As some of you may know, I love technology. I love the latest toys and gadgets for making sounds, or recording sounds, or reproducing sounds, and the ones that are just plain cool-looking. I love what the tools can do for my work, how they save me time and allow me to create more interesting designs.
There is nothing like a live orchestra. I have heard all of the synthesizers, samplers, and virtual orchestras out there, and there is no comparison. A live musician is another collaborator in this very collaborative art form of theatre. That is what theatre is about for me. It is exactly that interplay between artists that makes it so different from most other artistic endeavors. There are so many colors and nuances created by a live musician, a string player for example, that just can't be matched by any computer: being in the moment, being able to hold that note just a moment longer or slow down the vibrato, or bend a pitch ever so slightly to match the vocalist. So, the idea that live musicians were going to be replaced by computers, on Broadway of all places, just seemed completely wrong, and frankly ludicrous. I almost couldn't believe my ears when I heard about this plan. How on earth could they expect an audience to pay that kind of money to listen to a computer-driven orchestra?
The producers and the manufacturers of virtual orchestra technology argue that the audience doesn't mind. They really can't tell the difference, the argument goes, so where is the problem? Well, let's extend this line of thought. As technology gets better and better, my guess is that holograms will become very realistic indeed, so, hey, let's just replace the actors, and, of course, the costume designer. Scenery and lighting will all become projections, and, hey, why should we inconvenience the audience and make them leave their homes? We could just beam the whole production to them. No parking worries!
Oh, wait, we already sort of do this. It's called television.
Theatre is about an experience shared between living, breathing beings. Many of the most cathartic experiences of my life have happened in a theatre, and I can guarantee you that the same moment reproduced on television or film would not have had the same impact. If we start replacing any of those flesh-and-blood elements, we risk losing it all.
My best friend is a violinist, and a very good one — one of the best in the Bay Area, if not the West Coast — but work has slowed down so much for her that she is looking at giving it up. Giving up her entire life's work. This isn't just happening here in San Francisco but all over this country and, really, all over the world. Work is drying up for these people who have spent their entire lives — not just their lives since college, like many of us, but their lives since early childhood — developing their skills. They practiced for endless hours to perfect these skills. They have literally spent most of their waking hours on this planet becoming musicians. They have shown a dedication to their art that many of us can't match.
What's my point? They are fighting for their lives, so when they see work going away they try to protect their livelihoods. Now, if you still want to talk about how great the virtual orchestra is, you explain it to her and I'll get the heck out of the way.
Are the producers evil? No, of course not, not most of them, anyway. They are businesspeople trying to make a living. Does that mean it's okay to replace musicians with computers to save money? No! Certainly not on Broadway, which we seem to hold as the pinnacle of the form (yes, well, that is a discussion for another time). There is a place for the virtual orchestra. I think it is wonderful technology and I'm sure there are many organizations and schools that either have no reasonable access to musicians or don't have the finances to afford an orchestra, who would be lucky to have a virtual orchestra.
Many people I know tried to compare this situation to the reduction in numbers of stagehands that came with computer lighting control or computerized scenery. It's not a valid comparison. Computer lighting boards advanced the quality of lighting. Computerized scenery moves may not be better than those done by stagehands but they aren't worse, and they can be safer and more reliable. Virtual orchestras are not an advance in the quality of the music. I don't think that anyone would argue against that point, not even the various manufacturers of virtual orchestra systems.
So, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? As usual, it's not that simple. One of the most disturbing things about the strike is that neither side was really being honest about its motivations. The producers said they didn't want to be told how many musicians they had to hire, that it was wrong for the musicians to take that kind of artistic control of a production. What does that translate to in Realspeak? We don't want to spend that much money on music. The musicians said they were trying to protect the artistic integrity of the production and keep the producers from ruining everything by cutting back on orchestra sizes. In Realspeak? We can't afford to lose the work. We need those jobs.
Why can't they all just say what they really mean and give up on the politics of it all? Nobody smarter than a tree frog believes any of it anyway. Instead we shut down Broadway for a couple days and lost money for everybody. What was gained by that loss of millions of dollars? A compromise that probably could have been reached without a strike if everyone had been committed to finding a solution and had been truly honest about their motivations.
Fortunately for our audiences, and for all of us, the actors and the stagehands and their unions stood up for the quality of the product (and for their jobs as well — remember the holograms!) and I think they deserve many thanks for their support.
There are no good guys or bad guys. There are only people trying to survive and hopefully, above it all, trying to create art. In future, maybe we could all just say what we really mean, and work together to come to a more peaceful resolution without having to fight about it. Then we can start on the rest of the world.
Garth Hemphill is resident sound designer at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. He can be contacted at email@example.com.