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All The World’s A Stage… But Does It Need Sound Reinforcement?

The question of "to be, or not to be reinforced" should be weighed in the appropriate context...

I recently attended two “straight” plays, i.e., the kind without musicians. Such events are all about the dialog (and the lighting, of course). One production had no discernible sound reinforcement and the other had totally overt and apparent microphones, loudspeakers and amplification, thereby opening an opportunity for me to compare and contrast.

One play was Shakespeare’s King Lear. Historians still dispute the identity of Shakespeare, but all agree that these plays were written without a sound system in mind. Shakespearian actors know how to deliver. The other play was set in a modern era New York apartment and even had loudspeakers on stage as a set piece. Both plays featured high-profile actors best known for their film and television work.

This set the stage for a sonic showdown: traditional unamplified versus modern amplified. It was a dead heat in the intelligibility category. No words were injured in the making of these shows.

Envelope Please

The sound image award goes, hands-down, to the unamplified show. There was never a moment where the image did not exactly track the sources. An actor on stage left could talk to an actor on stage right and the sound individually tracked their locations. This held up even though our seats were way off to the side.

By contrast. the amplified show had mono sound that imaged all actors from all locations in the same overhead loudspeaker, which was hidden in plain sight.

There were very few sonic distractions in the “natural” sound show. No mic pickups were missed. No RF intrusion or bumped mics. The amplified show was operated extremely well, and yet the chances of getting through any show without some sonic mishap are somewhere around that of pitching a perfect game. There were a few moments that brought the sound system overtly into the patron’s brains and then things settled back down to normal.

And now in the category of sounding natural; the envelope, please. The winner is amplified sound. By 20 dB. Why? Because the unamplified “natural” sound show was an artistic disaster (on many levels) but most noticeably for the unnatural sonic quality.

The actors were so focused on delivering their lines with enough LEVEL and AR-TIC-U-LA-TION that the sound quality was extremely disconnected from the dialog content. We were distracted and confused even though we understood the words. The difference in delivery between “I love you” and “I want to kill you” was barely noticeable. It was two hours of speeches but zero minutes of conversation.

On the other hand, the amplified show had tremendous dynamic range that the actors exploited to the fullest. The range of emotions in the play was extreme and the dialog was able to realistically link the way the actors spoke to the emotions of the moment. There was pin-drop whispering as well as full-throated bellowing. The “unnatural” reinforcement from the loudspeakers allowed for natural sound transmission from the actors.

The unamplified production, by contrast, required the actors to provide the complete sound system transmission, leaving them with a very small range of natural expressions (and even postures). This is the cost of traditional purity in the modern age. And it is totally unnecessary.

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The Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear used amplified sound to provide a fantastic experience for the theatergoers (sound design by Mark Menard and Sten Severson of Acme Sound Partners, and skillfully mixed by Craig Freeman).

We experienced the full emotional impact of John Lithgow, Annette Bening and other great actors working their craft. Distributed loudspeakers hang in plain view on wires above the Delacorte Theater (in Central Park, Manhattan).

Sonic image is ever present in the minds of sound engineers, but the image distortion must be very strong for the average patron to take note for more than a passing moment. A full range of emotions delivered from actors, by contrast, is universally applauded.

Here To Help

I won’t divulge the details of the “natural” show but will provide some context. The Broadway-area venue holds more than 1,100 people, and the lack of sound system was certainly an artistic rather than budgetary decision. They could afford it. It’s a “closet drama” with actors never more than a few feet away from each other. I kept expecting a sound cue of the next-door neighbor pounding the wall to tell them to shut up, as I would do if they shared my walls.

Movie actors (in movies) don’t have to yell the quiet parts; modern theatrical actors shouldn’t have to either. And yet these are the words that so many old-school theater personnel most fear: “I’m from the sound department and I’m here to help.” We now have the tools and techniques to support actors without taking over the show.

Modern microphones and loudspeaker systems are extremely linear and capable of providing reinforcement with minimal detection. They are small and make far less noise than the lights and staging. Current DSP technology gives us the ability to track actors on cue and other subtle manipulations that expand the artistic range open to actors. We are ready, willing and able, and we want nothing more than for nobody to know we are even in the room.

Traditionalism dies hard in any field, but in the world of the stage, it’s always the sound department that’s forced to wear the prairie dress. Does anybody tell the lighting folks they need to burn lime or forbid the stagehands the use of electrical winches? Is polyester forbidden in costumes? And yet the sound department is obliged to play by the rules of the 50s (1550s to 1950s), even on a closet drama set in the 1980s. As Tevya sings in Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition!”

It was easy to detect the presence of sound systems in the olden days. The amplified sound contained a variety of clues that betrayed us. Loudspeakers were not good enough, mic placement options were poor, and we had only primitive capabilities for signal processing. It’s time to update the files because none of these things are true anymore.

Natural Solutions

It’s easy to forget that theater is an inherently amplified event. The makeup artists greatly amplify the facial features. Stage props are overly contrasted with exaggerated features. A single floor lamp in an apartment lights up the entire room—evenly! Up close, however, the actors look like clowns, the stage looks like a cartoon, and the lights can be blinding.

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But out in the house, these amplifications serve the purpose of making a distant visual event appear much closer, and it all feels natural to us. That’s the magic of theater.

The actor’s voices also need to rescale to reach the house at a proper level. They must be amplified. The questions are simply how much, and by whom. If all of the gain comes from the actor, the price is unnatural diction, inappropriate tonal/emotional cues and stiff posture.

Any doubt about the veracity of this can be erased by the following exercise: (1) stand up and read the previous sentence in a normal voice, then (2) read it like a movie actor would, and (3) project like a Broadway stage actor. One of these is not like the others, and the fact that you know exactly what to do to imitate the stage actor tells it all.

If part of the required acoustic gain can come from the sound system, the actors can relax into a more natural speech pattern that matches the emotions of the spoken words. As the sound system carries more of the burden, the actors can reduce the need to constantly broadcast their voices. The downside risk is increasing vulnerability to loudspeaker detection. Modern sound systems can bend this much further than ever, but only if we have the cooperation of other departments.

The four key factors where interdisciplinary coordination pays off in favor of supporting the actor’s voices are location, location, location, and noise. We need multiple positions so we can get loudspeakers that align well with the varying audience sightlines to the stage. If lighting and stage noise can be minimized, then everyone needs less acoustic gain and our range of stealth operation expands.

Bringing It To Life

Today’s audiences have moved on. The presence of loudspeakers does not offend them. (Hint: they put loudspeakers in their ears all day.) They expect the show to be as up close and personal as watching TV at home (or like the movie the play is based on), but with the added extras of live actors, 3-D staging, lighting, and sound (without the glasses). It’s time now for the rest of the theater world to move on and use all of the tools available to them.

It’s true that a sound reinforcement system is not required for every production. But then again, neither are makeup, costumes, lighting, and staging. The only mandatory attendee is the playwright’s story brought to life by the actors. All of the other disciplines are invited to enhance the conveyance of that experience to the audience. The question of “to be, or not to be” reinforced should be weighed in the context of how well we can actually enhance the actor’s transmission rather than romantic notions of tradition.

Writing this to sound engineers is like preaching to the converted. But maybe it will help toward getting some understanding the next time you hear “Sound system? We don’t need no stinking sound system!”

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