A new use for on-stage monitors

SpeakersAbstractOne of the nice things I inherited when I took over the sound design/engineering duties at the black box was a simple, overhead monitoring system for the actors onstage.  This makes great sense for a small(-ish) stage – always conserve real estate.  Normally this pair of speakers would provide a customizable playback to the actors of music, vocal feedback, sound effects etc.

I do love creating localized sound to match the sets and on-stage action.  But sometimes it’s difficult to place a dedicated speaker in the center of the stage and hide the associated cabling.  Sometimes I get a little lazy or just want to focus my energy on designing/tweaking a sound rather than stringing more cable… whatever.  Anyway… at the beginning of this season (Sept 2016) I tried an experiment by treating the overhead monitors as on-stage effects speakers.  My thought was to take advantage of the fact that the monitors were aimed at the back wall of the stage. Theoretically the sound reflecting off the back wall (L and R) would allow me to “fool” the audience regarding where the sound was originating from.

The experiment started with The Miracle Worker, where I successfully created the illusion of a baby crying in a free-standing crib.  Several seasoned theater folks asked me how I got the sound to come out of the cribs with no obvious wires.  It really is amazing how the brain finishes the illusion when you combine the right set piece with sound that is not coming from the normal house speakers.

After this initial success, I tried the technique again in our production of November.  Here it was basically phones ringing (lots and lots of phones ringing) stage-left and stage-right.  In this case, the actor’s interaction with the stage phones combined with two distinctly different sounds for the two phones that sold the illusion.  And of course the timing of the ringing had to be sync’d with the on-stage actions.

I ‘m using the technique again in our production of Our Town, which is running as I write this post.  In this one, I’m putting lawnmowers and horses and milk bottles and chickens “onstage” using this same approach.  There is also a very realistic soda shop sequence that includes all the details of assembling a couple of strawberry ice cream sodas and delivering them to two love struck teenagers.  The actor mimes all the moves with no props; it’s the sound effects that provide the realism.

So… remember that sometimes it’s a simple, flexible solution like re-purposing the onstage monitors that can open up a whole new set of possibilities.

And I’d love to hear about other clever solutions you’ve discovered.

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