23.10.19

The audio technology redefining theatre

Shure stage

How is audio technology transforming the way audiences experience the world of theatre? Reece Webb looks at the ways in which audio is being used to break new ground onstage and behind the scenes.

The time-honoured tradition of theatre has been enjoyed for generations; from the ancient Greek amphitheatre to the timeless Shakespearean Globe and all the way to the experimental and immersive experiences of the present day. Theatres and theatregoers have always been thirsty for new avenues to explore one of time’s oldest art forms in brave new ways.

In a modern world increasingly reliant on technology in every aspect of our lives, the theatre is no exception in its embracement of existing and emerging technologies to redefine the theatrical experience for both staff and avid theatre-goers. 
The National Theatre in London has played an instrumental role in leading the way with technological adoption both on and off the stage, using audio to deliver a fresh, out-of-the-box approach to change how audiences approach performances.

Ben and Max Ringham created Anna, a cold war thriller taking place behind a pane of glass to create a pseudo-crypto-voyeur experience befitting the communist cold war setting.

They explain: “The aim was to have the actors connect with the audience through sound. The play asks who can be trusted when everyone is listening.” As a creative team, we used sound as a tool to convey the oppressive world of East Berlin in1968. Audience members all wore headsets throughout the play giving the feeling of listening in, feeling more like an observer to the action, particularly enhanced by Vicki Mortimer’s set design, a glass box, through which the audience watched the action.” 

Binaural sound techniques were used to create Anna’s unique atmosphere; with the audio being mixed live with primary pickup from a pair of DPA 4061 capsules mounted on the lead actor, being fed backstage via a Sennheiser G4 body-worn RF wireless system.

Ringham clarified: “This emphasised the perspective of the action as it unfolds on stage, and maintains one character’s point of view, sharing the intimate and veiled conversations had with various party guests.
“For us, theatre is all about pushing boundaries, and challenging audiences. Technology is now so advanced that we wanted to use these new tools, setting them at the very heart of a play, rather than as an add-on theatrical device. We devised this piece of theatre from the very start with the ultimate goal of using sound to convey the oppression of this time period.” 

Theatre Riedel
“Wireless microphones have really changed how theatrical performances are put together. It’s the freedom, there’s no cables, there’s no dead spots on the stage.” – Tuomo Tolonen, Shure
Changing the frequency 

Wireless microphones have played an integral role in combining technology with the fluid requirements of the theatrical experience as Tuomo Tolonen, senior director, pro audio, Shure explained: “Today, theatres rely 100% on wireless technology, literally every single performer on stage is wearing a wireless transmitter. Often the principal actors will wear two transmitters and mics from a redundancy point of view. There is zero tolerance for failure and the audience expects everything to work, with no barriers.

“Navigating through an ever more crowded RF environment is not as easy as it used to be. The UK government auctioned off the 800-Megahertz band (790-862 Megahertz) which was heavily used by the entertainment industry for wireless microphones. The 700-MHz (694MHz-790MHz) band is currently in the process of being cleared and the overall impact is that, since 2012, the entertainment industry will have lost access to nearly 50% of usable spectrum.”

However, the loss of spectrum has not hindered the adoption of wireless microphones as Tolonen said: “Shows like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London is a great example of technology allowing the show to be bigger and badder from a production point of view. The sound effects, lighting, special effects and staging and other technical aspects of the show are better and that demands more wireless channels.

“Wireless microphones have really changed how theatrical performances come together. It’s the freedom, there’s no cables, there’s no dead spots on the stage. You can be climbing up a ladder, it doesn’t matter where on the stage you are, you will be heard, because the performer is wearing a tiny lavalier microphone that can be worn in the hairline, the costume, or wherever the balance between great audio and the mic being not visible to the audience is right.” 

Sadlers Wells © Philip VileCopyright - Philip Vile

 

Many theatres are in the process of replacing older, analogue systems that, despite their age, have been in place in theatres around the globe, but they are not being replaced due to their age or poor reliability but are in fact being phased out because of band restrictions as a result of spectrum changes.

Andy Lillywhite, customer development and application engineer, Sennheiser, explained: “Legacy systems mostly are not showing their age that much, they are often reliable and long lasting. In a lot of cases, long running shows particularly, don’t want to change equipment because it’s so disruptive.

“One of the things that is driving change in the wireless microphone market is the loss of spectrum, the expected and impending loss of the700-Megahertz band in the UK. Understandably, when faced with having to buy new equipment, sound designers and rental companies inevitably want to look and see what’s new. Last time around when we lost the 800-Megahertz band, a lot of the re-equipping was just with new versions of the same equipment, but this time around, there’s a lot of new, mostly digital equipment on the market.” 

Sennheiser

Lillywhite believes that the adoption of digital transmitters is undergoing a familiar phase of new product adoption followed by size reduction. Lillywhite: “In the theatre market, the size and weight of transmitters is always of interest. Theatres want transmitters that are as unobtrusive as possible –they want smaller, lighter transmitters with a longer battery life. The transmitters get smaller, then a new technology comes along, which starts off being bigger, which is initially an issue because the packs are bigger, but theatres want the new technology and better performance. 

“I believe we’ve now reached that stage with digital technology. “For example, we started off with the bigger pack, the old SJ5212 analogue body pack transmitter followed by the first digital transmitters which were bigger than the SK 5212. We’re now 10 years on, where we’ve got packs that are smaller once again; they’re smaller, lighter and have a longer battery life, these are things that the theatre world likes.”

Lillywhite adds: “Theatres want consistency, they value not having to change things, because if you need to change. There’s nothing more fundamental in an audio system than the microphones and the wireless microphones part of it. It can change the whole mix and the way things fit together.”

Off stage, technology is making the lives of theatre technicians and staff easier by streamlining communication behind the scenes.

Flexible working 

At the Royal Theatre of the Mint in Brussels, Belgium, a Riedel IP system was integral to creating a flexible working environment for the theatre’s crew as Kristof Vanden Eynde, sales manager Belgium, Riedel explained: “They had an old system, it got changed over time. They had wireless belt packs that took analogue frequencies and they also had some fixed intercom panels connected to audio mixing tables which was inflexible.

“They decided that they wanted to be as flexible as possible. They looked into IP solutions and decided that they wanted an IP network, installing an audio rig, and then a video rig in the second stage. The installation is currently ongoing, with the wireless part of the system already in use as a bolero standalone system at the theatre to provide total coverage. This is due to the ADR (Advanced Dect Receiver) technology which was developed at Riedel and implemented in the Bolero wireless solution and is one of the key points of our system."

Vanden Eynde: “We had one antenna on the stage inside the theatre and we could go outside of the theatre, through all the walls, out to the front of the theatre and we still had coverage. That was one of the one of the key points of our system. 

“We also have Bluetooth functionality, and that means that the belt pack has Bluetooth, you can connect your phone to the intercom system and the belt pack. Whoever you need to talk to, if you get a call in an emergency or contacted by a higher up, you can answer the phone with your belt pack and the headset. You can also make the person that calls you talk to the rest of the intercom system. If there is a fire or an emergency, the users can immediately involve those people in the conversation with the rest of the crew, that was very important for the theatre.”

Sennheiser 2

While technology has opened new opportunities for theatres in the conventional theatrical sense, others are using technology to create entirely new hybrid experiences using augmented reality audio technology.  Playlines created Consequences, a rap focused live performance/location-based AR experience created in collaboration with multi-award winning rapper Harry Shotta that immerses users on a night out in London’s grime club scene.

Robert Morgan, creative director, Playlines, clarified: “We created a location-based site-specific AR drama. Users arrive at the venue, download an app to their smartphone and the phone goes in their pocket and they don’t look at the screen, becoming free to navigate the environment.”

Live actors are incorporated into the piece, including the user as the protagonist of the Consequences show. Morgan said: “Audio is a vital part of immersion. We use audio-led AR that lets us create immersive narratives without any graphics, and then we have live elements like real world actors in the environment; you’re in a real place surrounded by other real ‘players’.

"You have all the difficulties and nightmares of a software launch along with all the challenges of a first night theatrical premiere." - Robert Morgan, Playlines 
“The visuals in our shows are more about giving users the real world to navigate, putting you in a social context and telling a story, but you have all the difficulties and nightmares of a software launch along with all the challenges of a first night theatrical premiere.”

Along with almost endless artistic opportunities, the combination of technology and live events can also create twice the difficulties for companies working in this space. Morgan: “A lot of things can go wrong. We’ve had disasters where, on opening night, not only did an actor not turn up, but also there was a server fire in Canada which caused our entire app to stop working.

“Hybrid digital/live experiences are tricky to make, but I think it’s becoming more possible as more open source tools are becoming available, as new generations come up who are used to the idea of finding their entertainment by leaving the house and exploring real spaces looking for ambient digital content.”