Pirates in Promnenade

by Bryan Reesman

Left to right: Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites
Left to right: Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites'  2011 production of Pirates of Penzance
Personal accompaniment, promenade-style staging and new arrangements all factored into the sound for The Hypocrites’ unconventional Pirates of Penzance.

[For more from Mikhail Fiksel on the perils of over-miking, visit: www.stage-directions.com/pirates -ed.]

Considering how many revivals of classic theatre take place daily, modern producers and directors need to find new ways to reinvigorate the material, often for a newer or younger audience. The Chicago-based Hypocrites theatre group certainly did that with their recent production of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance, performing it promenade style in a small theatre with roving performers and a condensed running time. Chicago Tribune theatre critic Chris Jones said of the show in his blog: “This is not your father’s Gilbert and Sullivan. The Hypocrites’ 80-minute, promenade-style ‘Pirates’ nonetheless is wholly true to the topsy-turvy spirit of W.S. Gilbert and it features some spectacularly audacious arrangements of the melodic song stylings of Arthur Sullivan, here vivaciously rendered on everything from guitars to banjos to, memorably, a surprisingly tuneful saw.”

Pirates of Penzance sound designer Mikhail Fiksel
Pirates of Penzance sound designer Mikhail Fiksel
The production even won over a surprising convert, its own sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, who himself was not a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan but learned to appreciate their artistry through the Hypocrites’ reimagining of the show. Fiksel has worked with director/Hypocrites founder Sean Graney on other shows at the off-Loop space in Chicago, including Angels In America, Oedipus and Frankenstein. And he learned plenty of new tricks here.

Stage Directions: So with a promenade style show, the audience is standing and the musicians are generally playing acoustic and are not miked?
Mikhail Fiksel
: Promenade specifically—at least the way Sean treats it—is like walking into a space where there’s no assigned seating, but there are plenty of surfaces; tables and lots of benches. He seems to be a big fan of those circular picnic tables that you see at rest stops. The action takes place anywhere around the space, so the actors just move around the space and the audience follows them. If an actor needs to be in a space that an audience member is occupying—like they’re sitting on a bench where they need to be standing—they will literally point to that person and essentially ask them to move. When we did Oedipus in ‘08, that did have some live music. There were a few pre-recorded songs in there and there was an actress who would sing along to them. We designated one area that was like a mini-stage where there was a microphone, one of those imitation Elvis Mics, the Shure 55SH Series II, and she sang into it. In addition to the main sound system, there was a mini-sound system that was there.

How much has Pirates been tweaked by The Hypocrites?
They very much tweaked it. There’s no pit; all of the performers play their instruments and more importantly, the instruments are mostly acoustic guitars, a couple of banjos, an accordion and a fiddle. Kevin O’Donnell, who was the music director and arranger, has taken the original score and translated it into this vernacular of acoustic musicians, so the performers play their instruments, often accompanying themselves and having support from the other musicians. It’s very abridged and very fast-moving. It’s both acts of Pirates of Penzance done in an hour and 20 minutes.

The staging of Pirates of Penzance had performers, like Robert McLean shown here, standing on benches and other structures in a low-ceilinged space.
The staging of Pirates of Penzance had performers, like Robert McLean shown here, standing on benches and other structures in a low-ceilinged space.
Are there any microphones used in the show at all?
The challenge of this is that it’s a fairly large cast. Let me paint the scenario of what we’re dealing with space- wise. The show’s performing in the Chopin Theatre, which has two spaces, and this is in the bottom space. It’s a basement studio space with fairly low ceilings but at the same time is fairly sprawling. All of the areas that are usually occupied by seats are actually play areas. There are a bunch of tables and benches, and there’s a huge pier that runs across the entire space, so they’re essentially moving throughout. In addition, the “booth” for it is actually not in the space itself, it is in the room adjacent to it. The stage manager is moving with the audience and on a walkie-talkie, essentially calling cues to the board op who is in a different room. Even if I had the ability to put wireless mics on all the performers, it still would be impossible to mix because there is not actually a mixing position inside the room.

Despite the fact that all of the action takes place all over the place, a few locations evolved as stronger positions for visuals and just accessibility. So I identified a few of the hot zones where a lot of the songs seemed to be happening and then asked Sean to make some adjustments to some of the other ones to consolidate it, so we would up adjusting a few of the songs so they were also in those hot zones. I did some very basic area miking for each one of those hot zones, so as a result throughout the space there are six microphones, but I would not say that they’re doing a general coverage of the whole space. They are focused on the six zones that I’ve identified.

It was a fairly quick process. This was definitely one of those productions where you could not anticipate how it was going to sound until you moved into the space, so while I tried to attend rehearsals and watched how it was performed, at that point it was more about sitting next to Kevin and noticing how, for example, these two instruments are overpowering things, so we need to adjust either the way they are arranged or just adjust the dynamics of the piece so that the vocals cut a little bit more. It was more of a dialogue with the arranger and when we finally moved to the space—there are very few prerecorded cues, it was more pre-show and environmental—it was more about watching the piece and putting myself in the shoes of an audience member, following them the way that an audience member would and trying to make sense of where there were difficulties, then just reacting to them. Unfortunately this is a storefront production, so there were not too many previews and a fairly limited tech period, so I made some quick decisions about putting area mics where I could.

What mics did you use?
Keep in mind that not all of these mics really qualify as area mics. For budget and space limitation reasons, I wound  up pulling just regular small diaphragm condensers out of my studio stock, but  they did the trick, it seems. I used: Sony ECM 86B, Shure MC202, Sterling Audio ST-31, Shure KSM137, AKG  C451E and an Oktava MC012-01.

Are the singers singing directly into the six area mics?
No, they’re not. They’re concealed microphones. They’re all essentially mounted from the ceiling, which is fairly low. It is about 12 feet in certain areas and at certain points it definitely is lower because of the benches and the pier.

What are the dimensions of the room?
I would say maybe 20 or 30 feet in depth and 50 feet lengthwise, like a rectangle. It’s not a big space. I covered it with two Yamaha BR15 cabinets and two Electro-Voice Sx300 speakers. They get about 90 people in there. Realize that the entire set is a playground and seating. It gets pretty lively in there and that’s part of the spirit of it. It feels more like a happening and almost like a party with a bunch of musicians than it does a stiff, “let’s sit in our seats and watch the show” kind of vibe.

Nikki Klix, Emily Casey and Becky Poole (left-right), and all other performers accompanied themselves on instruments.
Nikki Klix, Emily Casey and Becky Poole (left-right), and all other performers accompanied themselves on instruments.
So the performers are playing their instruments in a way akin to the recent Sondheim revivals on Broadway?
Yes, but we’ve taken it one more step in that the arrangement is drastically contemporary to the original.

How does this compare with other shows that you’ve worked on?
I’ve done enough shows with a live band in smaller spaces but never with a roving band. It also gets down to where you put the speakers. Because of the low ceilings and the large speakers that there are, the sound system is generally used in a more conventional way with center, left, right. The ideal place here was to put the speakers in the corners, because there were no areas in the middle of the stage where they would not actually get in the way. They would be hanging too low because of the ceiling and just the way that the performers are moving around. That presented an interesting challenge.

It certainly bugs me a lot when I hear an amplified voice emanating from a location different from the singer or the speaker. I try to compensate the best that I can to a degree where essentially each mic is meant to cover an area that if you are in that area you don’t need amplification because you’re standing right next to them. That’s the other thing: half the audience is experiencing music unamplified because they’re actually so close to the source that they’re experiencing the direct sound. However because you move around, half the audience at that particular moment, until the actors move to a different location, is actually on the other side, so now they are another observing this from depth and distance. You’re still hearing it fine because there’s plenty of direct sound, but it requires just a little bit of amplification to help the voices carry a little bit and help the intelligibility, because Gilbert and Sullivan are so much about words. That became the priority, which is odd for me just because it has to be about words, even if it has to come from a location that’s not ideal. Intelligibility became more important than directionality.

So the sound engineer is in the other room during the show?
Yes. And the truth of it is, because of the position and for a number of reasons, I set it up not to be as much about engineering, because there no wireless or personal mics, so there’s not a lot of modifying. I essentially set up a system with six mics and tuned them in a certain way and each of them has a slightly different matrix of the speakers that are around the space to minimize feedback and also to maximize amplification for the people who need it most. Let’s say the space has four quadrants, so if I’m miking the zone that’s in quadrant one, if the people who have the most difficult hearing it are in quadrant three, that is kitty-corner from it, that mic is designed to maximize amplification for those folks who are in that quadrant. The point is there’s not a lot of riding microphones. The board op is instructed to listen to it. Despite the fact that levels don’t move, from day to day I’m riding the mics fairly high because I’m relying on only six microphones to cover a fairly large area. Sometimes we run into feedback, which is totally unpredictable, so that’s the only thing I’m watching out for. I would not call them a sound engineer because they’re not really engineering, they’re listening and make small adjustments. They’re not turning mics on and off because I actually have them throughout the space.