Breaking Out of the 'Community Theater' Model

by George Petersen
in Theater Sound
Twenty-six of The Little Mermaid’s 30 cast members were on Lectrosonics wireless mics. Photo by Kathy Sandham
Twenty-six of The Little Mermaid’s 30 cast members were on Lectrosonics wireless mics. Photo by Kathy Sandham

Audio Production for The Little Mermaid and other shows staged at The Beck Center in Lakewood, OH

In this biz, the mere mention of the phrase “community theater” more often than not brings up mental images of bedsheet curtains, cardboard sets, box batten lighting (occasionally upgraded with a few PAR cans) and… sound? Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a couple of musty Shure VocalMaster columns nailed on either side of the proscenium.

Thankfully, you won’t find any of the latter at The Beck Center for the Arts in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, OH. This non-profit performing arts and arts education organization presents first-class theater productions designed to inspire and enrich the quality of life for Northeastern Ohioans. The organization also offers curriculum-based arts education in creative arts therapies, dance, music, theater and visual arts.

The Beck Center’s roots spring from humble beginnings. In 1938, the Lakewood Little Theatre troupe rented the former Lucier movie theater and purchased the property a decade later. In 1974, noted commercial illustrator Kenneth Beck donated money (with community matching funds) for a new arts complex, which now incorporates the Mackey Theater live performance space, an art museum, teaching spaces, a galleria and indoor gardens.

For some insights, we recently caught up with staff sound designer Carlton Guc after a production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which had just completed a one-month run in the Mackey Theater. Guc, who has worked on countless productions at the complex over the years, emphasized that the Beck Center is dedicated to the highest levels of professionalism.

“We are a community theater, but not in the typical sense,” he explains. “We employ a lot of Equity actors, and everyone is paid — cast, crew and so on. It’s more of a high-end community theater venue, with 450 seats in the house.”

Sound designer Carlton Guc

The Audio Side

Despite The Little Mermaid being a retelling of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s classic 1837 Den lille havfrue fairy tale about a young mermaid who ventures into the world above the sea, the production is thoroughly modern.

Guc, who handled the sound design as well as front of house mixing for all the performances, worked on a Behringer X-32 console with a Core X-32 acting as an expander. “We also used the P-16 personal monitors. This way, we could set up 15 unique channels to the band, so they can clearly hear the show. The Beck Center does not have a pit, so the orchestra is tucked into the right wing of the theater. They can’t see everything on stage, so we provide them with video monitoring along with the audio mixes.”

The center is fortunate to have Guc on the team, as beyond his work at the Mackey Theater, he is also one of the founders of Stage Research Inc., ( SFX, the company’s flagship software product, was developed in the early 1990s to handle audio playback and show control for theater.

The Little Mermaid at the Beck Center in Lakewood, OH. Photo by Kathy Sandham

Among SFX’ early adopters were users such as the Blue Man Group and David Copperfield. The Windows-based application has continued to develop over the years (currently at version 6.x) and besides live theater, the user list has evolved to also include theme parks and other related venues requiring the playback of music and sound effects. Among Stage Research’s other offerings include: RF Guru and RF Scanner (wireless frequency search optimization); ShowBuilder (sound design organization); and SoftPlot 3D, a graphical drag-and-drop for creating stage lighting plots.

With that kind of provenance, it’s no surprise that, for The Little Mermaid, “everything is digital,” says Guc. “Using SFX software for sound effects, the sound board operator simply hits the ‘go’ button to easily trigger an effect, such as when the two eels touch their tails and there is a electrical shock effect. In addition, the musical director can trigger effects from the SFX system via MIDI note commands. Sound triggering can also be synchronized with lighting — such as thunder and lightning on stage. In our case, we had an ETC Ion lighting board triggering effects as well.”

Effects are routed from the audio console auxes into left-right house zones. “In the case of this show,” Guc recalls, “we also had special effects LF speakers left and right on stage. For some shows, we can add surround speakers in the house, but we didn’t need them for this production.”

The speakers are a combination of QSC K-Series mains, EV 200 Series used as monitors pointed down onto the stage, JBL EONs (also used as onstage monitors and effects playback) and custom-designed, self-powered subs.

Stage Research SFX effects playback software simplified the cueing of sound playbacks

The Wireless Experience

Guc selected Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless technology for the show, including LM, SMV and SMQV belt pack transmitters. Of the 30 cast members in The Little Mermaid, 26 of them were equipped with body pack transmitters. With any complex production, there’s always a risk of technical issues with so many actors perspiring onstage, soaking the equipment, and running on and off stage with costume changes.

Yet in all his years working shows at The Beck Center, Guc has thankfully never had to call upon technical support. “The challenge with a show like this is anticipating and overcoming the frequency problems I might encounter in the area where the theater is located — such as from the police station down the street. I’ve been through this many times before at The Beck Center, and with Lectrosonics, we had everything set in a day or so. We were able to do all the work beforehand, and we had no sound problems at all with the show,” he explains.

“When putting on a theatrical production, I don’t need to stress about technology,” Guc continues. “Lectrosonics are the most reliable products I’ve ever worked with, and I can focus on dealing with what the show sounds like, rather than equipment failures or technical problems. They help me concentrate on being creative.”

The Little Mermaid at the Beck Center in Lakewood, OH. Photo by Kathy Sandham

On Deck

In addition to his sound design work for theatrical projects, Guc has done sound design for the Sea World theme park and the Titanic exhibit in Las Vegas. Next up, Guc will be doing sound design for the upcoming productions of Bring it On and City of Angels (both at The Beck Center) as well as Rock of Ages at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.