It may surprise those of you in the great North American continent to learn that, until recently, straight plays in London's West End were not amplified. British actors learned their craft with a view to working in theatre, rather than in film and television, and were taught how to project so that they could be heard at the back of the most unforgiving auditorium. Of course, times change, and now the focus is much more on the silver and small screens. Theatre is where you go for a bit of credibility, once you've made the mega-bucks that will secure you for life, even if you never work again. To be fair, it's the reason that we see many previous stars of the theatre back on stage: McKellen, Stewart, Branagh, and a select handful of others who, having paid their dues in rep and then at the National Theatre of Great Britain or the Royal Shakespeare Company, graduated to the big blockbuster movies and TV shows.
My friends refuse to go to the cinema with me anymore because of my extremely annoying habit of name-checking people with whom I've worked. Nothing brings this on more than the Star Wars movies, where it's hard to suspend disbelief when the Dark Lord of the Universe is someone you've routinely seen wandering around a dressing room in his underwear. It can be quite hard to come to terms with an actor when you can go out and buy a plastic likeness of him that shoots lightning from its fingertips when you press a button in its back. Similarly, there's a certain beautiful young actress who has lost all her allure for me since I had to change the batteries in a wireless mic transmitter hidden in her wig while she stomped around stark-naked in a quick change room. Maybe the Victorians had a point.
But I digress. The advent of what one West End producer calls “event casting” has also brought to our stages those whose training was not quite so intense and who are much more used to projecting only as far as the boom microphone or even the lapel microphone. This doesn't necessarily make them bad actors, but it can cause big problems for the sound department when they are paired with more traditional thespians who can ping the dialog off the back wall like nobody's business.
I first came across this problem many years ago, in fact almost when I first started working in theatre. One of the first shows that I was involved in was a gentle musical comedy, purely acoustic, as was the fashion in those far-off days, and the leading lady was very famous as a film actress. She was beautiful, charming, and funny, and she could hoof with the best of them and act up a storm, but she had a tiny voice, which barely made it over the orchestra pit. The rest of the cast were all seasoned theatre professionals, some of whom had cowed audiences in the rowdiest of theatres in the far-flung corners of the United Kingdom, and the variation in dynamic range was truly astonishing. The musical director and the composer were valiant in their efforts to make her numbers audible, and her leading man, a true gentleman, modulated his performance whenever they were on stage together, but inevitably, some subtle miking was brought into play. When the show moved to the West End, the lady decided that discretion was the better part of valor and relinquished the part to an up-and-coming unknown, who could sing but didn't have the audience-pulling power, and the show folded quite quickly.
Many years later, I was involved in a regional theatre season where the producer had a passion for employing famous film stars. He'd provide first-class accommodation and luxury cars to transport them to and from the theatre, and as it was a relatively short season, they were, on the whole, happy to come and spend time in the peaceful English countryside. I was lucky in that I got to meet and work with some very famous names indeed and on one memorable occasion, I was mischievously accosted by one of these while I was on the phone to my wife. “What's going on?” she asked. “Julie Christie just kissed me,” was my somewhat startled reply. As it happens, Christie could hold the stage brilliantly, but others were not quite so well prepared, and discreet miking was necessary on more than one occasion.
My work in New York has long since inured me to the necessity of providing reinforcement for straight plays in some of the noisy barns that pass for theatres there. With the bar staff preparing intermission drinks, the traffic passing by in the street a few feet away from the audience, as the ancient AC rumbles overhead, and the subway rumbles below, it's only fair to the actors that they be given a helping hand. I usually set a level that I'm happy with and then leave it to the operator to correct for the prevailing conditions, but some actors can cause even the most hardened operator problems. One actor, known in the trade for his fondness of “flirting with inaudibility” drove one of my guys insane, and when I dropped in to see the show some months after it had opened, I was not entirely surprised to see a notice propped up behind the mix position that stated simply, “If you are unable to hear Mr. X, it's not my fault.”
Mostly, I've been able to avoid miking in the West End, but what's interesting is that, as star-casting becomes more prevalent, the audience demographic has changed. Film and television stars bring in an audience that is used to having dialog delivered at a high level from a few feet away. These audience members get restless when they have to work at listening to theatre show, and so the complaints start coming in.
I was astonished a few years ago when the front-of-house manager for a show with two major theatre stars in a reasonably small West End theatre reported record numbers of complaints about levels. I knew both the actors concerned and was well aware that neither of them had any problem with delivery, but a perusal of some of the Internet chat sites where the show was being discussed revealed that many audience members were attending the theatre for the very first time, and so it was decided that we'd install a reinforcement system that I'd tune during a few performances.
The mics went in — cardioid lavaliers for the floats to keep things low profile — and the speakers were installed in the more acoustically difficult areas of the theatre, and I set a rough level. This was in the early days of wireless connectivity, and I was able to take a laptop to the very farthest point in the theatre and tweak the system from there. I chose a matinee performance and arrived in position just before the show, at which point a stately American matron turned around and asked what I was doing. I explained that there were some audibility problems and that I was there to make some adjustments. “Fine, I'll tell you when it's okay,” she said, and the show started. After a few minutes, she made “louder” gestures, and I adjusted accordingly. A few minutes more and another “louder” sign and then, after I'd made the change, a sort of “split the difference” sign. More time passed, and then I got a very clear “thumbs up,” and locked that part of the system down and went on to the next level.
I balanced the rest of the system without the assistance of the audience and went to find the house manager at intermission. As I approached, I could see him being buttonholed by an elderly patron, and the words “impossible to hear the dialog” floated through the air. As he was asking the gentleman where he was sitting, the patron was replying, “What? What? Speak up. I can't hear a word you're saying.” I left him to deal with the matter in the diplomatic way that only house managers have. We had no more complaints on that show.