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Surviving Live Audio SNAFUs

Bryan Reesman • October 2019Theater Sound • October 15, 2019

When Smart Thinking and Fast Responses Save the Show

 When all of the performances and the production elements of a great live play or musical come together, the experience is magical. But let’s face it, sometimes something — or some things — can go awry, and a quick solution has to be found to keep the momentum going. Theater audiences can be very forgiving of slip-ups, but only for so long. FRONT of HOUSE reached out to veteran sound personnel to ask them about their hairiest moments and how they got through those dramatic moments that left the crew on the edge of their seats.

Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen

Twice Tony-nominated sound designer Gareth Owen knows about feeling the presence of big names in the face of a problem. He once had a third-party plug-in crash on a console that took out an entire sound system for the final invited dress of a Broadway musical — with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Tom Hanks in attendance.

However, Owen says that his most amusing story involves “a newbie sound engineer and a sweated out microphone.” As live engineers know, mic sweat outs are a common occurrence on Broadway musicals, and while the audio teams do their utmost to preemptively solve them, some actors simply perspire too much and mics become waterlogged. “The quickest way to solve the issue mid-show is a quick squirt of compressed air from a duster can,” says Owen.

On one particular show on a very hot summer afternoon, “the leading lady sweated out her main microphone just before her big song,” says Owen. “As a quick-thinking, experienced performer, she took advantage of a brief hiatus in the scene to nip in to the wings to have her mic sprayed. Unfortunately, the side of the stage she chose to occupy was being manned by a newly graduated radio mic tech who, while clearly going places, was pretty early on in their career.”

With limited time to deal with the issue, the tech grabbed a can of air, gave the mic “a quick blast,” and then the actor whipped around and darted back to the stage. “Unfortunately, the tech had inadvertently picked up a can of matte black spray paint, sending the oblivious leading lady back out on to stage with a massive splat of black paint on her forehead,” reveals Owen. “To add insult to injury, the main microphone was still broken, and the backup mic was now gummed up with black paint. Not a great moment at the time, but quite amusing with hindsight.”

Carin Ford

Carin Ford

Live engineer Carin Ford was mixing a performance of the 2010 revival of La Cage Aux Folles when she lost the system. It completely died during the middle of the show. “I had to actually leave the front of house mix position to go backstage,” recalls Ford. “I contacted my tech to try to figure out how to reset it. It was the worst experience I ever had. I think it may have taken about ten minutes, but it felt like forever.”

During the unexpected down time, co-star Kelsey Grammer stood onstage and talked to the audience until the problem was fixed. Ford initially had to talk to her AT, who was backstage, but he could not really do anything. And at least audience members did not understand what was going on. “This woman kept shushing me,” says Ford. “I was like, ‘You know what? You need to leave me alone right now.’ She was like, ‘Why are you talking?’ I just ignored her.”

Ford then raced backstage and was “frantically on the phone calling the production sound man Kevin Matthews. He was the programmer and knew the system inside and out, and I got him to talk me through the reboot of the system.”

Back around 1990, Ford was mixing Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life In the Universe, which was very sound-effects-heavy. “In the middle of the show, I went to hit a series of cues and nothing happened,” says Ford. “My computer just died, and at the time I was not able to run a backup computer simultaneously. So Lily finally realized that something was wrong. She stops the show and says something like, ‘Carin, do we have a problem?’ Of course, I wanted to crawl under the desk, but I just told her yes and that we had to replace the computer. So she said “Okay,” and she sat on the edge of the stage. I left her mic open, and she talked to the audience while I made the computer swap. The audience loved it.”

Chris Cronin

Chris Cronin

On the opening night of Network, sound designer/live engineer Chris Cronin, who served as an associate and live mixer on that show, could not get one of the stage racks to sync for an hour. It turned out to be a boot-up sequence issue.

“I finally had to turn everything off and reboot it in the proper sequence,” explains Cronin. “I kept rebooting the one portion of it, and it wouldn’t sync up until finally I gave up, shut the whole thing off, and turned it back on. Then it was solved. It was 45 minutes before the show started. I sweated a little bit, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”

Rewinding back 22 years, Cronin recollects working as an assistant sound designer on an out-of-town tryout for a Broadway-bound Neil Simon show called Proposals. His story begins with moving the show from Los Angeles to Phoenix and dealing with a very early, moving fader automation matrix called an Octopus by a company called Outboard Electronics. Cronin arrived in L.A. a couple of days early, so he decided to write down all the mix settings on a yellow pad in addition to saving the settings on a ‘90s version of an SD card.

“These things were notoriously fussy,” remarks Cronin of the Octopus. “One was on the Miss Saigon tour that did the sound effects of the helicopter panning around the house. It was so fragile that they would take it out of the rack and put it in some special case, and it would travel on the front seat of the cab with a truck driver. I didn’t know this at the time. I just wrote down all the settings on this yellow pad because that seemed like the smart thing to do.”

Upon arriving in Phoenix, the cast and crew had a show that night. Cronin turned on the Octopus and nothing happened. The device had lost all of its memory, necessitating him to reload the show a half an hour before the opening curtain. He was resaving all of the cues from the data that he wrote down previously while producer Emanuel Azenberg and playwright Simon were pacing behind him.

“They were asking me how it was going every minute and a half,” recollects Cronin. “‘Are we going to have a show? Are you going to get it back? Is it going to be all right?’” He made some calls to learn more about the device, then did a hard reset and started reentering all the information. “The show went up on time, and then later came to Broadway. It was interesting having Neil Simon pacing behind me wondering if it was going to be fixed soon and applying pressure.”

Cricket Myers

Cricket Myers

Tony-nominated, L.A.-based sound designer Cricket Myers has worked on over 300 productions, and she says that her most exciting and craziest mishap occurred when the musical Allegiance played in Los Angeles. The event occurred near the end of Act I during the second preview. Myers and her team had made many adjustments in rehearsal, and she says that the show was settling in and sounding great.

The actress playing the role of Kei was beautifully singing “Higher” when the entire P.A. suddenly went silent. “I flip around in my seat in the middle of the audience, to look back at my engineer, Christian, who is staring at his console with a look of utter shock on his face,” recalls Myers. “As I stare at him, I see a crew member slip up next to him and whisper in his ear. I see Christian’s face fall, and he shrugs, shakes his head, and sits down. Of course, I am wondering why he isn’t doing something about the fact that the poor singer is still up there singing and only the strings seem to be playing along at this point.”

The actress made it through 60 seconds that felt way longer. Then the P.A. slowly started turning back on, piece by piece. “Christian stands back up and puts his hands back on the faders, and by the time the song ends, our system seems to be back,” says Myers. “Act I ended without further dropouts.”

The culprit in this instance was human error, but not with the audio team. Myers states that an actor had exited the stage and dropped his wooden prop on the very edge of the prop table. “Someone else walked by and bumped the table, knocking it off the table,” she says. “The prop landed directly on top the power distro for the entire sound system and shattered, dropping shards of wood into the distro. Sparks and flames started shooting out of the distro and every circuit tripped.”

Myers praises her “amazing A2” named EJ who rushed over and bravely reached through the flames and sparks to disconnect the main power and pull each cable out of the box. “He then began running each line to various random circuits around the stage, shouting at the ASMs backstage to get him more extension cables,” continues Myers. “By the time the song was over, he had managed to plug each line in again all over backstage, and our P.A. was up and running again. When I came backstage at intermission, you could still smell the burnt electronic smell hanging in the air. Needless to say, the replacement distro had a proper cover on it and was not placed anywhere near the prop table.”

The fun does not end there. “Another wonderful snafu happened during a performance of another show here in Los Angeles,” continues Myers. “The keyboard player was having some issues with MainStage for his keyboard in the opening number, so he decided during Scene 2 that he would use the scene to quickly reboot his computer. Unfortunately, his computer, upon reboot, decided to launch Spotify and start a Motown playlist. So suddenly, in the middle of Scene 2, The Jackson 5 start coming out of the speakers. My engineer grabs his headphones and starts soloing every channel on the console, starting with the wireless mics, since it’s not uncommon to have an illegal radio station pop up and start broadcasting on microphone frequencies.”

The cast persevered with the scene, struggling not to burst out laughing, and the engineer was juggling the mix in one ear while his other one hand was “frantically popping through channels,” describes Myers. “The keys player seemed completely unaware that this was happening. When my engineer finally started soloing the band, he realized it was the keys and quickly muted them. He then had to radio backstage to have someone run down to the pit and inform keys that his computer was playing Motown. The performance report that night dryly reported the appearance of Motown and suggested that my engineer make sure that never happens again. The director chimed in with, ‘We have to make sure anything plugged into our speakers is only programmed to play show stuff. We don’t have the rights to those other songs.’ I still don’t know if he was joking or thought it was a design choice!”

The Show Must Go On…

An important aspect of all of these stories is the ability of the people involved to react quickly and calmly in order to solve the crisis. That, and a methodical approach to tackling the problem at hand.

“Unfortunately, proper troubleshooting is probably the first thing that gets thrown out the window when somebody gets flustered and nervous or pressured,” notes Cronin. “People tend to jump to a conclusion about what might be wrong, and quite often it isn’t the thing that’s wrong at all. You really need to adhere to a proper, step-by-step, one end to the other troubleshooting [process], and it may take some time. You’ll always take less time than you will nervously flailing to try to fix something that maybe isn’t broken. Instead, find the thing that does need fixing. Once you find what it is, you can really make a determination as to whether or not it’s a critical item.”

After all, the show must always go on, even when The Jackson 5 crash the party.

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