The subtleties of Shakespeare's dialogue and musical scores will be easier to hear when a half-million-dollar sound system debuts in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre in June.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival joins a number of other outdoor live theater venues that amplify the actors, says Alys Holden, director of production.
"It is more surprising that we weren't miking," says Holden.
The 2011 outdoors "Pirates of Penzance" comic opera was amplified to boost voices over instruments. This year the outdoor repertoire includes Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods."
A donation from Ashland residents Judy Shih and Joel Axelrod will cover the installation of a system from Meyer Sound of Berkeley, Calif.
Although actors in all three of OSF's venues have been miked at various times, the project marks the first time OSF has constructed an entire sound system from the ground up.
Audiences will see six arrays of speakers at varying levels. Speakers will send sound into two zones in the balcony and three on the main orchestra level, says Douglas Faerber, resident sound engineer.
"The amplification will deliver actors a little bit of a lift, not a hard boost," says Faerber.
Meyer and OSF sound staff have worked closely on installation and fine tuning of the system. "Pink noise," which portrays the entire audible spectrum, was sent through speakers and monitored to ensure the correct distribution and sound phasing. Parts of the stage needed to be modified and two upper-level windows expanded to keep sight lines and accommodate lighting.
Little pockets in the 1,200-seat auditorium existed where dialogue did not come through clearly, says Rebecca Clark Carey, head of voice and text.
"I do know that it is hard to hit every seat," says Carey.
Amplification will allow more natural interactions as actors won't need to be positioned to ensure their speech is heard.
"It gives the director and the actors a little bit more leeway in their staging," says Carey.
"We want the actors to project just as much as they always do," says Amadon Jaeger, front of house engineer and sound technician. He will handle the sound control board from an open area at the back of the theater when "Into the Woods" opens.
Jaeger will control the sound from up to 32 mikes than can be placed on actors as well as mix in musical sound from the 25-piece orchestra.
"Like the actors, it's very much a learned performance," says Jaeger.
A new technical position has been added back stage to work with actors and provide replacement mikes if there's a failure. Moisture affecting the mikes is one concern.
"We'll just try not to get the microphones covered in blood in Richard III," says Holden.
Rain is also a worry, but actors' sweat proved to be a bigger problem for the mikes in the production of "Pirates," says Jaeger.
Playgoers who use assisted listening devices will have the same equipment, but the sound quality will be better, says Holden.
Festival officials had received increased audience comments over the past several years about the difficulty of hearing words. There has been speculation and conjecture on the reasons, says Holden.
"In conversations now you have natural voice, but nearly every other thing is mediated," says Holden. Audiences today are used to hearing amplified sounds in concerts, movies, television and from personal media devices.
Other possible reasons for the comments include an aging audience with hearing difficulties, more sound coming from light cooling fans, younger attendees with weaker listening skills and perhaps changes in acting style with less emphasis on projection.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.