If behind every good man is a good woman, then behind every great play production is a great tech crew. A show may be spectacular, the actors superb, the orchestra sublime and the direction visionary, but it is the work of those unseen – the crew in the booth or backstage – that can make a production flawless, that can propel a show from just good to exemplary.
These are the hidden hands of theatre. They are integral to creating the memorable moments, accentuating a single scene, a single song – a single line – and with the right resources can add a professional polish to our Community Theater productions.
The purpose here is to highlight the tireless work of theater technicians and feature the various men and women throughout Hampton Roads that volunteer their time and talent to fill those roles. Granted, there are many hidden hands in any theatrical production, from lighting design to costumers and prop managers to set dressers. And to be fair, some people and their work are more noticeable than others to an audience. For instance, a Set Designer’s work is obviously seen whereas a strong Manager’s effort goes entirely unnoticed. Today we look at the efforts and effects of Sound Designers on the Peninsula.
Sound design involves more than simply executing sound effects during a show. There are amplifiers, speakers, stage mics, actor mics, and electronic operation boards to manage in addition to the simplistic volume modification of a telephone sound effect. John Trindle, a regular Sound Designer with the Williamsburg Players, says that quality design “requires a basic understanding of acoustics and electronics.” After all, each theater space is unique and each show has different requirements. A live orchestra must be managed differently than a pre-recorded music track. As such, there are limits to what can be accomplished. He added, “turning up the volume doesn’t make sound more clear and adding more mics makes things exponentially more complicated.”
Andrew Hale agrees. As a Sound Designer with Peninsula Community Theatre in Newport News he says that it often becomes a matter of “being able to listen and figure out what does and does not fit.”
Although the challenges of acoustics and the physics of sound waves are often present, they are often not the most cumbersome issue to sound technicians. According to Andrew, “communications and coordination tend to be the biggest hurdles” to blending the on-stage talent with the off-stage professionals. Theater is a human endeavor and Community Theater is made up of volunteers typically gathering in the evenings after many have already put in a full-day’s work. Andrew says that the unique conditions of adding technical elements to a community theater production “sometimes makes for short fuses and frustration, for everyone.”
Mr. Trindle concurs. In fact, he says, “the difference between the most pleasant and least pleasant has been the proper balance between organizational skills and interpersonal skills of the director.”
Adding to that frustration is the perpetual reality of an all-volunteer production: not enough people. John says that the Williamsburg Players attempts to attract more people through consumer surveys and word-of-mouth. But he admits there is always a need for more board operators because “the time commitment is more than most people can make.” Andrew says the same is true at PCT and admits that “tech folks are hard to come by.” This fact worries him because he is soon going to be taking time away from theater for his upcoming wedding.
“I do worry about how the upcoming shows are going to be fully manned,” he says.
Volunteers don’t have to be experts, however. Both John and Andrew began working in Tech Theater when they were in Middle School and have continued doing so for years because the need is there. It’s also their way of serving the community. More importantly, both speak highly of their respective theater personnel and the friendships they’ve made – friendships that were only possible from their participation in a show. John does suggest being a musician helps a Sound Designer tune his or her ear for subtlety, but both agree that the skills that are required can be taught. The essential component for a volunteer to have is an appreciation of theater and a willingness to learn. Andrew goes on to say, “Seeing as I started around age 13, pretty much anyone can pick this up.”
Despite the technical challenges, coordination concerns and shallow bench of volunteers, both Andrew and John speak glowingly of their respective experiences in the sound booth. They have managed an excess of 50 shows between them and still get excited about the work. John says that for him the rewards of his work are “the sense of community in general, and the sense of accomplishment when a production comes together.”
Andrew adds, “The best moments center on those times when a cast and crew just click and they are able to make pure magic appear on stage.” He means the magic that spurs the spontaneous gasp, the uproarious laughter or thunderous applause at the end of that perfect solo.
Indeed, behind every great production is a great tech crew. Remember the Sound Designer next time you experience that perfect soft echo when the star performer rings out her last note; when you realize that although there are 10 microphoned actors on stage, there is no static interference; when you get goose bumps because the bass drone backing track hits at just the right moment during an especially haunting scene. Remember what you are experiencing is due to more than the actors on the stage; it is shaped also by the hidden hands.
If you’d like to learn more about Sound Design at Peninsula Community Theatre or Williamsburg Players, or get more info about volunteering in general, email Williamsburg Players at volunteering@WilliamsburgPlayers.org, or Peninsula Community Theatre at firstname.lastname@example.org.