It was the fall of 1995, and Patrick Stewart was unhappy. There he was onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre, rehearsing for a production of The Tempest that was transferring to Broadway after a very successful run at the Delacorte in Central Park, and he couldn't hear himself speak. Three years earlier, he had performed on the same stage in a one — man production of A Christmas Carol, and he could hear his voice bounce off the back wall. Now, nothing.

Dan Moses Schreier was the sound designer on that production. “The star of the show was feeling like he couldn't connect to the audience, and it was hurting his voice,” Schreier recalls. “And I was called in so many times to ‘fix the problem.’ At first I was asked to solve it by miking everything; at that point Stewart really put his foot down and said, ‘I'm not performing Shakespeare miked!’”

Schreier knew what the real problem was, but he was reluctant to bring it up. “Finally, I said, ‘Let's all meet in the theatre and just turn on the lights.’ And it was like a jet airplane. Eventually, about half the lights were taken down, the manufacturer made some baffles that fit on the back of the instruments, and it helped the problem significantly. But for a while, it got a little ugly.”

The story has since become part of Broadway lore. Unfortunately, it's not all that unique.

“I did a show once where the color changers were sooo loud,” says sound designer Tony Meola (The Lion King, Sweet Smell of Success), choosing not to mention which production. “And when I brought it up to the lighting designer, he said, ‘The quieter ones cost more money, and if you want the quieter ones, then take it out of your budget.’ That's when I realized that we all weren't working on the same project for the same benefit.”

These are older stories; here's a much more recent one: just before Sweet Smell of Success opened on Broadway this spring, an acoustician was brought in to deal with the sound of the moving lights specified by lighting designer Natasha Katz after the show's director, Nicholas Hytner, complained about the fan noise. This one, at least, had a happy ending, for the creative team if not for the production itself, which closed earlier this summer.

Bring in 'da Noise

The advent of technology has expanded lighting designers' tool kits and allowed them to work faster than ever before, but the cost of this new technology can often be a higher noise floor in the theatre. Fan noise, from both color scrollers and moving lights, can be a major distraction to both the audience and the performers.

“There are a lot of factors that contribute to the noise floor — air conditioning, winches, moving scenery, as well as lighting — but moving lights are the newest problem,” notes Ray Schilke, a sound designer who recently worked on the Westport Country Playhouse production of Our Town starring Paul Newman. “And because a lot of the moving lights are out in the auditorium, the audience is much more prone to it.”

“Lighting noise has become a much bigger issue for three reasons,” explains Sam Berkow of SIA Acoustics and the Walters-Storyk Design Group, the acoustician who saved the day on Sweet Smell, and was also brought in for the last broadway revival of 42nd Street. “One is that moving lights have become a much bigger part of productions, in non-traditional venues as much as traditional venues — Broadway, recording studios, television production facilities, houses of worship. It's obviously not an issue when you have primarily rock-and-roll sound levels, but when you're looking at Broadway or worship levels, they can become a huge problem. Most of the traditional units are not designed with acoustical considerations; in fact, many don't even use low-noise fans. But it's not just the selection of the fans, it's the way the fans and power supplies are mounted, the turbulent airflow through vents and so forth. And the other problem is that fan noise can become tonal, which can be easily audible and disturbing, particularly if the fan is unbalanced.”

Sweet Smell of Success photo: © Joan Marcus

Increased awareness has improved the situation to some degree, especially with scrollers; lighting designers and their programmers usually plan scroller cues during applause breaks or other transitions, or turn them off when not in use. Quieter fans have recently been introduced on some moving lights, but lighting designers still tend to pick the instrument they need for a project based more on brightness and ease of use than on noise. When the noise associated with the technology interferes with a theatrical production, it often falls to the sound designer to take care of the problem. And the results, as the above examples illustrate, aren't always pretty.

“I've had to deal with it on musicals within the last three to four years,” says Jon Gottlieb, resident sound designer for the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre in LA. “There have been some creative solutions, but almost inevitably, it's a situation you have to go and fight for.”

“It's so unfortunate that sound designers were put into this position,” adds Schreier. “I am totally uninterested in getting the lighting designer to compromise his or her work. It puts me in a horrible position where I have to say, ‘Well, if you put all this noise in, it's really going to become a problem.’ But I have to say it because it's true. And it's a really horrible place to be in. I don't want to dictate what the lighting designer is doing. I really, really don't. For personal reasons also.”

Personal indeed: Schreier's wife is lighting designer Natasha Katz. (Talk about sleeping with the enemy!) Which leads to the obvious question: is this a topic that comes up often in the household? “Of course,” Schreier says. “Major. It comes up now in every single show that we do. On Dance of Death, which we did together, we talked a lot about scroller issues, because of the high trims and the number of scrollers she used. And she did a great job of making it work, but it took a lot of work.”

Perhaps Katz's domestic situation has made her more sensitive to the issue of sound. Still, the sound designers interviewed for this article have mixed feelings as to whether all lighting designers are adequately dealing with the issue.

Mea Culpa?

“I think the lighting designer has to be responsible for what he's putting up,” says Gottlieb. “And if he can't put something up that works in the theatre, then he has to go back to the manufacturer and have them make something that can. That's what all the rest of us have to do.

“But I think we're at an interesting crossroads,” he continues, “where there's now a culpability among lighting designers in which they realize that there's an inherent responsibility for how much noise they're putting into a space.”

“The thing that bothers me is when the lighting designer doesn't care,” says Meola. “Because then I say, at what cost? If what we sound designers do wasn't so esoteric, I think they'd see, literally, what this is doing to us. If every loudspeaker had a light on it, and the more loudspeakers we had to use the brighter the ambient light got in the theatre, then there wouldn't be a blackout. That's what's happening with us now.”

And though they all admit that they're not up on the latest developments in lighting technology, the perception among most sound designers is that the lighting manufacturers could be doing more to lower noise levels on their products.

“I lay a lot of the blame for this on the manufacturers,” says Meola. “I don't know the numbers, but I would guess they sell a lot more moving lights to rock and roll, or industrial projects, or those horrible game shows.”

“My personal feeling is that some pressure should be put on the manufacturers so that if they want to do these shows in New York, in Broadway theatres, then we need help,” says Schreier. “On The Tempest, the manufacturer came in and did help, and it was great. But I sense a reluctance among manufacturers to do that.”

Tempest photo: © Michal Daniel

Berkow, however, has been more actively involved with the lighting manufacturers, and feels they're becoming more aware of the issue. “The critical mass is building where manufacturers can no longer ignore sound as a criteria for selecting lights,” he notes. “I think the next generation of lights will certainly incorporate acoustical design. I think manufacturers who ignore this trend are missing a great opportunity.”

What Can Be Done

Schilke, for one, not only thinks the noise level has gotten better, he's found a way to deal with it when it does occur. During a production at Playwrights Horizons a few years ago, he was sitting at a table in the theatre, and a scroller was doing what they often do to sound designers: “It was making me crazy,” Schilke recalls. “We had to get rid of it. My engineer and I put a tiny JBL speaker right next to the light, recorded the noise of the fan, and put it out of phase. Basically, the noise coming out of the light is cancelled by its own sound out of phase. The only time it came on was when the light was moving. It doesn't go away, but it's less audible.” Schilke has done the same thing on another production, and though both were Off Broadway plays, he believes the same concept could work on a much larger show. “You just need to go to a bigger speaker,” he explains. “The speaker has to put out as much sound as the lights, and any speaker can do that. There really isn't that much noise, it's just the frequency that's annoying.”

Can anything else be done to solve this dilemma? Better awareness among directors would help, as would discussions about such potential problems early on in the creative process, though even that has its pitfalls.

“I've never brought it up,” says Gottlieb, “because to be honest with you, I would never expect the lighting designer to question my choice of equipment for a show. You don't want to make the collaborative process adversarial. You don't want to have to sit down at the first or second production meeting and look across at somebody that you want to collaborate with and say, ‘What are you going to use?’ Because to be honest, he probably doesn't know at that point any more than you do.”

“In my case, now I bring up the issue right away,” counters Meola. “We had our first production meeting for [the upcoming Broadway production of] Man of La Mancha on March 14, and I brought it up then. If you let it get to the first preview, and make it an issue then, then the director has to decide whether they can tolerate the noise or lose the look they've put into the show.”

Berkow believes that lighting designers can take additional steps to alleviate the situation as well. “It starts with the selection of lights: choose lights that don't have three or four fans,” he notes. “Secondly, if it's a concern, going through the units and picking those where you don't hear bearing noise, or imbalance in the fans. You can always swap out power supplies, which is typically where one of the fans is located. Next, there are certainly ways to baffle systems by adding sound-absorbing materials in the rigging, which can greatly reduce the noise onstage cost-effectively. There are different types of sound-absorbing materials — I like using duct-liner board, semi-rigid fiberglass, wrapped in acoustically transparent fabric. You can even put this type of treatment on the back of set pieces — a lot of the sound that comes from the lights is reflected by the set pieces. Strategically locating sound-absorbing materials can be very helpful for the overall sound design in general.”

He also believes manufacturers should be looking at quieter fans. “I guess I don't see making lighting systems quieter in conflict with anything; you don't give up anything, there's no great cost to it, and there's no great compromise. I think it's really just an engineering exercise that's been ignored up to date, because traditionally moving lights were in environments where if you raised the ambient level five or 10 noise criteria (NC) points, it wasn't a big deal.”

And when all else fails, producers could always call Berkow or some other qualified acoustician. “The fact that they brought an outside acoustician in for Sweet Smell of Success I think is a great thing,” says Schreier. “I mean, my job is to make sound. I'm not an acoustician in the sense of knowing the best way to make sound disappear. To do what [Berkow] did for Sweet Smell is not my specialty. It's sort of like being asked at one point to be a creative artist, and then to be a destructive artist.”

But despite all the little victories, the bottom line of all this may be the reality that sound levels in the theatre will never be truly quiet again. Even as fan noise diminishes in lighting instruments, fan noise from still and video projectors are becoming an issue. And the next technology to come along — be it in set, lighting, even sound design — might create its own set of noise issues. The world we live in gets louder all the time, and the theatre may just be an extension of that.

“We sit next to the continued fan hum of a computer all day,” says Gottlieb. “I know my sound studio isn't as quiet anymore. I used to need it to be pristine for me to listen to what I was doing. And though I can go to great lengths to sequester all my computers and keep them really quiet, I don't bother sometimes. Because I'm playing in a theatre that's going to have a certain noise floor anyway. It's a progression that's happening.”

Click here for Part II of "Whose Noise Is It, Anyway?"