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White Noise by Matthew Murray

  • MatthewBwayStars.jpgYesterday, Playbill ran a brief story about the FCC voting to approve the public use of the unlicensed broadcast frequency that is currently being used by Broadway and touring shows for their wireless amplification. A few days ago, The Broadway League sent out a press release saying that the FCC needed to not do this, since the live entertainment industry depended on amplification and that their taking over that "white space" could put tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

    I would like to remind The Broadway League that live entertainment flourished for hundreds of years before the advent of wireless microphones. As difficult as it may be for those in the industry—and in the audience—to believe, not only is it possible for sound to be created without the means of an engineer, it is also possible for a sound to be heard without the means of an engineer. In fact, it many cases, the sound is even better, because it's governed by the rules of nature and the performers' talent rather than a computer.

    There are, of course, lots of arguments in favor of amplification. "People pay so much money for tickets these days, they deserve to hear everything!" True, although one does wonder how much ticket prices might be able to drop if sound designers and all the equipment didn't have to be paid for. "Air conditioning systems and lighting instruments are louder today than they were when unamplified singing was in vogue. True, but I feel obligated to point out that virtually silent lights do exist. "Audiences expect amplification, so you have to give it to them!" False (and stupid)—when is the last time today's producers even tried to give audiences unamplified sound? How about if they try that, observe the results, and then make such statements?

    If sound amplification in musicals is here to stay—and, sadly, I'm afraid it is—then perhaps other alternatives could be utilized that don't depend on that precious white space? There are other types of microphones that are capable of not only amplifying sound, but doing so without disrupting the actors' faces or bodies. (Is there anyone who likes seeing those little "bugs" on actors' foreheads, or seeing wires snake down their backs—or worse, seeing battery packs bulge from places there should be no bulges?)

    Determining a workable, economic solution to this issue will undoubtedly be difficult. But if necessity truly is, as they say, the mother of invention, then I trust that the endlessly creative minds who devise and bring to life plays and musicals can find a way to work around this problem. Personally, I would prefer if this meant forgoing electronics altogether and allowing theatre to once again be what it is supposed to be: well and truly live. But if that's not possible, then I'm sure there's a way that is that will not disrupt the actors' craft or the audience's experience. If producers show equal concern for both, they can sire art that not only touches the art but doesn't offend the ear—either because it can't be heard, or because it can be heard all too well and too mechanically.

    That, however, will take work. I certainly hope producers are up for it. Whoever said that the theatre is, or should be, easy?

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