One of the biggest challenges in trying to mike a production of True West is finding a place that won't get battered during the course of the play. In Sam Shepard's comic battle of two very different brothers attempting to co-author a screenplay in their mother's suburban LA home, nearly every piece of furniture either gets smashed with a golf club, doused with beer, or covered with crumbs of buttered toast.
For the current hit Broadway production of the play, directed by Matthew Warchus at Circle in the Square, sound designer Jim van Bergen thought he'd found the perfect solution: wire the mics to the ceiling of the suburban set Rob Howell had designed for the production. "Rob was nice enough to let me drill holes in his practical ceiling," says van Bergen, who made his Broadway debut as a sound designer with this show. "There's no place I could put them on the set, because everything that's on ground level, or within the actors' reach, is completely destroyed. The only part of the ceiling that isn't a potential toast problem is the outermost region of the ceiling header. So we set up a microphone matrix, which was really kind of brilliant when it worked. We had the ability not only to do reinforcement but also to create a lot of exciting vocal effects--like reverb tails--to come up during certain heightened elements of the show. Tension sweeteners, basically."
A great idea, to be sure, but unfortunately Warchus decided that the ceiling reinforcement--consisting of eight Sennheiser K6P lavaliers--didn't match the intimacy he was looking for on the production. "We ended up cutting a couple of the elements I had wanted to play with, so now we have an extraordinary paging system," van Bergen jokes. "They're used to feed backstage monitors, to provide sends for broadcast, and for the paging and infrared systems. But I still think it was very kind of a scenic designer to let you go through and destroy the top of his header by drilling holes in it."
Still, van Bergen was able to successfully execute a number of other technical innovations on the project, not the least of which was the sensational soundtrack composed by Claire van Kampen, which fills the various scene changes. Van Kampen had composed the music for the London production, commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a co-production with the Donmar Warehouse, involving saxophone solos; for the Broadway version, she wanted something totally different. In preliminary phone conversations, van Kampen and van Bergen discussed possible styles. "We wanted to be able to work in a musical milieu that didn't have a vocal in it," van Bergen says. "Shepard's work is usually accompanied by either a Red Clay Ramblers or a Texas Tornados feel--Southwestern rock and roll with a smidgen of country in there somewhere. But for this, we wanted to have something that was a little more electric with a little harsher edge."
Because the composer was unable to come to New York until late in the rehearsal process, van Bergen built a design based on their conversations and on the space itself. "Claire came in the last couple of days of rehearsals," van Bergen explains. "I set up my Pro Tools rig together with a keyboard, and we sat down and produced this jazz tune. She'd get bits and pieces out of her head and I'd input it; we'd edit and mix. And then I hired a fabulous horn player to contract a trio to record Claire's work: trumpeter Jim Hynes, percussionist Clint DeGanon, and guitarist Paul Livant. We got to the studio, played them the demo track that we'd put together, and then pretty much just let them play and riff off that tune for about 20 minutes. We let these amazing musicians take a listen to what the feel was and then go to town with it." The end result, a Tom Waits-inspired jangle of horn, guitar, and drums, serve as uneasy interludes during the nine 20- to 40-second scene changes that occur throughout the show.
The audience hears these through a main music system made up of Meyer UPA-1Ps, MSL-4s, and USW-Ps, with Apogee SSMs for front fill. There is also a massive 13-channel surround-sound system, comprised of Turbosound 440SPs, EAW JF-80s, and Sunfire powered subwoofers. Surround may seem an unusual choice given the type of show, but was in fact the best solution van Bergen found for dealing with the space. Circle in the Square is the only 3/4-thrust house on Broadway--every other theatre is a proscenium house--so it occasionally requires a period of adjustment among the New York sound design community. "We really don't think about working in a space that way," van Bergen says. "It can be a chore to get even coverage, depending on what is happening with the set; Rob's ceiling prevented a centrally located speaker position. Both a front-focused and a surround sound system in a true thrust require a lot more in terms of rental budget as well, just to be able to get the required audience coverage. Then the distance from loudspeaker to listener is quite wide in some areas. A surround system for 3/4-thrust is obviously extremely large, but at the same time it allows you to have a very intimate space. The end result is extremely successful."
True West marked the Broadway debut of the Turbosound speakers. "I liked them a great deal," van Bergen notes. "It's a three-way box as opposed to the self-powered two-ways, and it's about the same size. It's got a huge world of midrange that its competitors do not have. I think of it as a very useful tool that can do whatever I need it to. I would not hesitate to use it on a musical." Other equipment used on the production included Denon mini-disk and CD carts, Lexicon PCM-80 stereo digital effects processors, XTA DP200 digital processors, Crown K2 amps, and a Crest VX console with Uptown Automation. Sound Associates served as the supplier.
For a sound designer, coyotes and crickets are pretty much de rigeur effects on a production of True West, but van Bergen hadn't anticipated how specific he would need to be. "Sam Shepard came in for the rehearsals and was heavily involved in the show, and I spent a lot of time with Matthew Warchus on things that are usually no-brainers for a sound designer," he says. "We talked a lot about very specific, highly pitched crickets, and discussed how many there should be--one, two, three, 40, or 50. And we talked about how specific the nature of a coyote is, and how many there are, and where they're placed. Turns out coyotes in LA are very specific in terms of what their sound is, and it's very difficult to gather. It took a couple of weeks to get the perfect coyote sound. I got a buddy of mine who works in film sound in LA to go out and record it for me."
Van Bergen's favorite effect on the show is its most subtle: water sprinklers. Howell had designed a back wall, an exact replica of the theatre's existing back wall, 12' downstage of the original. Van Bergen placed the coyote effects behind this wall, and the sprinklers in front. "The sprinkler was actually four different sprinklers put together during a four-hour editing session. It was this tiny little thing that happens way in the background, and it required a gross amount of attention to make it perfect."
This production of True West has been a widely noted one in which the two leads--Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly--switch roles every three nights. Perhaps less well known is the fact that such a switch required two different tech rehearsals as well. "The A-version was called Dingo, and the B-version was called Jackal," says van Bergen. "It's two completely different versions of the show. For sound, it's just subtle stuff to do with timing and cue changes, nothing that would be obvious to the audience. We teched Dingo through its entirety, and then we started teching through Jackal. And each version was only given two-and-a-half days of tech time, which for lighting, in a very prop-heavy show that's also extremely actor-intensive, is not very much time. It was much worse for lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and his team than for us, because the actors have totally different blocking throughout the show."
See? And you thought lighting designers and sound designers didn't care about each other.