West Side Story at the Northcott – and can you stage a musical without a sound man?

It was good to be back at the Exeter Northcott this evening, for a production of West Side Story. Unusually, there was no sound engineer, this was an acoustic production.

This is the first time I’ve been back to the Northcott since it went into administration. The University, which already owns the building, has bought the theatre’s assets and is running it with the same staff as a going concern, with a view to reviewing things next year. Read their press release. Frankly, I enjoyed being back, especially since I could walk there and back on this lovely summer’s evening.

The production was with a cast and orchestra of University students. The show was ‘semi-staged’, in other words, without full set. This production was pulled out of the bag in a very short space of time, as a co-production between the the Northcott’s regular staff and University students. As such, some things went right back to basics, and I rather enjoyed that. The large orchestra were in full view at the back of the stage, which is fine by me. Why have them in a pit anyway? You still know they’re there! There was practically no set, the stage was almost totally open. This puts all the onus on the lighting and the actors to ‘make’ the scene. As someone who’s worked on quite a lot of theatre productions, leaving out a lot of theatrical elements stops me thinking about how things were achieved and lets me think more about the action. The biggest surprise was that there was (save for one piece of recorded music) no sound engineering at all. Nobody had a mic. No foldback. Nothing. I got to thinking about what you can remove from a theatre production and still have it work.

I realised there’s one very simple reason why you can’t leave out the lighting. It’s because theatres generally have no windows. Lighting can also set mood, hide things, and mark the beginning and end of scenes, in ways that other tools can’t.

Leaving out the set it is fine, although props help. I have a theory that since the mind still has to be quite forgiving about theatre in general, selectively overlooking things that don’t corroborate the idea that you are watching actuality, you can get away with quite a lot. Forgetting a set is one such thing.

So to sound, my own speciality. First, perhaps a quick summary of what someone like might be doing on a musical theatre job. Essentially, it’s about making sure everyone can hear everything, at the right volume. All key cast and chorus and musicians will be fed into the sound desk, and a number of feeds produced. There’ll be a mix for the front of house, with everything at a balanced level, to make sure the audience can hear the singing at the right level over the music, which should be mixed so that the orchestration sounds right. There are a couple of tricks, such as dynamic compression and reverb, that make the different elements sound more listenable and under control. Then, a number of foldback mixes are usually expected, so that the performers can hear properly. The singers will often want to be able to hear themselves and key orchestra members. The musical director (MD) will want to hear everything, with an especially clear vocal sound. Within the orchestra, different members can have very specific requirements about which other musicians they can hear. The whole affair of the sound rig can take quite a while to construct and set up as a consequence. Done right, with musical sensitivity, the sound engineer’s role should be pretty transparent.

The attraction of leaving out a sound rig shouldn’t be dismissed. Less time taken on the get-in, less time with actors and musicians setting up and testing, less to work on and maintain during the rig and less to go wrong. And it’s cheaper. Today, possibly for the first time, I’ve heard the totally natural sound of someone singing backed by an orchestra.

There are a some surprises you may find when you go acoustic.

The first is that it can be really hard to get a band to play quietly so as not to drown out the singers. Some drummers will have a real problem playing quietly. Generally speaking, tonight’s production succeeded in getting the orchestra to play at the right volume (i.e. not drown out the singers) and this is a credit.

The second is just how loud you sometimes actually might want to be. When I set up a sound rig for theatre, I usually factor in a lot of headroom to go louder than the normal volume for the production, more than people probably realise. Why? An appreciative audience is a very noisy audience, and if you want your finale to be heard, it’s going to need to be loud.

Third, theatres might not be as quiet as you think. I think tonight’s production of West Side Story had maybe 10+ intelligent lights in the ceiling, all fan cooled. Unfortunately the noise adds up. If your actors drop their volume and projection, you can end up with lost words. One of the side effects of an actor having a headset mic is that it doesn’t matter which way they face, you’ll still hear them. Go natural, and you need to consider all the traditional aspects of being heard.

Fourth, without foldback speakers, people may simply not be able to hear all they want to. If the musical director is standing right next to their orchestra, they may have very little audibility of the singers over the sound of the music.

Fifth, and this can really catch people out, is timing. There’s a natural delay as sound travels across the theatre at, well, the speed of sound. It’s about 340 metres per second. Take tonight’s production where the singers separated themselves from the MD and orchestra by maybe 30 metres at times, that’s nearly a tenth of a second. For a hypothetical 120BPM piece of music, it’s about three sixteenths of a beat. So, the singers will sing three sixteenths behind the orchestra, and then their singing travels back to the MD, who hears it another three sixteenths later. They sound to the MD as if they are six sixteenths late. Nice! I suspect the musical directors I saw this evening were getting troubled by this effect at times. With a full sound rig and foldback, everyone is normally quite close to their mics and speakers, so delays due to the speed of sound are minimised.

In summary, I enjoyed the production I saw tonight. There was a lot of fun in it, good talent and creativity. For me, it was educational to strip back some of the usual theatrical production techniques in a real theatre and see what happens. I look forward to future Northcott productions and plan to see if I can get involved occasionally. But, for now, my attention is on sound, light and photos for ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ by Dartington Playgoers, next month.


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