“It's the meeting of a 400-year-old play with a two-year-old technology, a coupling of art and high tech,” says assistant technical director David Horner backstage at the Avon Theatre of the Stratford Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario, as he describes the video and sound components of Henry V, designed by Wade Staples.
The video and projections in Henry V are not just an integral part of the production; they also help tell the story of Shakespeare's historical play. “My interest in multimedia is fueled by a wish to see a marriage between lights, sound, video, set, and action,” says Staples, who is based in Edmonton, Alberta, and has run Wade Staples Production Services since 1992. Staples has been an instructor of all facets of theatre production for nine years. “With the video design for Henry V, I wanted to establish mood and location as well as to suggest action by melding the set and video together,” he explains. “I coordinated video on location and live onstage with projections, both literal and abstract, to create multilayered representations of theme, action, and theatrical space.” Decisions as to screen size (20' × 15') for the rear projections, location, projection equipment, and media style were made so that the projected imagery worked in conjunction with the set and lighting design to establish location — literal or abstract — a sense of time, mood, and psychological cues.
“I wanted to establish mood and location, as well as to suggest action, by melding the set and video together.”
Staples says the equipment he chose was determined by a wide variety of factors: the quick turnarounds employed during Stratford's festival, the desire for an old black-and-white classic film look to the piece, the need for flexibility in cueing and auditioning images, the use of a single operator and ease of operation, performance consistency, such as preset camera shots, and, of course, budget.
The video system, which adds a remarkable extra dimension to the play, consists of two DVD units for playback of cues and two live cameras fed into a Videonics MX Pro digital AV mixer. Preview monitors were used for cueing. The mixer output was then sent to a Sanyo LCD projector set upstage of the screen. Due to the construction of the venue, the projector had to be located off-axis to the screen. Pani glass was placed in front of the projector lens and masked off to the edges of the screen to prevent light spill onto the rest of the set caused by keystoning. A Rainbow color scroller was used in front of the projector for greater flexibility and control. A scroller “string,” consisting of various neutral density gels and sections of cinefoil or blackwrap allowed for true blackouts (video and theatre black are not the same, Staples notes), as well as intensity and color control for the projected images.
The prerecorded video was shot using JVC GRDVM-90 digital cameras onto Mini-DV format tapes; Adobe Photoshop was used to create the stills. All the imagery was then produced using a Macintosh computer-editing suite running both Photoshop and I-Movie. Once a particular still or clip was completed for the desired length of scene time and speed in I-Movie, the cues were transferred back to Mini-DV tapes using one of the cameras. This allowed for the auditioning of images, motion video, and live experimentation in collaboration with Henry V director Jeannette Lambermont and set and costume designer Dany Lyne during rehearsals and techs (Bonnie Beecher was the lighting designer).
Once all the elements were finalized and seen together in context, master show tapes were put on Mini-DV tapes and authored to the DVDs. Backups were also made at each step. “It's one of the smoothest shows I've ever run, just like running a CD player,” says lone operator Andy Allen. Since one of the actors uses a live video camera on occasion, “We took away its bells and whistles and actor-proofed it by taping off things like the auto-focus.”
The sound design for Henry V consists of a live cellist onstage in conjunction with digital processing via a Yamaha 03D digital mixing console and sound effects. The cellist is used as the “soul entity” existing in all the realities of the play. The musician moves throughout the space and is miked to be wireless both on- and offstage. Staples also wanted to be able to process the cello sound with digital processors and to obtain maximum gain through the audio system. Because the cellist needed to play from various locations, sometimes directly in front of mains and onstage speakers, Staples chose to use a contact pickup and Sennheiser SK50 RF transmitter. He also used two Schertler DYN-C electro-dynamic cello transducers and created a custom pouch to hold the two RF transmitters mounted to the bottom of the cello where the end pin enters the body of the instrument. “Listening to the cello in the studio with a stethoscope on the body of the instrument allowed me to determine the optimum ‘sweet spot’ to place the contact pickup,” Staples says. “I used only one other Sennheiser SK-50 RF in the production to reinforce an actor who plays a scene from a balcony in the audience.”
The signal from the cello was fed into a Yamaha 03D digital console. The two onboard DSPs were used and, in some cases, two effects were stacked together, balanced, and routed through the house console. “Four outputs from the 03D were sent to four inputs of the Glass Matrix [a house console custom-built by Chris Wheeler, Stratford's electronics technologist, and Tom Patterson], allowing me to have different presets or effected sounds throughout the show. Through the use of a MIDI converter box, the house console automation could advance the 03D presets, letting me change any aspect of the cello sound, effect, levels, or routing for different moments of the play.”
The Avon Theatre's sound system is primarily a Meyer rig (UPA1Cs, UPA-2Cs, UPM-1s, and USWs) with Apogee AE-2s on the under balcony, EAW UB12s on the upper balcony (for surround and as offstage/effects/side monitors), Tannoy i8s as outriggers, and Tannoy P-100s for upstage effects. The sound effects for the show are run off two 360 Systems Digi-Cart II machines, controlled by console automation and run through the house console. There are bomb effects, explosion sounds, wind, and war backgrounds all edited on ProTools software. Sounds of stampeding horses and the crashing of waves as King Henry's troops arrive on the shores of France are but two of the effects that augment audience involvement in the history unfolding onstage; the onscreen video images magnify and humanize the pathos and horrors of, among other events, a hanging and death on the battlefield.
Staples is pleased with the results. “The story is being told and told well,” he says. “All the technical aspects came together perfectly after we [the creative team] had worked quite independently of one another to make it happen. It's a good feeling to have it mesh so well.”
Henry V plays in rep at the Stratford Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario until November 4.
Photo: Chris Nicholls