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Theatrical Play-doh Fun Factory

November 09, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Uncategorized

This past week, I had five shows open at the same time. So that was fun.

As they start to close down, I’m delightfully surprised how other thoughts are popping into my head other than “OH GOD WORK OH GOD EAT OH GOD WORK OH GOD sleee… NO! GOD!”

For instance, something that is probably broken inside me told me to jump in on the (continuing) discussion on Playgoer about micing actors – now in straight plays – and what it means for the future of theater. It’s something I think about a lot as I mix microphones and other sounds at work, but that doesn’t entirely explain why I’m arguing a) to limit my employment opportunities for the good of all and b) why storefront theatre is financially destined to supersede big box theatre. If I was to be honest with myself, we’re oh so very not ready to make that conclusion yet.

But here’s the argument for it anyway.

On the one side is CLJ’s “good” or transparent sound – sound that is properly delayed and sourced to the actor using the principle known as the Haas effect – (look it up). It is truly convincing, so much so that we as engineers often get asked why we’re not amplifying the actors – when we are. On the other hand is over-amplified sound that makes actors sound like they’re breathing like walruses hanging from the giant center cluster in the grid. That’s not helping anyone push the art forward. And there are gradients in between, and times when over-amplification is the aesthetic goal.

The biggest question for me is sustainability. Both transparent and non-transparent sound have a problem – it’s horrendously expensive to body mic people, and I’m worried that the format of the 1,000 seat theatre is getting less popular. I’ve seen shows easily spend around a half-million to a million dollars to get that sound right – and they need to hire one of the probably a couple dozen sound designers who can effectively design on that scale in a transparent way. I’m talking in the united states. How is that ever going to work?

I wonder if the solution here isn’t an embracing of theatricality. The audience often thinks they want loudness when they actually want clarity. I’m coming from an environment (Chicago) where our best selling theatre is in an increasing number of smaller and smaller houses. The intimacy helps clarity of both sound and performance, and not at a great expense. The quality of the experience improves.

It’s very true – the old methods of vocal projection were born out of necessity, required skill and craft, and we miss those things, and we shouldn’t forget them. Nor should we mistake them for better days. Large houses and big voices engendered a style of acting that clearly communicated to the audience – but became outmoded as technology changed. Look at the difference in acting styles between the silent movie era and the talkies – huge differences brought on by a slight shift in technology. We’re seeing that shift again as the technology has lept forward in the last ten years, but I think our response isn’t as creative – we’re somehow still pursuing the naturalistic realism of what – Miller? nah, that’d be fooling ourselves- when we could be using sound in the theater to further illuminate the human condition. And again, louder does not necessarily equal more illuminating.

The question isn’t how to hang on to old methodologies – it’s how to embrace new capabilities in pursuit of a human truth.

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3 Comments to “Theatrical Play-doh Fun Factory”


  1. I work in a middle school, and I have this same conversation regularly.

    Do we need two dozen mics in order to hear the 11-year-old who sings quietly?

    Is that answer made more complicated by the fact that a 12-year-old is running the sound board?

    These questions are universally perplexing at any level of theatre.

    1
  2. Hello, I constantly discuss in my blog the effect of technology on Theatre. I really like your post and how we are going from big houses to small houses and the effect that has on technology not just on sound, but also in set construction, lighting design and eventually smaller shows.
    I have the feeling that this transition process for theatre is backwards some times for technology. Financial situations is pushing us to do smaller shows, and as technology goes forward, our technical necessities are going down. Projections is cool but its also bringing down set construction and lighting. Do you think we are working on a greater good here?
    · I constantly discuss topics like this in my blog if you are interested, http://boxpearapple.net · Twitter @PpValdes

    2
  3. Hey Pepe,

    I do. But you’re right – it’s scary, and I think the way that we tend to do these things is really haphazard and often a byproduct of exploration is destruction of something that was good or at least useful – in this case, the ability of most performers to project without mechanical aids. I think we should be more conscious of our use of technology and interrogate it a bit more.

    But yes, I think ultimately, we can’t avoid the improvement of technology and to do so is to try to freeze time and I think would ultimately be even more destructive. Even Brecht used technological advancements – such as the still emerging scientific understanding of the human mind – to inform his work.

    What I think we need to defend is the creative impulse that is married to that scientific quest for understanding. Art helps interpret the lessons of science and marry them with humanity. We can’t skip that step, and I’m afraid our social and cultural leadership may be assuming they can do just that.

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