'Hamlet,' Outdoors at the San Diego Old Globe Theatre's Festival Stage

by Marshall Bissett
in Theater Sound
Suspended speakers and non-traditional ‘telephone’ lighting poles created a unique hanging environment. Photo by Marshall Bissett
Suspended speakers and non-traditional ‘telephone’ lighting poles created a unique hanging environment. Photo by Marshall Bissett

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 among 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, which ran from Aug. 6-Sept. 22 this year, succeeded by not allowing anything to upstage a well-told story. In this, he was greatly helped by a design and production team that clearly shared 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 took a break from technical rehearsals to share his craft.

Michael Genet as The Ghost and Grantham Coleman in the title role of Hamlet. Photo by Jim Cox - The Old Globe.

‡‡         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.

DiGiCo ST10T with theater software modules was run by house audio mixer RJ Gibbons. He controlled 44 channels, half for vocals and half for instruments. Photo by Marshall Bissett

‡‡         The Speaker System

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.

The outdoor production ran from Aug. 6-Sept. 22. Photo by Jim Cox - The Old Globe.

‡‡         The Mics and Wireless Setup

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 head pieces 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.”

The outdoor rigging points, used for lighting fixtures.

‡‡         Managing the Mix

At the heart of the system is a DiGiCo ST10T (Theatre Version), where house audio mixer RJ Gibbons controls 22 voice channels and about the same number of live instruments. As 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,” Severson says. “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 word “swear” moving quickly through every speaker group. The effects and scene change music are played back through a QLab system.

The 44 inputs were split evenly between vocal inputs and instruments. Photo by Jim Cox - The Old Globe

‡‡         Details Matter

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.

Severson also 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.”

Acme Sound Partner's Sten Severson played a key role, leveraging his experience with other outdoor productions including Shakespearean productions in NYC's Central Park.

‡‡         Other Credits

Along with the 2017 production of Hamlet, Severson has designed sound for other Old Globe productions, including King Richard II, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Othello.

Severson’s other credits include, among other productions, Broadway productions of Hair, The Motherf***er with the Hat and The Merchant of Venice. He’s also served as sound designer for Off Broadway productions of The Merchant of Venice, No Place to Go, The Total Bent and The Controversy of Valladolid.

And he’s no stranger to the demands of outdoor productions as well, having designed the sound for Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park for King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Hair, and, last but not least, Hamlet.

Along with sound design for various regional productions, Severson is also a partner in Acme Sound Partners, collectively responsible for over 30 Broadway shows since 2000. He has taught at New York University and Yale School of Drama, and he currently serves as the sound director at Children’s Theatre Company.

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 2017 issue of Stage Directions magazine, an FOH-affiliated publication.