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In search of sound advice for Chicago’s theaters

Lindsay Jones is photographed at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre where he is sound designer and composer for the upcoming production of "Tug of War." | Max Herman/For the Sun-­Times

Last month, at the Steppenwolf Theatre press opening for Tracy Letts’ new play, “Mary Page Marlowe,” a man in the audience blurted out what some of the more restrained members in the house were no doubt thinking.

“I can’t hear you!,” he said, loudly and clearly enough to be heard himself. I wanted to applaud. I also wished he had been in the audience for the national touring production of “Matilda The Musical” a few weeks earlier, when much of the dialogue was either garbled or drowned out by the orchestra. The problem repeated itself more recently with a few of the performers in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “The King and I.” (For the record, I have excellent hearing.)

‘TUG OF WAR – PART I: FOREIGN FIRE’

When: May 12 – June 12

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $85 if Parts 1 and 2 (“Civil Strife” will be staged in the fall) are booked together; $100 for single part

Info: (312) 595-5600; http://www.chicagoshakes.com/tugofwar

Run time: 6 hours, with brief intermissions and a meal break. Boxed meals are separate and can be ordered in advance.

All this came to mind again when the Tony Award nominations were announced recently, and, for the second year in a row, the decision to omit “sound design” as a category worthy of attention remains un-reversed, despite the protests of many in the theater community. For me, the argument is simple: People go to the theater to be told a story, and if you can’t hear the dialogue, or discern the song lyrics, something crucial is missing. You are being cheated.

Lindsay Jones, a masterful sound designer and composer who has worked in theaters throughout the United States and beyond, explains the Tony committee’s problem this way: “They are not sure if sound design is a technical skill or a design art form. In fact, it is a combination of the two. The sound designer, in collaboration with the sound engineer, really conceptualizes the entire mix of what the audience hears. And everything we do must support the storytelling.”

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Jones is currently at work on “Tug of War,” the first of two epic six-hour productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, for which adapter-director Barbara Gaines has distilled six Shakespeare histories. A centerpiece of the yearlong Shakespeare 400 Festival, the “Tug of War” saga traces the injustice and intrigues of war from the perspectives of both kings and common soldiers. The 18-performance run of the first part, “Foreign Fire” (May 12-June 12), will be drawn from “Edward III,” “Henry V” and “Henry VI, Part 1,” with the second part, “Civil Strife” (Sept. 14 – Oct. 9), extracted from “Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3” and “Richard III.” A cast of 19 will play more than 100 characters, and laced throughout will be music ranging from Bach and the blues, to contemporary pop and folk anthems, played by an onstage band.

Freddie Stevenson is part of the cast for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Tug of War.” (Photo: Jeff Sciortino)
Freddie Stevenson is part of the cast for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Tug of War.” (Photo: Jeff Sciortino)

As Jones describes his job: “I’m responsible for everything you hear in the theater, and for assuring that everyone has the same experience. I sync up the sound system. I talk through the show with the director about all the different moments when a soundscape or music (original or pre-existing) is to be used. I work with the stage manager, actors and sound engineer (who sits at the sound board for each performance and really orchestrates the show, mixing it line by line) to make sure the director’s ideas are being realized. I watch rehearsals to see if these ideas work, and often tailor the effects to the performances. And during technical rehearsals I oversee the final integration of sound and music, and make the necessary adjustments.”

Of course every theater and every set is different, which can have a major impact on sound.

“Often you don’t know what you have until you hear it in technical rehearsals,” said Jones. “And there are many different reasons why you might not be able to hear an actor. After all, it’s live theater, and an actor can make an unexpected choice on certain nights. Or, if there is environmental sound behind an actor that is the same frequency as that actor’s voice, it can obscure the voice. In ‘Tug of War’ there is a very full soundscape, with live music, many sound effects of war, and Shakespeare’s language, which is crucial. So it’s tricky.”

Mikhail Fiksel, whose excellent sound design for the current Goodman Theatre production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is a model of the art (every word is crystal clear, despite a towering set), observed: “Modern audiences actually listen to things differently. TV, film and modern music, and today’s maximization and compression technique, all have changed the way sound, especially the human voice, is delivered to the ear. But in general, a number of factors can interfere with the clarity/audibility of speech and vocals – competition of background sound or music, the acoustics of the space, the production’s resources. And certain parts of the audible spectrum are easily ‘overpopulated.’ In musicals, it can be instrumentation — brass/woodwinds, for example, can easily overpower or distract from the vocals.”

“Using microphones can help,” said Fiksel, “but only if you have the resources to get multiple speaker systems throughout the space — close enough to every audience seat. There also is such a thing as over-miking, where the vocals are so front-and-center they are disconnected from the music and the world of the play, and it becomes hard to tell who is talking. The placement of the orchestra also makes a difference. The goal is always for the sound and music to be natural extensions of the world of the play, with everything moving in sync and inviting the audience to engage with the experience.”

“Theater audiences are getting older, and younger audiences can have different expectations,” said Jones, whose next project is at New York’s Public Theatre, where Daniel Radcliffe will star in “Privacy.” “But the exciting thing is that we live in an amazing moment in terms of all the technical advances in sound.”

Lindsay Jones at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater where he is sound designer, musical arranger and composer for “Tug of War.” (Photo: Max Herman)
Lindsay Jones at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater where he is sound designer, musical arranger and composer for “Tug of War.” (Photo: Max Herman)