The Playgoer: Spoken Drama in the Age of the Body Mic

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spoken Drama in the Age of the Body Mic

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.

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.
Good for Mamet. But in that case, it probably is Julia Styles' fault!

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?


Anonymous said...

uh, the Greek actors WERE amplified. Apparently there was some device in their masks.
But I hate mics in the theater, too.

C.L.J. said...

A microphone bumped you out of the illusion? Not the fact that every single piece of scenery is unreal? That it was performed under artificial lighting? In a climate controlled room full of people?

"The willing suspension of disbelief." It's mandatory for theatre patrons, and should extend to artifacts such as microphones, too. It's not reality, and it's not supposed to be reality. It's a play, for gods' sake.

The issue isn't "mics" versus "no mics." The real issue is "competent sound design" versus "incompetent sound design." There are very few competent sound designers, and a lot of pretenders who like to play with sound gear.

If the sound design is properly executed, you should not be aware of speaker placement; it should sound like it's coming from the person speaking. And if it doesn't, it's not because microphones and a sound system were used, it's because microphones and a sound system were used very poorly.

I say this as a classically trained actor who sneered at microphones until moving over to the production end, and seeing just what they can do, properly utilized.

And anonymous? Those masks didn't amplify anything; they didn't need to. The Greeks were not performing in the naturalized style so popular in the last fifty years or so. Greek plays were delivered via highly affected speech, with the emphasis on words being heard and understood over sounding "realistic." They knew it wasn't real.

Anonymous said...

No claim to the Greeks being "real" -- and no intention to suggest that. Still, the history books say that the masks did amplify the actors so that the back rows of those big theaters, albeit with excellent acoustics, could hear their non-naturalistic poetry.

MinBK said...

Great post. Fascinating topic. Disagree on one point, though. My sense is that young folks don't find theater fake because of amplification. On the contrary, having grown up as we all have listening to so much acting through speakers in tvs and at movie theaters, we all expect a level of relaxed speech that is impossible in a 300-seat (let alone the 3,000-seat) house. People hate hearing people shout ... young people especially.

Of course, I'm talking about so-called realistic theater primarily. But even when listening to Shakespeare, expectations are very different - and I have to say, guiltily, having rehearsed and directed a fair amount of Shakespeare, it's almost never as good or effective on stage as it is in the tiny rehearsal room ...

Oh, and I completely agree that a good sound designer can render the entire discussion moot. Along with a lot of other Shakespeare lovers, I enjoyed last season's Winter's Tale at BAM ... you think there was no micing involved there?

Nick Keenan said...

C.L.J. is right about good sound design vs. incompetent sound design - as a sound engineer and designer myself, I am caught up in this discussion on a daily basis. 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.

Playgoer said...

Thank you all for these scintillating comments. Especially from our expert sound designers. I'm learning a lot!

To answer/echo a couple of points: Totally right that mic's have their place in the modern theatre, especially when used to deliberate effect as part of an overall stage & sound design. Transparency in the use of them helps assimilate them into the world of the event. (Even if that's the visible headset-mic's in Rent.)

Good point about the Greeks. Yes, that's the theory about those masks. Still, I'd rather listen to an actor bellow through basically an acoustic megaphone than to an electronic recreation of the voice.

Nick's caution against nostalgia for the art of projection is very, very well taken. There are those of course who believe ALL the problems in the theatre come from actors not knowing how to project any more, apparently. And excellent point, Nick, about the history of the theatre constantly evolving as technology and spaces change, throwing new challenges at the art of acting. The training and expectations for "vocal production" cannot simply stay stagnant as society changes.

For instance, I have a hunch that in the early days of modern realism (late 19th/early 20th cent) there was a LOT more "cheating out" then we'd expect in such "realist" plays as Doll's House. It's really hard (no matter what your training) to play a dramatic scene in a 1000-seat house quietly, only facing your scene partner. So audiences probably didn't expect it. Only with the ascendancy of film & tv as new standards of realism should look and sound like did theatre acting begin to look "fake" by comparison. That, and the prevalence of "the method" discouraged cheating out, facing front, and all the other tricks actors used to "put over" naturalism in Broadway houses. And, lucky for them, the technology of mic-ing was right there to help them.

Just a theory.

On another note, I hope smaller black-box venues begin to capitalize more on their more intimate and UNamplified features. Call it, "theatre unplugged"??? "In your face?" (Oh yeah that's taken by the Brits)