"Action is eloquence," wrote William Shakespeare in Coriolanus. And if you can't hear the eloquence? Take action.
Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival will this year mic its actors in the mainstage tent, trying to rectify a sound problem that has been an irritant since the opening two summers ago of a new larger venue – not always a most excellent canopy, as it turns out.
"This is all sort of heresy in the land of the theatre, Shakespearean theatre, and definitely my heritage," acknowledges Bard artistic director Christopher Gaze, recounting a time when he was chastised by legendary Shakespearean actor Douglas Campbell for using a microphone during a speech. "He was making his point: that has no place in the theatre. It's all about the voice and the practice of what we can do with it."
Amplifying Shakespeare is certainly not unheard of, especially outdoors. Productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream in parks in Calgary and Toronto last summer both used microphones. For Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park, it was the first time they used body mics. Prior to that, they had used microphones at strategic locations around the perimeter of the amphitheatre stage, and occasionally in upstage locations.
(The Stratford Festival – with indoor performances – doesn't mic its Shakespeare; only its musical productions. The odd time, a microphone is used for an effect, but not to simply amplify the actors.) Gaze – pointing out churches amplify sermons too – says progress is good, and theatre companies should be taking advantage of improved technology.
"The point is people have to hear," he says. "We've got to serve our audience. I am totally convinced."
Gaze realized there was a problem when the new Mainstage tent opened in June 2011. With improved sightlines, more comfortable chairs and seating for 742, there was potential for bigger box office revenues – but it caused a "crisis" in terms of its acoustics, says Gaze.
"I was in shock all summer," he says, about the sound issues. "I think we gave the actors and the audience a huge challenge that season."
In an effort to improve the sound and mitigate the fury, Gaze sought advice from experts, including architect Bing Thom, who suggested amplifying the sound as an option. Gaze agreed.
Last year, the company spent about $130,000 on a new sound system, and suspended microphones above the stage. The sound improved – there wasn't a single complaint from the audience about the sound all year, says Gaze.
But when Siminovitch Prize-winning director Kim Collier – known for her boundary-pushing, technologically (and otherwise) innovative creations with the Electric Company Theatre – was brought on board to direct this season's Hamlet, she pushed to have the actors miked.
"I went to the shows last year and I thought a lot about audience-performer relationships. And I thought about how if I was going to spend a year of my life working on Hamlet, I'd want to know ... that it could reach the audience and be beautiful and really communicate and that you'd be able to feel the show," says Collier, who is now Resident Artist at CanStage in Toronto.
"I felt like the actors were having to work too hard vocally," she continues. "And/or the show wasn't reaching me. It was distant. So I could make out what was being heard but I felt like I was watching it and reaching for it. So my little heart got sad. I was like oh no, oh no. And I just felt like I didn't want to have a Hamlet production that I would direct be like that. And Hamlet isn't a comedy where you're going to belt it out. It's contemplative, it's reflective and I wanted the opportunity to make a show that could have subtlety and still be connected to the scale of that space."
Collier spoke to Gaze and they also consulted this season's other mainstage director, Dennis Garnhum, who is directing Twelfth Night. Garnhum, artistic director at Theatre Calgary, had some familiarity with the issue: last summer, Theatre Calgary teamed up with Mount Royal University for their first collaborative Shakespeare in the Park. Director Michael Shamata requested microphones.
"So I've already had this experience last year where it was 'oh no what are they going to say in the country? We're putting microphones on actors in Shakespeare,'" says Garnhum. "And we did it, and it was the number one compliment we received: 'I could hear it. Thank you so much. I could hear it.' They loved it. ... So I became a convert."
Garnhum says for the actors, it can actually change the performance: no longer do they have to stand facing the audience, bellowing their lines.
That's a primary reason Todd Thomson, who plays Laertes in Hamlet and Orsino in Twelfth Night in his eighth season at Bard this summer, supported the idea.
"There are intimate scenes ... and to feel like you have to be turned out [toward the audience] and amplifying for the sake of amplifying takes away from the intimacy," says Thomson, "and ultimately I think robs the performers and the audiences of the real meat of a scene."
But Thomson says there was some resistance to the idea in the company.
"There were kind of old school actors who felt like we should be able to fill the tent; that's why we went to theatre school. And while I agree with that, I think if we can't be heard in this tent which is not engineered acoustically to be heard as well as we need to be with a [theatre of this size], that a little bit of help is a good thing in my opinion."
The goal is crystal clear audio that doesn't sound amplified.
"We want the audience to not even notice," says Bard's head of audio Chris Engleman, who spent an additional $30,000 approximately this season to get microphone packs on the actors.
Indeed, during a rehearsal for Twelfth Night on the mainstage last week, Garnhum had to approach the team behind the sound board and ask if the microphones were on; he couldn't tell.
While the amplification may aid the performance, the microphones themselves can cause the odd issue. For example, there's a nude scene set in a steam room in this season's Twelfth Night. So where to put the microphone pack? The solution in this case involved towels around the actors' necks.
Sitting outside the tent, I asked Gaze what he thought the Bard himself would have done had microphones been at his disposal.
"Shakespeare would have been like Kim Collier," declares Gaze, his own theatrically trained pipes booming. "He'd have gone for every bit of technology that was possible, in my view."
Previews begin at Bard on the Beach June 12. The festival runs until Sept. 14.