mics being cranked.

Which unfortunately, leaves the “pristine” reinforcement that sound designers love and producers spend big bucks on – the kind you can’t detect – fighting for its life. Literally. I’ve seen perfectly transparent reinforcement designs – the kind that just sound like super-human projection and if you couldn’t see the speakers moving you wouldn’t know that they were turned on, but every word is crystal clear from every seat in the house. And I’ve seen those designs scrapped because audience members started complaining… not because they couldn’t hear the words, but because they couldn’t hear the sound of amplification – the distortion, the pops, the clicks, the heavy breathing. The things that the sound designer and engineer has worked for at least three weeks to remove. Crazy! What’s going on?

What I’ve noticed about the older generation of theater artists (and audiences) is that they don’t warm up as quickly to things like sonic underscore or more than a sprinkle of sound effects in a show – while on the other side of the coin, younger artists spread it on thick, often using it just for the sake of using it, and younger audiences lose focus if words are not spoken over an underscore.

When you get into a conceptual discussion with both parties present about what’s going on and what it all means is when you really start seeing the disconnect… it’s really like two people are just plain hearing different things. That is to say, we agree on what we’re hearing, but the emotions evoked in us by sounds as basic as silence and non-silence are profoundly different. It creates an ethical question that I’m trying to grapple with in my work – is it better for the future of theater audiences to remove sound underscores that can emotionally manipulate and cue the audience in to an arbitrary interpretation of the text, or to include that underscore and connect with a younger audience on their terms?

I think the answer may be to remove the more overt and hammering underscores in film and TV, which most audiences experience on a daily basis, and see how those mediums deal with that.

Did they really put that much MTV in our baby formula? Is our brain chemistry just plain different from our elders?

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich say yes and here’s why.

I think there’s a way back from this, and it feels like Radio Lab is beginning to find it. We need to explore what is really going on here, and by understanding what is happening as we watch 14 hours of TV a day and score our commute with our iPods, we will also find ways to rehumanize what is happening through art. Art will always reconnect humankind with a kind of foggy truth – that’s art’s job. What is happening to our collective brain chemistry with the increasing velocity of technological development is uncertain, and there’s a lot of fear and rejection of technology that comes as a result.

But sound and video projection technology is just a new kind of fire that our species wields. We will both fear it and respect it from a distance until it becomes a part of us – and some people will experiment with it and get closer to integrating it into our culture. Respect, care and moderation with these tools is good, because if we had let fire get out of control, it would’ve burnt our house down.

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