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In Defense of Stage Managers

June 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

Anne Nicholson Weber, in the podcast interview I posted a few weeks ago, asked the question: “What exactly does a stage manager do?” Josh, Ray and I kind of looked at each other in that moment, thinking: “Do people really not know how important the stage manager’s job is?”

At the non-equity Jeffs last night (yeah, Jared), I got to thinking (again) about something I think is missing these theatrical award ceremonies – Jeff, Tony, the whole lot of ’em.

How in the WORLD can we structure an award for best stage management?

Because when they do their job right, they are the the glue that holds the whole show together from before first rehearsal until after strike. Our work as designers, performers, and directors is NOTHING without stage managers to understand, interpret, support and execute it in a real-world context. With patrons, house emergencies, prop emergencies, scenic emergiencies, costume emergencies, skipped pages…

Sure, it’s a tricky award to evaluate – there are enough pitfalls in evaluating design (which still can be flashy, brash and loud enough to draw attention to itself), let alone a role that is quieter if not more central to the functioning of theatrical performance. The very definition of good stage management is when it just works, seamlessly, brilliantly, and without leaving any trace of emotional, procedural or intellectual tint on the designs, direction or performances. That is a no-mistake tough job.

You *can* tell when there’s a ninja SM calling a show back there in the booth – usually when a mind-bendingly complex sequence of events is timed so perfectly either very early (first time!) or very late in the run (ready for closing!) that it still leaves you breathless.
I’m talking about you, Ellen, Amanda, Joe, Tim, Kim, Jaime, Alden and so many, many more.

If awarding committees can see beyond the footlights enough to give awards to directors, musical directors, lighting designers, or musical sound designers (the mad science/art of seamless vocal amplification that again, ideally doesn’t draw attention to itself – a fact that led to it not being included in the Tony Awards until last year, 30 years after the beginnings of theatrical sound design), certainly there is some way to evaluate and recognize these foundational artists who through their creative management support the entire team.

So here’s the question: If you had to write the rules, how would you choose to evaluate a stage manager’s performance?

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Saturday Night Shakedown

February 21, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects

I am not writing a blog post. I am simply getting all the crap running through my life on e-paper. A lot of this stuff I’d love for you to drill down to if you’re interested, but for now short and sweet is all I can do.

– League of Chicago Theaters meeting about World Theatre Day ’09 was, in one word: Exhilarating. In three different words: Here we go. Look for the League announcement next week at some point. If you are a theater ANYWHERE, you can be involved and you should be involved, and it doesn’t have to be taxing to be a big deal. March 27. Look it up.

– We’re totally having a World Theatre Day conference call tomorrow. London, Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, and Australia are talkin’ at the same time. This project is like an onion made of crazy fearlessness – an international game of “Yes, and…”

– I think one reason this doesn’t feel like blogging is that I haven’t been keeping up with my Google Reader very well, and having trouble processing other blogs these days. Understandable, but guess what: Being connected with a larger discussion is important for the health and relevance of one’s work.

– I’m back with my old friend Idris Goodwin and many new friends working on American Ethnic, this awesome collection of short-form hip hop theatre at Remy Bumppo. It’s gonna be *ha* exhilarating, and yes, Kelly Tsai might hold a pitchfork like that.

– Today was the first round of auditions for New Leaf’s next (and first ORIGINAL) work, The Long Count. I am so excited to bring this play into rehearsals I might just explode, which would be embarrassing. Both of these new plays, by the way, have been developed via Google Doc.

– Sat down with the other company members of The Side Project to talk about next season and following the next steps in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable, low-cost theater venue. Drafting the model and organizational structure in the coming weeks with the rest of the company… I think there might be some exciting stuff to share there, and I think if it works The Side Project is gonna be a significantly more kickass place to work. If we’ve had a conversation about this and you’re interested, shoot me an email.

– I have not forgotten about the Chicago Theater Database, and we are still inviting new folks to grab a username and update their stuff. However, that artists auto-fill problem is still there, taunting me, periodically causing mischief, and for the moment at least, it is still running around the countryside tormenting the peasants. In happier news, not working on this has allowed me to actually achieve some sleep.

– Last day of Hypocrites today, the Dutch arrive monday!

– Oh yeah, did I mention I’ll be designing this at the Goodman? It’s five hours long, and will be concluding the engaging and I-think-I-can-safely-say successful O’Neill fest. I think I might be in love with it. Note the pics of the Neos taken with hats and warm coats to metaphorically signify the lack of heat in the Neo-Futurarium. They’re going from there to here. Chicago: City of extremes.

– Don’t look now, but a certain big regional theater has a sweet new 26-channel QLab 2.0 sound playback rig. Hint: rhymes with “Qleppenwolf.”

– Been kicking up a bunch of educational work thanks largely to Cherubs students, including a big sound upgrade install at Whitney Young High School, wireless mic consulting for New Trier High School, and it looks like I’ll be helping out a pal with teaching a sound for science fiction course at Northwestern. [sound of light sabre]

– Twitter is seriously pulling the rug out of my impulse to blog. Mostly because I’m finding micro-blogging to be so compelling and useful to my typically action- and momentum-oriented projects. So if I seem to be going dark, check out the latest over here or in my sidebar.

– My sister is graduating from high school this year, and has landed a leading role in our high school’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. This is awesome. She is the third best singer I’ve ever heard. And I’m a sound engineer. This gal can belt something fierce. I am a proud brother.

– My brother is, at the end of the month, going to be setting sail from Oahu to Palmyra Atoll – 1,000 miles of empty Pacific Ocean, using traditional star-guided-and-tasting-the-sea navigation with this boat. Palmyra is a target 4.6 miles across. I have been asked several times how I do all this crap without collapsing, and the answer is: I will never be as bad-ass as this guy.

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Hey Lurkers! You are Thoughtful and Kind!

November 17, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, On the Theatrosphere

Over at Theatre Ideas, self-described theatrosphere lurker E. Hunter Spreen lays out what he thinks makes an interesting and inviting public conversation.

1. Tony/Chuy pose a great question.
2. Tony frames it in a way that is open and without pre-judgment as to what the “right” answer is, so genuine discourse is possible.
3. All input is considered and responded to when appropriate. People aren’t being *talked over* (ignored). Even I stopped lurking and wanted to join in.
4. People aren’t commenting just to comment.
5. People are invested in the conversation and curious about the question. Not commenting just to comment.
6. The core group of bloggers (from the Chicago area) communicate well with each other. Differences of opinion don’t devolve into personal attacks, though there may be good natured ribbing.
7. They don’t take themselves too seriously, so they make it fun to participate in the conversation.

I am framing this on my wall.

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WOTFW, kids.

October 22, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, On the Theatrosphere

OMG OMG OMG!

Chris Biddle, local improv gunslinger and Victory Gardens staff member, just shilled in a kind of amazingly personal way for Radio Lab, using his true-to-life story of how the mind-warpingly awesome podcast became a pivotal moment in a recent romance – as a riveting 15-minute pledge drive speech.

The story is one I share. Radio Lab will make you fall in love again with being human.

Also, TOC this week has picked up on the fact that Radio Lab is actually theater – or at least a very theatrical kind of storytelling – on the radio. New media crossover, anyone? Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are two folks to emulate in their mastery of taking complex issues in the sciences and humanities and breaking them apart like a juicy pomegranate, making their shows both digestible and rich. I’ve got my tickets for the Radio Lab appearance at Victory Gardens on Monday, where they will perform their documentary on the various guerrilla radio performances of War of the Worlds through the decades, right after my all-nighter changeover moving MDQ to the Apollo.

And holy cellists from heaven, Zoe Keating will be there to play live, tense, underscore.

I. AM. GOING. TO. DIE. FROM. HAPPY.

(seriously. do not miss this show.)

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Frankenthumb

October 07, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: projects, Teachable Moments, Tools

Once more from the brink. Theater is what happens as you plan more theater.

The past few weeks have been some of the most hectic and challenging of my sound career, as we at the Goodman have put up not one but two enormous musicals, Turn of the Century and Million Dollar Quartet, which I’ll be happily mixing during its stay at the Goodman. To top it off, I’ve been designing sound and projections for the New Leaf season kick-off, Six Years (see below for a blogger discount, all ye Chicago bloggers), and filling in for a friend in a sound design elective at Northwestern. So, clearly no smarty-pantsiness coming from me during that time. On the contrary, it spawned quite a bit of dangerous assery on my part. My loopiness set off what was for a little while an alarming string of accidents that made me check myself before I wrecked myself… including unintentionally (I swear) hitting my boss in the head and smashing my thumb (oh come on, you knew it was coming….) between a crescent wrench and an instrument yoke. Not fun.

So I can add a reawakening of safety measures and being well-rested to my list of reasons not to blog over the past few weeks, and indeed, I’ve been gun shy until now about picking back up the commentary during a time that required constant focus. In the meantime, I’ve been running ol’ Donny Hall’s post on Caudal Autotomy through my head like a mantra for two weeks, waiting for my literal and figurative nail to fall off so that I can grow a new one. Thanks again for that post, Don, it was gold made of lizard tails. Sometimes life is a big steel wool loofa that takes off the dead skin and most of the living stuff too, and I think it was just my turn.

One of the reasons for the sleepy and manic is that MDQ is, by far, the most difficult mix I’ve ever taken on, in one of the most abbreviated techs I can remember for a show of that scale. It’s also easily the most fun and most rewarding show to mix. It’s a blast of a show, and one that pushed back in an unexpected way. (Hint: part of the “pushing back” comes from the wall of rock that hits you from the massive array of 8 Meyer CQs in the Owen theater. We’ve never squeezed quite so much SPL into that particular space, and it was certainly a fun trick to do so.) So come and visit if you find the opportunity, and stop by the sound console when you do and say hi.

I was lucky enough to be working with sound designer Kai Harada, who was one of the first sound designers to make the leap into the web to comment on the theater sound community’s red-headed step-relationship with the rest of the theater community that was prevalent at the time – and I think is happily turning around. His online reinforcement resource, Kai’s Sound Handbook, is a great read for schools and folks looking to broaden their understanding of the art and science of sound mixing and want a little bit of real world opinion and experience thrown in with the technical information. It hasn’t been updated in eight years or so, but until he gets around to that, it’s one of the best free sound resources out there.
And the dude knows what he’s talking about, even if you might disagree with him on some of the specifics. We ALWAYS disagree about the specifics, after all. That’s half the fun of collaboration.

So it was nice to break out of all that after opening MDQ last night. This morning I jumped in as sub in the sound class and taught a bunch of students about basic editing with Logic Express, which was more fun and less fearful than I had expected. It was nice, almost edifying, to see some solid sonic stories coming together after only an hour or so, including this one utterly hilarious one that started with footsteps, then a woman sighing deeply and sadly, and then the kerchunk whirr whizz of a copier going crazy. It never fails to astound me how one little brilliant choice that I get to witness will just make my day. Sigh. Copier. Giggle.

Which brings me to the work being done on Six Years. I feel like haven’t had nearly enough time with this truly stellar cast and crew (including New Leaf regulars Marsha Harman and Christian Heep, storefront veterans Sean Patrick Fawcett, Kevin Gladish and Mary Jo Bolduc, Circle Theatre member Darci Nalepa, and up-and-comers Chris Carr and our stage manager, Amanda Frechette) and what they’re doing with this play just cuts me to pieces. Sharr White’s script needed only the slightest touch of design, so in many ways my job has been simple if abbreviated, and tonight’s dress was very much about absorbing, reacting, and just enjoying the performances. More importantly, my next few days are about returning numerous favors to my wife Marni, who leapt in with both feet as production coordinator when it became clear that I was about to go incommunicado.

It’s a time for regrowing those damaged and sore parts. A time for sleep and letting the unconscious mind make the connections for a change.

And soon it’ll be a time for looking at the sound load out and the schedule for the next changeover… Whooooooo, doggy.

Oh yes… and before I forget: We’re offering pay-what-you-can tixx to fellow bloggers for Six Years, which opens this wednesday. We’d love to see you and hear what you think.

Because what doesn’t kill us will leave a nice scar that we can be proud to show off at the bar.

P.S. Anyone else been participating in TCG’s Free Night of Theater (arranged locally by the League of Chicago Theaters)? Holy crap has it been popular.

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Why I’m Not Worried by a Sleeping Theatrosphere

September 15, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World

I’ve been talking with some folks who are making the leap to Chicago – there’s of course Brian over at Director Sector who I’m excited to be collaborating with on a number of theater/web hybrid projects, and I was on the phone this morning with an electrician who’s moving to town this fall. Two of my younger sisters are also moving off or preparing for college, and considering all their options in a very uncertain time. In talking with all of them about the resources, networks and strategies available to someone joining a new community, I was reminded (and I hope have suitably warned them) about that rough year I had when first moving to town, living with my high school friend John in Bridgeport, picking up the odd design and the odd temp job. Not everyone experiences it, but those months spent disconnected from the community you’re living in can be so poisonous – or they can be renewing. Like that feeling when your broken bones are mending, the solitude of living solo in a new community is itchy because you’re healing. But when our perspectives are disconnected from the reality of our social environment, we’re unable to act, we’re unable to engage, we’re unable to do the basic work of theater – connection.

I try not to push theater folk into coming to Chicago specifically, though I will lobby for it when the alternative is New York. For some, Chicago can be a familial network of artistic support, and for some, it’s a crowded game. I greatly admire folks breaking new theatrical ground like Cherubs Faculty Associate Paige Clark (who is starting a theater company in San Antonio) or Zachary Mannheimer’s continuing project with Subjective Theater Company, and their drive to build the Des Moines Social Club. My new ground to be broken has never been geographic, however – my life didn’t offer that option – and instead I’ve been interested and equipped to deal with structural changes and new ways of developing ideas, and that means testing those structures with as many contexts as possible. For me, Chicago is the lab in which I can play with structure, scale, and interconnectivity of how theater can work. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m ready to draw conclusions about those experiments yet.

Before I got connected with the theater community in Chicago, I had incredibly inaccurate and subjective opinions – both glowing and fearful – about how the theater community here operated. And like any flawed assumption that you use to cope with your situation, those opinions got reinforced as dogma and prejudice against/for this way of doing things or that way of doing things, and if you’re lucky, you get data later on that helps you break that prejudice down. No one is immune to the process of prejudice. It’s just how the human brain works. That’s the beauty of the scientific method, but of course there’s a problem – objectively analyzing social constructs like the impact of theater on a community is notoriously difficult.

As could be expected, I’m mulling over another spat of outlandish but perhaps fruitful argument generated by Scott Walters over at Theater Ideas. Given a context of pure theory, Scott is an inspiring academic guru of theatrical community organization, but in the time we face now – a time of political change that initiates a debate of social change, and a time where the arts face assault from a culture that wages unjust wars and lets entire cities drown – the practical needs of the theater community that I operate in are at odds with his divine fury in support of a “purer” theory-driven movement.

This feels instead like a time of realignment. The arts are about to lose their traditional government and grant funding left and right. We all know it, and I think it could even be seen as ultimately just – as long as the money goes to more worthy causes like education, alternative energy research, rebuilding and renewing the gulf coast cities, universal health care, and especially veteran’s medical and psychological care. Those are the things I’m willing to fight for funding for through whatever, not my own skin. I’ve been happy to see that most of us in the arts understand this and don’t make the mistake of clamoring to hang on to our existing models of funding. We instead say: Hey, let’s find a way to do our work – important work, dammit – that doesn’t burden the communities we are trying to serve. That to me is a simple and workable definition of this new model for theater that we’re seeking to articulate – a theater for every community, because of the community, but not draining that community.

Scott seems to get frustrated with realignment, because he feels he has done that work already. He makes regular, even daily calls of report, report, report our progress, and accuses the rest of the theater movement of generally lazy thinking. But if he is the overactive analytical left brain of the theater movement in this country, he’s in danger of letting the body of the movement get sleep deprived. The playwrights, designers, directors and technicians that blog along with him often act as the hands, eyes, and ears (and in the case of Don Hall, the asshole – kisses Don) of the theater movement – and we need our regular exercise and REM sleep.

What does that sleep look like in the theatrosphere? It looks like doing theater, and not always blogging about it. It looks like taking the time to think about the political and social crisis in this country and how our art should reflect the choices that people in our country are making now about our future trajectory. It looks like training ourselves by testing new articulations of old ideas (what else is rehearsal for?) It looks like taking the theories of a new model of theater and testing them through a season selection, a rehearsal process, a design, a marketing plan, a critical review. It looks like retreating to the wilderness to reconnect with the real reasons to do this work. It looks like spreading the word out from our e-bubble and changing the cultural dialogue one artist at a time – which is 90% boring work and 10% hopeful inspiration.

Of course it’s working, since the theater community is so very small: I can see in the green room banter that there is a renewed consensus and commitment to finding a better way of connecting the community to the art that it wants and needs but doesn’t know how to ask for. No one, especially the regional theaters, think that the status quo is going to work for much longer – or that it’s working now. I hope that the work that Dan G. and I are doing with the CTDB – which is ultimately about collecting highly detailed information on a single community, albeit one Scott is sick of hearing about – show Scott that it’s not just his eyes that are open to the change that must happen if our work is to survive and matter and do some good for us and our neighbors. Scott regularly uses the contents of American Theatre Magazine as his canary in the coal mine for how successfully his model for truly regionalized theater is being implemented, and no wonder he’s frustrated. ATM is the public face of the TCG-flavored status quo, and he’s shown many times about how their skewed data analysis and commentary doesn’t typically do their data collection any justice. Policy formation always begins with an accurate census and assessment of community need, and if the little guy is to make the choice, they need the data in their hands, and they need to be empowered to analyze it themselves. If we seek to change our model, our way of working, we must apply a little bit of scientific process: we can work to collect empirical data, and use it to break down our prejudices and test our theories about art, artist, audience, and community. Because while we need dreams, theory and action to engage with our work, they all need to work in balance with each other and with the real world.

So don’t be ashamed to take a nap when you get tired. We’ll need you nice and rested and sharp for work tomorrow.

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Follow Up: The Tribe vs. the Macroeconomy

February 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Tools

I’m pumped for tonight.

This evening, New Leaf is embarking on something very different for us – we’re going to begin developing a play from scratch, using our lives, fears, and individual perspectives as source material.

The project originally began from a difficult point in New Leaf’s history, a night after a particularly difficult run through of The Permanent Way where we sat around a table at Ranalli’s and wrote our greatest fears as human beings down on the paper tablecloth in crayon. We’re kind of like kids when we get together, and crayon drawing is one of the most powerful ways we’re able to express ourselves.

Expressing our fears to each other gave them weight, and enabled us to gain insight into each other’s actions and the undertow of insecurity that led to those actions. It allowed us to become mentors for each other, and know when to push each other forward and provide encouragement or challenge. Expressing the fears also gave us some foothold against those fears, and plenty of raw material for our work. Knowing what was going on in each others’ inner lives allowed us to navigate each other more effectively and reduce the amount of confusion and unnecessary conflict in our company. It focused and sharpened the ensemble.

Personal lives often complicate a professional relationship, and that’s the reason creative tribes are difficult to put together. They only function on a foundation of profound trust and mutual respect. The way we are taught to operate is to hide our weaknesses, while the strong artistic choice often is to offer your throat to the world and dare the world to cut it. It’s surprising and exhilarating to display your identity and your perspective bare – the one you hide even from yourself – and it’s the core function of art. The tribe provides a collaborative environment that enables artists to do this and still maintain just enough safety net to keep pushing forward through the crushing insecurity that is generated by that level of honesty.

The support provided by a tribe is incredibly reassuring, because it has to be – it’s based on a family-type relationship that allows room for healthy and honest criticism based on years of shared experience. It also creates a people-centric co-prosperity that’s better than any pension plan you could ever hope for — Recessions come and go, but human beings, if they stay connected to each other, can maintain a stable existence of growth, pain, loss and happiness through harsh economic times. The tribe finds each other work and opportunities through lean times, and feeds resources, hopes, dreams and energy back to each other during those times when the manna rains from heaven. A tribe culture appreciates and understands your work from many perspectives, and they act as ambassadors of your work to find new clients and even new applications for your work. They find the doors that you haven’t been able to look for and they open them for you. It’s a culture that works for people more than the corporate model, because it places value on people rather than assets. It doesn’t have to convert human value into a monetary value first.

Scott over at Theatre Ideas has been plugging for a new model for a theater organization that will function more effectively to create exciting work than the regional theater model, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around on the micro and the macro level. As excited as I am about the bottom-up approach of the tribe, there’s potential pitfalls for a tribalistic mindset in a globalistic environment. The potential price to pay is in the danger of groupthink and the difficulties involved in establishing a tribe of diverse backgrounds. It’s true that global environments like the American economic indicators like GDP haven’t been historically good at calculating the value of humanity because science and statistics haven’t really been able to develop solid objective calculation for subjective experiences like “happiness.” This flaw results in some pretty nasty side effects, like the artificial propping up of industries like Oil and Gas production or diamond mining which don’t accurately weigh in the costs of the human suffering involved in procuring them.


But a humanistic tribal mindset doesn’t completely solve the problem either: In 1972, Bhutan’s king decided to address the flaws of the GDP model by introducing his own Buddhist-influenced economic indicator: Gross National Happiness. For a country with few resources, a miniscule GDP, and no desire to modernize, this was kind of a no-brainer. GNH purported to measure and therefore encourage national wealth based on four indicators:

Promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Sound familiar?

The problem with this model (and the tribal model) is that it doesn’t have an built-in incentive to include everybody. Wikipedia continues the story of a dark underbelly that can accompany these utopian visions of freedom:

Critics allege that because GNH depends on a series of subjective judgements about well-being, governments may be able to define GNH in a way that suits their interests. In the case of Bhutan, for instance, they say that the government expelled about one hundred thousand people and stripped them of their Bhutanese citizenship on the grounds that the deportees were ethnic Nepalese who had settled in the country illegally. While this would reduce Bhutan’s wealth by most traditional measures such as GDP, the Bhutan government claims it has not reduced Bhutan’s GNH.

On a personal level, I can see the potential for New Leaf to revel in its own ideas and backgrounds and not seek out those diverse opinions into the tribe because they don’t resonate in the “right” way. I’m happy that we have a pretty progressive male / female mix and a long history of producing plays by lesser-known female playwrights without making a big brou-ha-ha about it, but at the same time I’ve been ashamed that as an organization committed to renewal we deal very little with the issues of poverty, segregation and gentrification that face Chicago. Part of that is that the neighborhood we serve is right in the center of high-income and overwhelmingly-white Lincoln Park, but that of course has historically been how tribes have protected themselves – by not interacting with the people that do not fit the mold of the tribe.

I think there’s a middle ground here that I desperately want to find. The tribe brings with it an innovative energy and the old “many hands make light work” approach to problem solving. But the top-down, GDP-lovin’, LORT approach knows exactly how difficult and draining it is to really represent an entire community. They get the angry letters, they pay the salaries, and they see the trend of a drying-out subscriber base. I think their history and their heavy infrastructure makes it difficult to redirect the sinking ship, even if they desire to do so.

But word-of-mouth movements can have an impact on these top-heavy systems that don’t quite work. What I think is possible is a way to focus bottom-up grassroots energy and access with high-level thinking and coordination that promotes cross-pollination of ideas and culture and transparency all around. A way to unite the tribes into coordinated strategy and continue to value their independence. I’d like to see a double-decker strategy for change that gets it done with a minimum of burn out. If that thought makes you tired, you need to get yourself a tribe to help you keep moving through the fatigue.

The first step for me is tonight… To lose all my marbles and lay it all out on the table and see where our hearts are, where our brains vibrate, and to see what images, music and text we can layer and mold to tell this story with all our being. The framework is as ugly as a blog post that compares storefront theater to the economics of Bhutan, but the final product… The final product has got my heart beating faster.

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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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