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‘Network’ on Broadway

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • March 2019
  • Theater Sound
• Created: March 5, 2019

Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Photos by Jan Versweyveld

The stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1976 film, Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, had a strong buzz before it arrived at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway from London’s West End. It’s easy to understand the hype when you witness the mesmerizing lead performance by Bryan Cranston as a news anchor on the edge, an excellent supporting cast including Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany, and superlative design across all disciplines, especially that of sound designer Eric Sleichim and his associates Alex Twiselton and Chris Cronin (who also runs live sound).

A quick recap of the plot helps one to understand the mechanics of the production.
Howard Beale (Cranston) is an aging anchor who is struggling with personal problems and being edged out of his job, and his friend, station news head Max Schumacher (Goldwyn), is trying to protect and keep him there.

Before officially being let go, Beale has a meltdown on the air that makes the network’s ratings soar. The aging anchor is then given his own program through the machinations of shrewd, manipulative programming director Diana Christensen (Maslany), which include seducing the married Schumacher. It’s a platform for him to vent his “angry man” views, but he is still mentally unhinged and being exploited for profit and gain, which does not bode well for all involved. Like the film, the show makes many statements about consumerism, media and packaged rebellion.

Network on Broadway. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         A Whole Lot of Audio

There’s a lot of audio in Network — miked actors, video playback and musical ambience, leading to a challenge in balancing all of those different audio sources without overwhelming the audience. “In some respects overwhelming the audience is the director’s intent,” says Cronin. “So that does give license for the extremely loud portions to be well, pretty loud, but it serves a purpose in the broadcast sections, where the TV studio is supposed to be a place of barely restrained chaos and cacophony. The music levels are pretty well set throughout, and balance is mostly a matter of weaving the actors’ voices in and around the recorded music and sound effects.”

As Sleichim points out, there are many different audio sources that serve many different functions. He says that the miked actors and the video playback are “realistic” ingredients. “So amplifying those is functional and rather a technical matter of mixing volume and timbre to have it understandable and agreeable for the audience throughout the show,” he elaborates.

The sound designer adds that the musical ingredients are more complicated because in some moments they have a “realistic function” (“music in the bar, stinger and under-jingles, music under the warm-up guy”) and in other moments they have a “fictional function,” to sustain drama. He adds that in theater the musical ingredients can have many different shapes — “a realistic bruitage [cars, birds, thunder], a soundscape, composed music or a combination of those. The music can be original or existing music. Whether it is classical or pop, if it is well known music it will have a direct effect also because of the associations the audience immediately has by hearing this music.”

It is unusual for actors to be miked in a play on Broadway, but given the fact that a lot of ambient sound and music is used throughout the show, it undoubtedly became a necessity, and it was an edict from director Ivo van Hove that the cast be miked. It also adds a meta layer to the show, as the audience is watching a show about television as if it were in a giant television. In fact, many of the characters do not seem to know that they are not characters living in a television world, notably the unstable Beale and the ruthlessly ambitious Christensen.

Network on Broadway. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         Perspectives

“We are essentially all watching TV, experiencing the show through the lens of the camera and the giant LED screen,” concurs Cronin. “So the audio had to also feel that close to match the scale of the scenes that play out on the screens.” The audio team of Sleichim, Twiselton, Cronin, and assistant sound designer Josh Samuel “all worked pretty hard to keep the vocal reinforcement from feeling obnoxious. When we are in the news scenes, Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale speaks with a ‘newscaster’ voice, which is frankly mostly due to Mr. Cranston’s immense talent. We had to do very little extra to deepen his tone and grant him extra gravitas. And, similarly to a musical, there are ‘book’ scenes that are not part of the TV experience and much more intimate in their presentation.”

As dynamic EQ is vital in this production, the Network sound team is using a DiGiCo SD10T console with 96 inputs. In terms of mics, a combination of DPA 4061s and 4066s are used on the cast. “The 4061s also gave us the flexibility to be discreet with fittings,” says Twiselton. “This was crucial, especially as many of the scenes incorporate close-up shots of the actors broadcast live on the large video wall.” They double-miked where necessary, as the lead actors remain onstage for a majority of the play. “We also had various backups in place for particular moments. The communication link between the onstage action and the glass box ‘control room’ meant robust and failsafe reinforcement was absolutely vital.”

The P.A. features a varied mix of d&b amplifiers and loudspeakers (among them, 40 E3s, 26 E0s, 16 Q1s, and 12 Y12s) as well as 30 EMS Acoustic EMS-61s and six Lab.gruppen FP-2400Qs.

Network on Broadway. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         Making the Mix

The show has a total of 96 sound cues. According to Sleichim, “Almost each of them is a complex chain of happenings — delaying, fading up or down multiple audio files, mixing music and sound automatically. I use each individual speaker available in the room. To me, a speaker is an actor. The possibilities and limitations of a sound system are inspiring to me. In that aspect, it is similar to a musical instrument.”

Sleichim implemented the use of surround sound around the theater “to have the sound experience be as vivid as possible and also as variable as possible,” he says. “As in a movie, you are traveling, even if on stage the decor remains the same and only light is changing the perspective.” He also notes that the audience members seated onstage need to have an optimal sound experience, thus requiring a mix that works for them while also allowing the nearby monitor-mix needed specifically for the actors.

The scenic design and blocking of the show certainly necessitated actor amplification, which also required the sound crew to be wary of potential feedback situations. The center of the stage is where news broadcasts, apartment scenes and various other book scenes are played out, with a giant LED wall located upstage including a large video screen and numerous smaller ones. Between those, the ones in the control room, and several in the audience, the screens in the house number in the dozens. The central screens display live video footage, news images and vintage commercials from the 1970s.

At stage right sits the television station control room encased in glass. (An added challenge, per Sleichim: not to make it sound like an aquarium.) The video crew for the show including the live switcher actually sit and work there during the performance. At stage left is a bar where at least one key sequence takes place, with a video camera located behind the bar to capture Cranston and Goldwyn in conversation and relaying that to the central screen so the whole audience can witness it. Right before the bar is a section where patrons are seated, and they are not extras. They are theatergoers who have actually paid to dine and drink and as a result become a part of the show, which results in hilarious awkwardness during the simulated sex scene that occurs during one steamy moment.

Speaking of that bit, it occurs at the end of a crucial scene in Network that commences as Schumacher and Christensen, now estranged lovers, reconnect on the street. The sequence literally takes place outside of the Belasco through the use of a remote camera crew. While at first it might seem like this is a pre-recorded intro to a live scene onstage, the
puzzled looks of passersby as well as the fact that conversation continues fluidly right through to the stage proves that it is indeed happening in real-time.

‡‡         Live Remote Video

A lot of planning and discussion went into preparing for this scene. Twiselton said that it was a challenging concept to realize in both the U.K. and U.S. productions due to various factors — transmitter proximity to receivers, the weather, ambient street noise, and a busy frequency spectrum, which was especially important considering that the theater is located a block east of bustling Times Square.

“We used a mobile broadcast receiver tuned to the actors’ transmitter frequencies to avoid extra packs and fittings,” explains Twiselton. “The signal was then sent back to the house console via a multi — a hardline was essential for obvious reasons. The outdoor team work incredibly hard to stay within close proximity to the action whilst remaining unseen and handling multicores. Again, absolute skill comes in the operation by Chris Cronin, switching from the outside to inside receivers, creating a seamless transition from live broadcast to the live scene onstage.”

Cronin elaborates on this setup. “Our A2, Cat Mardis and the video head Chris Kurtz are managing a 300-foot cable bundle, while carrying portable audio and video receivers that ‘track’ along with the walking conversation,” he explains. “We have a backup recorded scene ready in case of extreme failure, but the director felt it important that the audience see the exact same conditions that they just passed through coming to the theater — weather it is raining or snowing, night or day. So the wireless camera and the wireless mics are never more than about 50 feet away from the performers. As the FOH engineer, I do listen in as they get set for peace of mind, but a heavy rainstorm on an umbrella sounds exactly like the ‘frying bacon’ sound of a failed mic element. I have to ultimately rely on Cat and Chris to preview their signals, and make sure that all is correct for when the image pops onto the screen in front of me and the audience.”

Asked about the toughest part of the show to mix live, Cronin pinpoints the minute leading up to each broadcast portrayed in Network. This occurs about half a dozen times, and although each build-up always follows a similar template, “each is slightly different in how it tells the story of what is going on behind the scenes of the studio as each broadcast starts,” he says. “There is a lot of loud music, countdown timers, and folks in the glass box talking to folks outside, and vice versa. It required quite a bit of hand choreography and practice to master.”

Although Cronin did not work on the U.K. production as Sleichim and Twiselton did, he says the latter “brought all the institutional knowledge from the National Theatre’s production in order for us to produce this version. In the U.K., they had a live band, so that was a little different, but Eric had done all the recordings himself and programmed a very slick QLab file with Josh Samuels’ help. It was really a team effort and everyone’s contributions were essential.”

‡‡         Sounds of Silence

On top of his traditional sound design duties, Sleichim also composed the ambient music and created the sound effect transitions. He has worked with director Ivo van Hove before, and he says that in all of those shows there has always been sound present, either music or ambient. Real silence is used in a very theatrical way to accentuate a scene.

“The dramatic effect is big, as it is used sparsely,” says Sleichim. “From the beginning of the show you install a number of codes with the audience for how to watch the show — how to deal with the information you get, and the form in which it is presented. In this show, it was difficult to have the first ‘fictional music’ integrated. The first ‘orchestral’ music during studio preparations has the clear function to announce a TV show about to happen.” He adds that this leitmotif only changes in the second part of the show when the music becomes much simpler to emphasize and announce the popular star that Beale has become.

‡‡         Sound Design is Everything

“The first moment I use an ambient sound is during the footage of a terrorist attack on video,” continues Sleichim. “As the audience watches the violent images together with the actors, it is not aware of the artificial ingredient that is added. It gives me the possibility to elaborate a sound logic that doesn’t break the illusion of having an audience watching a ‘real’ TV show. Real bruitages [such as cars and rain] are never used in this show. This also is a code that eventually accentuates the realistic dimension of the show — people are witnessing a real TV show and are intervening in real time on TV.”

An impressive piece of sound design occurs during the famous “mad as hell” sequence when Beale loses it on the air, but his ranting becomes compelling to a national audience. The video wall behind him showcases numerous people in their homes also yelling the line while watching the program. Although the show takes place in the ‘70s, this is a moment that, by the nature of the footage and its presentation echoes a viral media sensation of the modern day. Sleichim says that there are about 100 voices mixed together for that sequence, which escalates in cacophony. “The editing and distribution of all these voices was a work of hours spent in the room, feeling how the room reacts on which voice at which moment in which speaker,” he explains. “Finally, you have to test it with the actors on stage in the continuity of the preceding and following scenes.”

‡‡         A Team Effort

Sleichim praises his associates for their help in creating the sound design. “They both are high level professionals,” he says. “This is a complex sound design with a need for many solutions to have it work. Alex and Chris know the possibilities of the sound system and were able to tune it in order to have it work in each different context, and have it be visually as well as audibly invisible to the audience.” He adds that this show “is an example of how technology and art can walk hand in hand without technique taking over.”

“I think as live performance and media start to share the same space, we are going to see more cameras used to show close ups, or even having wireless cameras trailing actors around allowing the audience a dual experience,” says Cronin. “Should you watch the actor, or the big TV the actor’s face is shown on? This idea will continue to pull the sound design forward, as the perspective of the media in the live show begs for microphones and a closer feel to match the visual. This in turn means the sound designer can more thickly score the play, more like music and Foley are used for television or film.”

 

Network on Broadway

AUDIO CREW

Sound Designer: Eric Sleichim

Associate Sound Designers: Alex Twiselton, Chris Cronin

FOH Engineer: Chris Cronin

P.A. SYSTEM

Amplifiers: (5) Camco Q-Power-4; (10) d&b audiotechnik D-12; (8) d&b D20; (6) Lab.gruppen FP-2400Q

Mains: (4) d&b audiotechnik Y10-P and (2) d&b Y7-P (L/R mains), (10) d&b Y12 (center array), (10) d&b Q-1 (upper L/R arrays)

Subs: (2) d&b Q-SUB (flown), (2) d&b B4, B2; (6) d&b E12X (surround subs)

Fills/Delays: (28) d&b E0, (12) d&b E3, (4) 4 d&b C6 (onstage FX)

Surrounds: (28) EM Acoustics EMS-61

Intercom (partial): Riedel Artist 64 mainframe, (8) Riedel RCP-1012 rackmount 12-key stations, (6) Riedel DCP-1016 desktop 16-key stations

FOH GEAR

FOH Console: DiGiCo SD10-24T

FOH Extras: DiGiCo SD Rack w/HMA opticore; (4) DiGiCo AES output cards, (3) DiGiCo Analog DA output cards, (7) DiGiCo mic input cards, (2) 150-meter DiGiCo HMA fiber spools

Processing/Playback: (2) Yamaha DME-64N system processors; (4) DiGiCo UB-MADI USB interface; (6) Mac Minis running QLab, MainStage, Wavetool; (2) Intel NUC i5 PCs running DME Designer, d&b R1, DiGiCo Editor); Rosendahl NanoSync master clock; (2) Focusrite Rednet AM2 Dante headphone interfaces

MON GEAR

Monitors: (6) Yamaha MSP-5A

IEM Hardware: (2) Sennheiser EK300 g3 transmitters, (2) Sennheiser EK300 g3 receivers

MICS

Wired: (2) Sennheiser MKH-60-P48; (3) Shure SM58; E-V RE20

Wireless: (26) Sennheiser EM-5212 bodypacks; (2) Lectrosonics HHA handhelds; (22) DPA 4061 lavaliers, (4) DPA 4066 headworns; (14) Sennheiser EM-3532 receivers

 

Bryan Reesman is an East Coast-based writer and frequent contributor to FRONT of HOUSE.

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