Collaboration is the key to any successful production; it can also be the key to successfully solving a big problem on a production. Take Sweet Smell of Success, the musical based on the 1957 film noir that ran on Broadway this spring. Just weeks before the opening, the show's director, Nicholas Hytner, decided that the fan noise from the moving lights in Natasha Katz's light plot was affecting the quieter parts in the show.
“This show really went for intimate moments, and those were moments when it was really quiet onstage,” says Hillary Blanken, whose company, Juniper Street Productions, served as the show's production manager. “When there was no music, the director could really hear the white noise. So he said it had to go.”
Katz had specified 36 of the new High End Systems x.Spots, a unit she loved for its zoom optics among other features, but she was concerned about the fan noise, and it became an issue once it was hung in the Martin Beck Theatre. (Ironically enough, different lights were causing problems during the show's Chicago tryout, a phenomenon Katz attributes to the different acoustics of the two theatres.) “This was the first time a director has complained to me about the noise,” says Katz, “and though I don't think we were particularly loud, I didn't object to his objection. It's all about making things better.”
Normally, Tony Meola, the sound designer on the show, addresses the issue of moving lights at the first production meeting; he never got the chance here, because there was no production meeting. Here they were, weeks before opening night, and Katz was faced with the very real possibility that she might have to redesign the show. “You get to the point, from a priority point of view, of what do you keep and what don't you keep,” she says. “Do you take down all the lights and get some that can't do what other lights can do?”
Enter Sam Berkow. An acoustician with SIA Acoustics and Walters-Storyk Design Group, Berkow was called in by Blanken to see if something could be done. “When we first talked about bringing an acoustician in,” she recalls, “people started trading horror stories, about how they brought somebody in for a musical who charged a lot of money and ended up putting packing blankets on the lights or something unhelpful like that. But Sam's a genius acoustician. He's a really practical guy and he understands the economics of the theatre and the need to get it done quickly.”
“This is a good example of where engineering and art meet,” Berkow says. “It would be best if we could reduce fan noise in the instruments themselves, and that starts with the design of the instrument. But with Sweet Smell, we didn't have time to pick different units or redesign the instruments chosen, so we had to do a retrofit. And for us it was a matter of coming in quickly and reducing the amount of noise on the spot. So we built custom baffles mounted onto 50 automated lights, not just the x.Spot, but also Studio Beams as well. And also hiding sound-absorbing materials strategically in the rigging helped a lot.” “It brought the noise way, way down,” says Katz. “Baffling ended up being a really good solution.”
A good solution indeed, but who paid for such an expense? It came under the lighting budget," says Blanken. "Actually, we were just about to have audiences in at that point, so it was in our 'Oh shit' budget."