Many theatre companies find themselves fully stretched with putting on just one Shakespeare play, so an ambitious project to stage repeat performances of no less than eight during the Spring of 2008 could have been a recipe for disaster. But, with the peerless skills of the Royal Shakespeare Company complemented by a DiGiCo D5T console at front of house, the passage of 100 years of English history in eight of the Bard’s plays has been remarkably smooth.
RSC’s “The Histories Cycle” project was first conceived in 2006—an extraordinary two-year ensemble project to stage Shakespeare’s epic history cycle of eight plays: Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (Parts 1-3), and Richard III.
Charting over a century of turbulent English history, this project reached its climax in the Spring of 2008 in London’s famous Roundhouse venue. One of the RSC’s own DiGiCo D5T consoles ensured that the sound for this complex series of productions was delivered flawlessly.
With a sound design by Andrea J. Cox and operated by Sarah Hollyman and Ed Borgnis, the audio system was necessarily intricate to accommodate regular performances of eight different plays in the same venue—sometimes with three different performances running back-to-back in a single day.
The D5T’s internal matrix and snapshots have ensured that the system runs extremely smoothly, as Ed Borgnis explains: “As you’d expect, it’s very much a theatrical system,” he begins. “It’s basically a third band mics, a third effected radio mics, and a third playback/sound effects run from an Akai sampler, all fed to the D5T via a MADI multicore. There are up to six channels of radio mics being used for the actors at any one time, although the mics themselves do get swapped between the performers. In addition to that there are 25-30 mics in the band gallery. This is because, even though it’s only a five-piece band, they play a lot of different instruments, especially percussion. There are a lot of interesting sounds—like cymbals being played with violin bows—going on up there, plus instruments I’d never come across before,” he continues. “There are also up to 16 channels of playback from the Akai sampler at any one time. It’s not the most modern way to do it, but the sound designers like samplers and, most importantly, they seem very reliable.”
On the output side, the sound is fed from the D5T via analog lines to around 26 Meyer self-powered cabinets, plus JBL Control cabinets for delays and fill, which are located all around the auditorium.
“There are as many submixes and outputs as there are inputs, which is why the D5T’s matrix is so invaluable,” adds Borgnis. “The matrix is a huge boon, we really couldn’t do without it.” He continues, “Although the RSC has been using DiGiCo consoles for several years, I’m quite new to using DiGiCo and I like the fact you can see everything, rather than having to scroll through lots of menus. And there’s no doubt that it has made a lot of things possible that you couldn’t do with analogue, or would take ages to set up and you’d need a lot of paper in order to write everything down.”
Because of the complexity of the productions, the D5T’s snapshots facility is used to control all the performances. It also generates a lot of MIDI data for controlling the Akai sampler and three outboard effects units - a Lexicon PCM-81 reverb, plus PCM-91 and Yamaha SPX2000 multi-effects.
“Operating the show is very straightforward via snapshots, although once a scene is loaded both Sarah and I do tend to tweak the mix as the scene progresses,” Borgnis says. “A lot of the musical cues run under dialogue, so a lot depends on the actor, the audience and how the venue sounds during that particular performance, so we tend to mix on the fly once we’ve fired the snapshot. Doing that also makes life more interesting for us, of course.” He continues, “But the snapshots are invaluable because the desk is doing so much. With the playback cues, matrix changes and effects changes taken care of by the snapshots, we only have to worry about the actual sound. Another important function of the snapshots is for opening and muting microphones. We have a couple of red hot mics—with the gain opened right up—for some of the smaller percussion instruments, so it’s important for us to get only what we want to hear in the mix. There are a lot of dynamics in these plays. For example in Henry V and Richard III there are huge explosions and it’s really good to be able to maintain those dynamics, from pin-drop quiet to the loudest bangs, which would be very difficult using a different sound rig.”
Despite the hair-raising prospect of doing 47 performances of eight different Shakespeare plays in a mere 55 days, the D5T has made the life of the sound operators surprisingly straightforward.
“It really has gone very smoothly,” says Borgnis. “Because of the way it is set up for each performance we effectively just have to reload the desk, the Akai sampler, a PC and we’re ready to go. Perhaps the biggest compliment has been from audience members who have come up to us during intervals and asked if this is where the lighting is controlled. When we say no, we’re operating the sound, they’ve said ‘What sound?’ If what we’re doing is that transparent, then we’ve achieved what we set out to do.”