Good fat meaty article in WSJ about just how much mic-ing is going on in the theatre--to the point it's becoming de rigeur even in plays.
"Area mics"--discreet microphones placed around the set or stage apron have been common for decades. (Though even that started as a shortcut for musicals only.) But even though it may not surprise us, it's worth pondering for a second the implications of the banishment of the unamplified spoken voice (arguably the stage actor's chief instrument since Greek times) from our "auditoriums."
As reporter Ellen Gamerman rightly points out, the problem is not just actors' ability to project, but the difficulty of maintaining the silence necessary anymore to let actors be heard. Not to mention the reduced hearing capability of an audience conditioned on amplification every second of the day.
Many theatergoers have come to expect the miking effect. Microphones on stage allow actors to speak more naturally, emulating the more realistic performance style that audiences are used to from movies and television. Audiences also expect entertainment to be louder generally, after years of surround-sound in movie theaters. Sound designers say it's necessary to turn up the volume on actors as Broadway theaters themselves get louder, with automated lighting and set-moving equipment making a continual background noise. "There's very little true quiet in the theater anymore," says Tom Clark of Acme Sound Partners, which is designing the sound for "Bye Bye Birdie" and other shows this season.Good for Mamet. But in that case, it probably is Julia Styles' fault!
Playwright David Mamet is known for refusing to use any mics at all in his plays. It may be a losing battle. At a recent performance of "Oleanna," his play about sexual harassment now on Broadway, an audience member complained at a "talk back" for theatergoers after the show. Dennis Sandman, a 56-year-old financial planner from East Brunswick, N.J., said he couldn't hear the play from the balcony.
Consider also the problem "straight" plays have on the road. Considering the discussion linked to last week about how hard it is for musicals to play 4,000-seat arenas, what about when you're not singing?
The Pulitzer-winning Broadway play "August: Osage County," which last played in a 1,000-seat Broadway theater, is now on tour around the country in theaters that have housed musicals such as "Wicked." Plays, which are less expensive to produce than musicals, have become popular choices on the touring circuit. To make the family drama work in spaces such as the 4,000-seat Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, the show's crew has hidden body mics in the cast's costumes.
Actress Shannon Cochran, who plays the oldest daughter in "August: Osage County," says she doesn't have to make big gestures to indicate whom she's talking to anymore. There is one complication: A sound mixer needs to keep tight control over cast members' levels during fight scenes, when the characters are screaming at each other. "He's definitely riding it to make sure you don't blow out a speaker," she says.
Can anything spoil spoken realist drama more fake than the sound of disembodied voices coming at you from speakers at all the wrong levels? No wonder younger folk think all plays are "fake."
Finally get this snapshot from the recent Desire Under the Elms:
Stage sound isn't always invisible. Actor Pablo Schreiber was half-naked for much of "Desire Under the Elms," a fraught drama by Eugene O'Neill on Broadway earlier this year. Audiences seated at the front of the 1,623-seat St. James Theatre could see a battery pack in his long johns with his microphone wire running down his bare back.
So much for rural New England circa 1900.
(Though I guess director Bob Falls' use of Bob Dylan already shattered that illusion.)
Also check out Gamerman's exposing of the secret practice in musicals of "sweetening," or as its known in the music industry....lip synching! Gotta admire the honesty at least--once the voice is that amplified, does it matter if it's live or not?