To See; To Hear

by Marshall Bissett
in Design
The cast of Hamlet, directed by Barry Edelstein, at The Old Globe.  Credit: Jim Cox/©The Old Globe
The cast of Hamlet, directed by Barry Edelstein, at The Old Globe. Credit: Jim Cox/©The Old Globe

The Lighting and Sound Designs of Hamlet at San Diego’s Old Globe

Every new production of Hamlet must lay to rest the ghosts of its predecessors. With its familiar story, often quoted (and mostly misquoted) lines and contemporary spin offs, it’s amongst the most accessible of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The director’s skill lies in extracting the story of revenge from the Iambic pentameter and metaphysical musings so unfamiliar to the modern ear. Barry Edelstein’s production on the Festival Stage at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego succeeds by not allowing anything to upstage a well-told story. In this he is greatly helped by a design and production team that clearly shares his vision that “the play is the thing.” The outdoor setting of the 600-seat thrust-configured setting posed challenges for the production crew greater than the passing of an occasional aircraft. With at least four prior Old Globe shows under their belt, sound designer Sten Severson and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge took a break from technical rehearsals to share their craft with Stage Directions.

The Sound Design  - A Path To Clarity
When director Barry Edelstein took control of the Festival Stage in 2014, he turned to New York based Acme Sound Partners to design an audio system that would produce the high-quality sound New York audiences experienced at The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. One of three partners in Acme, Sten Severson, who has taught at New York University and Yale School of Drama and currently serves as the sound director at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, was set the task of giving equal audio coverage to each of the Old Globe’s 600-plus patrons in a venue without a roof or a solid upstage wall. “The problem with outdoor theater is that, without a roof, there’s nothing to hold the energy in,” says Severson. “Our challenge with audio is to focus the audience’s attention back to the stage.”

Severson is quick to point out that modern audiences, unlike the rabble in the pit at the original Old Globe, are used to sound sources such as ear buds and wall mounted TV’s being extremely close. Audiences are used to dialog being well presented – movies and televisions feed the twin expectations of very loud and very clear.

Acme opted for a Meyer system with D&B subwoofers to supplement some original EAW units. The installation called for careful, inventive placement of the Meyer full range powered cabinets, including a catenary-rigged set of small full ranges in the mid FOH position and compact Meyer MM4 cabinets on the front edge of the thrust stage. With many excellent speaker systems to choose from, Acme opted for Meyer because of their superior environmental properties. While it ‘never rains in Southern California’, the dew point is low enough to soak seats, loudspeakers, and notebooks.

Answering the familiar ‘Does the Bard of Avon really need all this technology?’ question, Severson says, “Yes – radio mics are absolutely essential if we are to follow the director’s brief that every word be heard clearly. Without mics, every time an actor turns upstage at the Globe he is sending his voice towards the San Diego Zoo.” Luckily radio mic technology has travelled far from the Madonna look of the 80’s.

In the current Hamlet, Cait O’Connor’s generously proportioned costumes and headpieces provide excellent hiding places for the small DPA 4061 mics and transmitters. “Most of the mics are mounted on the forehead, where we get the most balanced sound, some are in the ear, and one is cleverly hidden in a crown that gets passed around,” says Severson. “In movies, they put mics on costumes and then edit it in post-production – we don’t have that luxury.”

At the heart of the system is a DiGiCo ST10T (Theatre Version) where house audio mixer RJ Givens controls 22 voice channels and about the same number of live instruments. Severson explains: “Physics is a cruel mistress – if you have all the actors’ mics on at once it creates obnoxious noise. RJ is as important as a cast member, adjusting audio output to match voice levels. It takes full time concentration and anticipation – he has to learn the play in a fraction of the time it takes the actors.” The DiGiCo console has a theater software module that allows each actor to have his own profile and EQ called a “player.” This is especially handy if understudies have to go on – they come equipped with their own audio personality.

For theater applications, Severson does not have nostalgia for older school analog consoles. “I used these for years and I believe digital has the advantage of allowing me to react immediately to a request from the director.” Other upsides include a device called a silent mute used on a live trumpet and sent to the console via a DI box. “Without the audience hearing any live sound we can digitally alter the note of the trumpet with pitch, reverb, delay, or any number of effects,” adds Severson. “Of course, we have to resist the temptation to overuse effects just because we can.” In the opening of this Hamlet, the audience hears the words “Who's there?” moving quickly through every speaker group. The effects and scene change music are played back through a QLab system.

If there’s a secret to good sound design, it comes back to the familiar computer notion of garbage in; garbage out. “In theater, it starts with perfect microphone placement running through the smallest number of high quality components to the speakers. Everything else in the signal path is a disadvantage,” says Severson. He advises young designers to exercise noise restraint, warning that very loud moments have to be offset by long quieter periods to avoid ear fatigue in the audience. He stresses the importance of teamwork. “Find out the qualities of each guy on the audio crew and make use of that specialty. Like lighting designers and their programmers, we need the skill set of great console operators.” Asked how he would spend a sudden endowment for audio purchases, he opts for “additional subwoofers and the much more expensive but much smaller actor microphones.” 

The Lighting Design - Minimalistic Precision
In a 10-year career at the Old Globe, resident lighting director Shawna Cadence has worked with a variety of visiting lighting designers with Broadway and off-Broadway resumes. She particularly admires the work of Hamlet lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge whom she describes as “very specific about where light goes and what he wants to do - he really knows his stuff and has a great eye.”

Hamlet is the latest in an impressive body of work for Strawbridge, including over 200 productions on and off-Broadway, designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company and four previous collaborations with director Edelstein at the Old Globe. He is also co-chair of the design department at Yale School of Drama and a resident lighting designer at Yale Repertory Theatre. His approach is refreshingly minimalist, a model of efficiency and careful planning: “The more specific and precise you can be the better – I tend to use fewer lights and make sure I get the angles I need.” Using about 40% of the Old Globe’s available fixture inventory, Strawbridge not only achieves full coverage for the court scenes but imparts a sense of intimacy for the soliloquies and battlement sequences.

He is the first to admit that The Old Globe is a tricky venue for a lighting designer. “Backlight is a challenge here – it’s possible to backlight individual scenes but not the whole stage.” This may be the only venue in the world where the lighting rig is hung from bars that span a series of tall telephone poles that ring the audience on three sides. The upstage “wall” is a stand of eucalyptus trees overlooking the neighboring San Diego Zoo. ETC Source Four 5˚ and 10˚ fixtures do an excellent job front of house and the downstage side positions hold a variety of 19˚, 26˚, and 36˚ units and some Source Four PARs. The Hamlet design called for additional 14˚ lens tubes and a pair of 5Kw front washes with Wybron scrollers. Two vertical medium trusses provided upstage boom positions for side lighting.

Strawbridge’s sparse approach extends to what he describes as a “very narrow color palette.” The warm looks of the early scenes, enhanced by the bright gold surfaces of the set pieces, give way to a cooler, more sinister ambience as the play reaches its bloody conclusion. The color range is narrow - Rosco 60 no color for the warmer look and a pale steel blue for the night scenes.

The gold ‘industrial look’ scenery trucks in Tim Mackabee’s set design serve as banquet tables, battlements and boudoir props with speed and purpose. Mackabee’s quasi-industrial shiny gold set pieces did not pose the reflection problems that Strawbridge feared when he saw the initial design. “In certain scenes they compete with the faces a bit but overall they provide the right amount of reflection.”

Perhaps the most unusual element in Strawbridge’s design is his use of two Lycian long throw followspots, more associated with Hamilton than Hamlet. He explains: “With all the downstage movement, it would be impossible to focus the audience’s attention without them – I am a little uncomfortable by how much I rely on them as fill light, but the operators are excellent.” They also provide the ability to color match the very dark looks of an African American Hamlet with the extremely pale look of his ill-fated lover Ophelia. 

Despite the experience of four previous Old Globe productions and a close relationship with director Barry Edelstein, Strawbridge lists lack of programming time as his greatest challenge. “Because we can only focus and plot cues at night, we only get about 12-hours of technical rehearsal which is not a lot for a complex show like Hamlet.” To speed up the cueing process, console operator Kevin Liddell set up palettes for color, beam, and focus along with a series of macros on the ETC EOS console. With few repeated stage looks, every cue was created from scratch. “What we really lack in outdoor venues is ‘tweaking time’ with the actors and set pieces on stage,” adds Strawbridge. He was assisted on this production by Sherrice Mojgani and Alex Cluff.

Offering advice to other designers coming into the Old Globe for the first time, he says, “Bring warm clothes even in the summer, make sure you can program quickly and keep all your plots in plastic or they will get soaked."