Event for hearing impaired posed host of challenges for organizers
A dancing troupe called My Dream performs on the main stage during the opening ceremonies for Deaf Way II.
NOT ALL MAJOR EVENTS IN Washington D.C. revolve around politics. This summer, for instance, the nation's capital played host to a major convention called Deaf Way II — the world's only international gathering designed to celebrate and share the experiences of deaf people and to present entertainment and activities specifically designed for the deaf. Hosted by Gallaudet University, the nation's leading college for hearing-impaired students, the event had more than 10,000 attendees — nearly double the number of participants at the first Deaf Way, back in 1989.
Deaf and hearing participants attended the conference, meaning presentations and all the communication, visual, and tactile challenges that came with those presentations had to be aimed at both groups simultaneously. Indeed, organizers say that one of the reasons for the long period between the first Deaf Way event and the second was the complexity involved in staging shows and activities on a large scale that could be appreciated equally by both hearing and hearing-impaired audiences.
Deaf Way II consisted of a weeklong conference in July at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center, which kicked off with a spectacular opening ceremony, including clown performers, theatrical skits, puppets, mimes, storytelling, visual effects, and much more. The week also included seminars and keynote speakers, and weeklong theatrical performances at the Gallaudet campus. In addition, the Convention Center also hosted a nightly International Deaf Club party during the conference, and an elaborate arts festival took place simultaneously throughout Washington in different venues, including the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institute, the National Arboretum, and (Maryland's) Hillary Smith Performing Arts Center.
Tim McCarty, president and founder of an organization called Quest: Arts for Everyone (Lanham, Md.), served as producer for Deaf Way II. He began working to plan the event four years ago, in conjunction with Dr. Jay Innes, chairman of Gallaudet's cultural arts committee, and Harvey Goodstein, chairman of the Deaf Way II organizing committee, among others. They set up panels to find artists in most visual and performing disciplines to participate in the event's opening ceremony and in the week-long arts' festival, and they also hired director Iosip Schneiderman, himself hearing impaired, to direct the complex opening ceremony.
“We selected [Schneiderman] because he comes from a strong visual theater background [including clown and mime training],” McCarty explains. “We also felt that the opening ceremony, in addition to being a celebration and representing different cultures, really had to have a strong visual base, with minimal talking or signing. He and I began to brainstorm ideas for the shape of the show and which performers we thought would show well for the opening, while also representing as much of the world as we possibly could.”
Event organizers hired Stephanie Campbell and Jenna Mack of Capitol Services, Inc. (Alexandria, Va.), an event-management company, to find vendors to handle the audiovisual aspects of the opening ceremony, the dance club, and the breakout rooms used during the week for seminars and presentations. They, in turn, contacted Jeff Monner of CPR MultiMedia Solutions (Gaithersburg, Md.) to handle the A/V job, and his colleague, Ed Rangel, to serve as audio designer/engineer on the project.
“I welcomed input from everybody, so all the contractors were there not just to support this vision, but also to provide ideas,” McCarty says. “From those ideas, we were able to strengthen the performance. [Jeff Monner] took a really strong lead in this. Because we had so much technology available to us, I thought it was important to use it — but not overuse it. The big challenge involved the layering of communication. We had an international audience, and though there were only a few speakers, most of them were signing in American Sign Language onstage. [Backstage, interpreters speaking English translated the sign language, and their versions of the speeches were broadcast onto screens onstage during the speeches.] Then, [also onstage], yet another person would be signing to the audience in Gestuno, which is another signing language, developed primarily for international conferences. We also used live captioning on the screens, as well. [Each speaker and performer was introduced via captioning on-screen, rather than receiving live introductions.] Consequently, there were many intricate layers that involved a lot of planning.”
McCarty compares the approach to “a circus format” because so many things were happening at once and because “you could actually see entrances if you really looked.”
“It was such a large space [100,000 square feet for the main hall, where the opening ceremony was held], and the stage was very large, along with 34ft.-long ramps on either side of it,” he adds. “Then, we also had entrances at the back of the house, so we were using the entire space as a performing space. I didn't want just people in the front of the house to relate to the performance — I also wanted to involve the people in the back of the house. There were 6,500 people in Hall A and then another 2,000 in Hall B watching the show on video screens.”
It was therefore up to Monner, CPR video engineer Phil Bristol, and the rest of their team to coordinate the numerous technical issues.
“It started off being like one of our typical bread-and-butter jobs,” Monner says. “There was a general session in a large room, an evening/after-hours party room, and a dozen breakout rooms. But then, you take it a step further: everybody's deaf. So the focus became a lot more visual than your average event. For the opening celebration, everyone packed into Hall A, and it was like an Olympic ceremony meeting Cirque du Soleil, with international entertainment groups, clowns, acrobats, and lots of effects. We had five large screens [manufactured by ScreenWorks], each 15'×20'. They were all rear-projection [setups] placed across the backdrop. The entire system was run through Vista Control Systems' Screenmaster 3216 controller with five Folsom VFC-2200DE dual scalers [one per screen]. That allowed us to put any source on any screen at any time.”
Storyteller Rob Roy’s performance is projected on all the main screens during the opening ceremonies.
That system relied on a Dataton show control system, consisting of Dataton's Trax software and SmartPax control units — a system which controlled five Panasonic DVD-V7400 DVD players and five desktop PCs.
“Of the sources in the general session, we had nine cameras, five DVD [players], five computers [just for graphics], open captioning, and a secondary production switch,” Monner says. “All the cameras ran to a traditional video switcher component system. That system controlled recording the show and then fed video into the big matrix.”
This routing system also let organizers move programming around as needed, depending upon who was on stage, with the Screenmaster controller handling presets for easy switching.
“It's very hard to do a live switch with that many inputs to that many outputs,” Monner explains, “so we designed a lot of presets that could be called up at any time. Screen one might have a hearing person come up, and they can speak English. His or her image magnification might be in the center screen, flanked by IMAG of someone who is listening and signing in American Sign Language. Then, somebody who is listening and then signing into Gestuno flanks those screens on the outside. If someone came up doing American Sign Language, they didn't want to have redundant signing, so there would be a different preset that would come up, possibly moving inward the international signers and putting IMAG also on the outside screens. So there were a lot of presets designed, depending on which person was up there.”
The graphics' computers, meanwhile, used a Flash animation software-based approach instead of PowerPoint, which permitted the graphics' team to provide specific graphics to designated screens.
“They had to be synchronized so that it appeared like a multi-screen, perfectly seamless run,” Monner explains. “So we hit one button on the Dataton system, and it would trigger all five computers to start running their presentations all perfectly timed together. The same was true for the DVD players: one button played all five machines at once. The DVD videos were created as five separate videos, each one specified as being a fifth of what was going on. So when it played, you had five distinct images going on that appeared to all be one part. At some points, they were playing separate images, and at other parts, they were all part of one large image that ran across the entire set of screens.”
In terms of image acquisition, the opening ceremony required nine cameras, all Sony DXC-D30WS units, using Fujinon 16×9, Canon 33×15 and 45×9.5 lenses.
“At the front-of-house position, I had two long lenses, and way back on the third floor, we had a long-lens camera as well,” Monner says. “Opposite, on the third floor, we had a cut-shot camera with a regular lens. Five and six were shoulder-mount cameras that wandered up to get close stage shots. We also had a 30ft. boom camera out in the house, and then we had two cameras backstage, one each for the ASL interpreter and the Gestuno interpreter.”
Monner is understandably proud of the opening presentation, particularly because, according to him, there was precious little rehearsal time.
A clown group performs between acts while the main stage is being reconfigured.
“[The opening ceremony] went for a little over two hours,” Monner explains. “The biggest challenge of all was that we had very little time to actually put everything together. On the creative side, we'd been having weekly meetings for several months, but the convention center was only available to Deaf Way to set up on Saturday. Because a lot of the groups were coming in from across the country, Saturday was the first time the producers and directors got to actually see some of the acts. They practiced everything on Sunday over at Gallaudet University while we finished putting all the final tech things together. It took us two days just to put everything into the venue. Monday morning was the first time we all got together to do it, and Monday evening was the show.”
Dance Hall, Breakout Rooms
CPR MultiMedia also put together a complex sound system for the event, one designed specifically to help entertain people with hearing disorders.
“That was one of the most interesting things about doing a deaf conference — since most of them can't hear, we put in twice as many subwoofers as we normally would because they can feel the bass,” Monner explains. “We did have a very large conference PA system in there, as well, for those who could hear. One of the groups that performed was from Hong Kong, and most of their music wasn't really music as much as it was sounds that were very low in the audio spectrum. The VIPs in the front would be smiling and putting their hands on their chests and bellies because they could just feel it going through them. Those of us who could hear were wearing two sets of earplugs.”
Believe it or not, things were even louder over at the International Deaf Club dance area.
“That was a dance/evening club that ran from 8 p.m. until about 2 a.m.,” Monner explains. “It had a big dance floor, so that's where we really put in the subwoofers. Usually, in a sound system, there are one or two subwoofers for every top speaker. Here, we did 10 to one. We had eight speakers flown with 80, 15in. driver units in them. Usually, the ratio of top boxes to sub boxes is 1:1 or 1:2 — doing 1:10 is something we had never tried before. It was loud enough volume so that those with some hearing could hear, but having that many drivers pushing that much bottom end really let you feel the beat through the floor, enabling them to dance.
“The club was so loud, according to the Washington Post [in a July report], that the beat could be heard in the Grand Hyatt Hotel across the street,” Monner adds with a proud chuckle.
The dance club also featured six front-projection screens.
Audio engineer Ed Rangel at his console in the main hall just prior to the start of opening ceremonies.
“We had a video camera, DVD player, computer graphics — a lot of eye candy and fun images up on the screens, in addition to the obligatory sponsor loops,” Monner says. “In Hall A, the main speaker system was an EAW concert rig — KF750s. The rig in the deaf club was EAW 650s, and the subwoofers were actually all no-names — custom built for us.”
Then, there were the breakout rooms, which presented a host of challenges themselves.
“We had 10 breakout rooms, and each one had two front-projection screens because we didn't have the room for RP,” Monner says. “Depending on the room size, the screens were anywhere from 7.5'×10' screens to 10.5'×14' screens in the larger rooms. One screen had an IMAG shot, so we had a camera in each room with captioning. There was also a person in each room who would listen to everything that was going on and type it into the words that appeared on the bottom of the screen for captioning. The other screen was used for presentations, which came from anything from laptops, visual presenters, slides and video converters, VHS, or DVD.
“We had to be prepared for anything in any room. We had the usual challenges of an international conference, with people showing up with international VHS tapes and laptops that were a little different. And since everybody was deaf, and our crew was all hearing, we issued pads of paper to everyone to help communicate. But it's not that easy — they could all read, of course, but they might not know English. So you're dealing with someone who can't hear and possibly doesn't know English, and you're trying to communicate with them when their laptop isn't working with your projector. Fortunately, we did have plenty of interpreters wandering around.”
Lighting designer Benji Tschudin of Atmosphere Lighting (Silver Spring, Md.), created all the lighting effects for the conference.
A technician mans his station at the show’s backstage video village.
“We used mainly all automated lighting — High End Systems' Studio Colors and Studio Spots and VariLite 2202 luminaires, and for control, a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console with a wing,” Tschudin explains. “Since there was everything from comedians to dance pieces, the plot had to be very versatile. We also did pyro for the opening ceremonies. For that, there were 40 airburst hits, which were triggered from a Le Maitre [Pyro Flash 6/24] controller that also ran [two Le Maitre] carbon dioxide foggers.
“Over at Hall B — the Deaf club — we had Martin MAC 2000 luminaires and more Studio Spots and Studio Colors on sort of a rave rig — a 40ft. box with a 12in. tail truss piece coming down,” Tschudin continues. “We have this little custom configuration that we do where we physically hang moving lights down underneath the tail-down pieces of truss to get a very rave-like, clubby look.
“For the club, they wanted the whole room lit without the sodium vapors on,” Tschudin continues. “They wanted it to be very party-like — but it's a huge room. So we ended up flying several trusses with lamp bars [PAR cans] for ambient lighting, and in addition to that, I experimented with some different gels and was able to find one that didn't burn out. I chose all warm colors because all the people were signing — on any given night, there were 4,000 to 5,000 people in the club. So the lighting had to be party-like, but also bright enough so that they could all see each other well enough to sign. If you were a regular-hearing person, you'd go deaf in the club, though — drinks were dumping themselves off tables from the vibrations.”
The lighting for the breakout rooms consisted primarily of video lighting packages for the IMAG screens, with lots of creative elements thrown into the mix. For the theatrical performances over at Gallaudet, however, lighting was more complicated.
Festival-goers enjoy the Deaf Way dance club, which posed numerous lighting and audio challenges.
“For the theatrical performances [at Gallaudet], they had Clearspan tents that they broke in half and turned into two black-box theater spaces where they had performances every night,” Tschudin says. “So I designed repertory plots for those areas. We had a ground-supported rear truss that was 17ft. high by 40ft. wide, and off that, there were lekos with color changers. We hung lamp bars on the sides — because we couldn't do real shin-buster [configurations] like you would normally do for dance performances — just to get some side fill. They were hung with the special hangars we had with the tent. They also had scrollers on them, so we could give each act some flexibility.
“Throughout the week, they did about 15 to 20 shows, and each show was different. They had their own lighting people, so it had to be a generic plot that was flexible for everybody. Then, we hung three upstage specials — one dead center and left and right, and three downstage specials, as well — center, left and right, also with drop-in irises. Those could be refocused, if needed. Front-of-house had 18 units for a basic dance fill — a cool and a warm look. Both Gallaudet theaters duplicated each other. There was black drape obviously behind the truss, and everything was masked to create a black box. We used a Rosco ‘Marley’ floor on both stages, and we used a Jands lighting control console in each room.”
But it wasn't only projection, sound, and light that made the event special — the show's design was also crafted with great care. According to Anne Senatore of A Vista Events (Silver Springs, Md.), a lot of work was done to jazz up the surroundings in the various locations.
“We basically tried to make the convention center somewhat more attractive than it actually is,” she says. “We had to create the main stage in Hall A, which is where the opening performance was held, and also decorate Hall B, which they turned into a nightclub. The main stage in A was 30'×40', and the space is so huge that it's hard to put any kind of thematic print on it without spending a huge amount of money. So we tried just to cover up the plain concrete walls and make it a warmer, more attractive environment.
Balloons are released during the grand finale of the opening ceremonies.
“Over at the club, we made things a bit more fun and young and vibrant,” she continues. “There was a huge dance floor in the center, and we used some colorful spandex pieces to make it a bit more clubby. Mainly, we needed everything in large quantities. Lots of carpet and drape — big, predominantly soft goods. It was all orchestrated so well mainly because we had all worked so many meetings together prior to this event.”
McCarty agrees that previous experience and lots of hard work were the primary reasons the complex event came off seamlessly.
“The willingness of all of the contractors to meet regularly was incredibly helpful,” he says. “At six months out, we met every two weeks, but then at about three months, we began meeting every week as a group. Then, we would have breakout meetings of different folks — people who were doing the slides or the editor for the recorded video component and the live video director. In our weekly meetings, we would have about 35 people reporting.”
The event's technical achievements particularly pleased McCarty in the context of Deaf Way's overall importance.
“We wanted to send a message about the professionalism of Deaf Way II, and we also wanted to set a level of energy and celebration that would permeate the entire week,” he says. “From all the feedback I've gotten, we did that. People were entertained, but they were in many ways overwhelmed by the quality of the professionalism in the art that was consistently presented in the show. The other significance is the fact that no one had ever before presented an event at this level, featuring deaf artists and directed by a deaf director. It was a message to the deaf world, and the world in general — ‘Here we are, and we belong here.’ That message came through loud and clear.”