By: Kerrie Mondy
Rent closed at the end of March. It was a successful show by any measure. It was a labor of love. It was also a minefield, a mountain, and in the end, a “changing” experience in a lot of ways. My last week of shows there, was also my first week of tech for my next show, Cabaret, at another small-but-mighty theater company- Stray Dog Theatre. Not only are the feel of those two shows wildly different, but the spaces are about as polar opposite as you can get, and it was interesting to be able to work them as overlapping shows. Cabaret was in many ways a much simpler show for me, but the acoustics of the space became quite an adventure! I learned a ton, and it gave me a lot to think about and re-evaluate.
Let me say first that in the last two months I have heard, more times than I could say, “Thanks for making us sound good.” And I can tell you, having heard both casts sing about a hundred songs at this point, they don’t need anyone’s help to sound good. They need us not to screw it up. What they’re really saying is, “Thanks for not screwing it up. We worked really hard on this.”
I think as technicians, we can get caught up a little bit in our world, which makes it really easy to lose sight of what we’re really trying to do and why we’re doing it. What we are NOT doing is using all of our consoles and cables and knobs and racks to make people sound good. What we ARE doing is using all of that gear, along with our ears and our brains, to allow fine performances to be heard and understood by many people, to bring out the best qualities of the instruments and voices we’re reinforcing, and to do our best keep the accompanying factors – the room, the coverage area, the conditions, and yes, all those things we’re working with, from messing it up in translation. I should mention that I know there are situations where as engineers, we’re tasked with creating sounds that may not exist on stage, or in the studio. But for a lot of live sound, we’re not reinventing the wheel, or at least we shouldn’t be.
I paid a visit to the set of a larger theater company’s upcoming show this week. They were finishing a tech rehearsal, and there were about 20 people running around, fussing and hand-wringing. In the 10 or so minutes I was there, I heard two meetings get called, canceled, rescheduled, and rescheduled again. The head audio supervisor was upset about the workings of the monitors and bus sends and mute groups. The engineer sat looking exasperated at a console they’d picked out for the show despite the fact that no one liked it, inputs doubled and grouped. The A-2, who was too busy mic wrangling to come out and meet the fill-in engineer, grumbled backstage. The palpable stress level made for a general feeling of unease in the house. This certainly isn’t a situation unfamiliar to theater. But…
This show has two actors, five musicians, and some sound effects. That’s it. It’s in a house of fewer than 600 seats. And I got the distinct impression that everything was as complicated as it possibly could been.
Watching stuff like this is, to me, a little bit like watching children curse at each other on the playground. They’ve heard the adults around them do it, and the people on TV and on the radio do it, and they think that using bad language is what you do when you’re a grown up. So they unleash pointless strings of profanity, meant only to show everyone around them, “hey, I’m a motherf***in’ adult over here.” Everybody wants to be on Broadway.
Except this isn’t Broadway. This is local theater, done incredibly well, by people who are making the most with the least. My directors don’t care if my audio rig impresses other audio guys. They don’t care how my faders are arranged. They care that stuff works. They care that their reviews talk about the quality of the performances, not the quality of the acoustics. They care that all the dialogue their actors have spent months memorizing and perfecting are heard and understood. They want patrons to laugh at the jokes and hear the quiver in the voice of Cliff Bradshaw as he whispers, “ There was a Cabaret. And there was a Master of Ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world.” They want to see their vision, the months of work and worry and passion and sleepless nights, shared with a few dozen equally hard-working cast and crew members, happen onstage as they’ve seen it happen in their dreams.
Job 1: Don’t screw that up.
Job 2: Make it the best it can possibly be where you are, with what you have.
Job 3: Remember that its not about you.
Of all the things I’ve learned over the last few months, that’s been the biggest one. Do what’s right for the show. And if it’s not what they do on Broadway, so what?
In part two of my blog, “Welcome to the Cabaret”, we’ll talk about the challenges of sound reinforcement in Tower Grove Abbey, the lofty, reverberant home of Stray Dog Theatre, and compare three different head/lav mics from Shure and Countryman.
Happy and safe shows to all of you!