Cries From the Pit
It's not easy being a theater musician. You're lucky to get work at all, and when conditions are less than ideal--musicians have been gassed, bonked by flying props--you'll think twice before complaining. But last week musicians in the pit at The Producers, on tour and running at the Oriental Theatre through November 30, piped up about the sound coming at them from speakers at the front of the stage. "We're sitting five feet from those things," says trumpet player Carey Deadman, president of the local chapter of the Theater Musicians Association, of the boom-box effect. "It can be quite loud. Sometimes [the actors] are actually screaming." Last weekend curtains were hung around the pit in an attempt to absorb some of the sound, but adjustments are still in progress and a few of the musicians are wearing earplugs. Says Deadman, "I can't play with earplugs--and I won't. It's like typing with
The problem is "front fill" speakers. They're hung on the lip of the stage so audience members in the front can hear the singers and actors even over the sound of the orchestra. But trombonist and former TMA national president Art Linsner (who's now playing for The Lion King, where it hasn't been an issue) says they have an escalating effect: "When those front fill speakers get turned up, you unavoidably start playing louder so you can hear yourself over them. Then they turn the speakers up again. After the performance your ears are ringing--and the next day they're still ringing." This upward spiral of sound can lead to hearing loss for the musicians; Linsner says it's contributed to his own tinnitus.
Linsner started worrying about the problem seven or eight years ago, when big shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon were playing at the Auditorium Theatre. Sound design for musical theater was changing, influenced by explosive movie sound tracks and rock 'n' roll scores, and musicians were suddenly subject to the vagaries of the soundman. Even in a venue like the acoustically impeccable Auditorium, the engineers don't want live sound coming out of the pit, Linsner says. It takes time for it to travel and bounce off the walls, and then it arrives late, competing with the more immediate sound from the speakers. So the technicians deaden the instruments, isolate them from each other as much as possible, and leave the mix--and the volume--to the potentate of the soundboard.
In some cases the volume gets jacked up in an attempt to compensate for smaller orchestras--string sections, for example, are shadows of their former selves. But "the difference between fullness and loudness is a subtlety a lot of these people just don't get," Linsner says. "What you end up with is underorchestrated and overamplified." In other cases he thinks it's a matter of what the person at the controls can hear: "A lot of the sound engineers in theater tech come from a rock 'n' roll background and probably suffer from significant hearing loss."
Linsner's brought in an audiologist in the past, once at the Auditorium Theatre and once at the Chicago. In both cases the audiologist found that "people in certain positions were in a situation where hearing loss was probably occurring," he says. "Armed with that, we were able to go to management and get them to move some of those front fill speakers at the Auditorium. But it was our collective judgment that after a week or so they just turned the volume up louder." During the Chicago Theatre run of Beauty and the Beast, he says, "Disney was totally uncooperative. And that was worse because that pit is not as deep. The string bass player had those speakers right at his head." The government isn't much help: OSHA is geared to workers in industrial settings, Linsner says, and "even if you could prove that OSHA guidelines were being exceeded, the only thing the producer of the show would have to do is pass out earplugs."
Gary Mickelson, production stage manager for The Producers, points out that road shows face the challenge of "having to adjust to each new theatre space" on tour. "Our Musical Director and the head of our Sound Dept have been working together making adjustments," he writes in an e-mail.
At least, notes Linsner, The Producers has a full complement of musicians--a rarity these days, when "you've often got a handful of musicians augmenting an electronically based score." But that's another tune.
Redmoon Cancels Halloween
Redmoon Theater launched its All Hallow's Eve celebration--part community ritual, part artistic spectacle--in 1995 with next to no money, says artistic director Jim Lasko. "Parents were being warned not to let their kids trick-or-treat, and we thought, let's do something family oriented. We had 30 performers around Logan Square and about 250 people showed up." The next year there were 1,000. By 2001 the budget was $143,000 and attendance was estimated at 10,000. Last year, when despite rain and cold weather attendance was about 7,000, the event stretched from the square all the way down Kedzie as far south as Fullerton. It was the first time Redmoon had put up fences and tried to collect an admission fee ($5), and when the crowd pulled the fences down, Lasko knew Redmoon had spawned a monster he'd have to kill off. "The event got so popular it undermined our ability to succeed," Lasko says. You can't have close participation with 10,000 people, and crowd control alone was eating up a giant share of the budget. It was also getting harder to find money--two large sponsors had vanished the previous year. Redmoon's working on a ritual-based Winter Pageant that opens December 5 and is planning a water spectacle for 2004. The All Hallow's Eve gig is a ghost.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.