Hey, you! Actor! I can't hear you!

June 14, 2011

The pre-show theater announcement is now standard: turn off cell phones and pagers and "if you must eat candy, please unwrap it NOW." This has minimized (if not entirely eliminated) perhaps the two most infuriating distractions of contemporary theater-going.

But it still leaves a third infuriating distraction, and there isn't a theater anywhere with the guts to confront it. No theater manager or producer will add this to the pre-show spiel: "And if you're an old person who can't hear, please shut up! Do NOT ask your companion to tell you what the actors said!"

Of course, there's a fix for this one, too, if actors and directors only realized that quite often the reason for Infuriating Distraction #3 is Infuriating Distraction #4: THE ACTORS DON'T SPEAK LOUDLY ENOUGH!!!!

Perhaps I'm becoming increasingly sensitive to this issue since I recently celebrated my 59th birthday. Again. I have no doubt that advancing middle age and 25 years of tinnitus have taken a toll on my hearing. Then again, I have no trouble at rock concerts (which may be why I have tinnitus in the first place). Less facetiously, I have no difficulties with normal conversation or phone calls or my work in the WBEZ studios, nor did I have trouble hearing on a recent visit to New York, sitting in the last row of the balcony of a Broadway theater. I caught every word of the two unamplified actors in the play because they never failed to project.

But here in Chicago, among our Off-Loop theaters, actors frequently fail to project, and there's the rub. There seems to be a mindset that because a storefront playhouse seats only 40 or 50 or 75 people, actors don't have to project or point their dialogue; that somehow an intimate conversation between two characters can be performed in the hushed modulations of a real intimate conversation between two people.

Well, it can't. Even in the smallest Off-Loop house, there still is a separation between actors and audience. The audience is NOT an actor standing just inches away from another actor, and clarity for the audience requires both projection and enunciation on the part of the performers.

Now, projection doesn't necessarily mean volume, although more volume sometimes may be the answer. More often, it means intensity or expressiveness. This essential acting concept cuts both ways. Many, many times in my reviews I've criticized performers who substitute volume for intensity at moments when they are supposed to be, say, angry or excited, both of which also can be expressed in whispers. But remember, please, that a stage whisper isn't really a whisper. Similarly, intimate and/or soft-spoken dialogue must still retain a suitable decibel level.

So the idea of speaking normally because a theater is small is a mistake and a trap into which far too many directors and actors fall. While rehearsing a show for three to six weeks, the company hears the lines over and over and over again, which dulls their response as to whether or not the words will be heard and understood by audiences hearing them for the first--and only--time. Familiarity breeds comprehension: It fills in blanks which the audience will not be able to fill in.

There also are various physical aspects of productions which sometimes exacerbate the problem of clarity. Sets, costumes and the blocking of the actors can all play a part, as can the acoustic characteristics of each venue. When my "Other Half" shouts to me from two rooms away, I can hear the sound but can't always understand all the words, and theater can work that way, too.

Directors should keep all this in mind: One size does not fit all situations and playhouses when it comes to projection. They should remember, too, that a very high percentage of Chicago's theater audience is over 55, even at small Off-off-Loop theaters. I'll bet our theater community would be shocked by the results if they surveyed audiences about problems with hearing and clarity.

Meanwhile, actors, speak up! Why spend all that money studying Alexander or Linklater voice techniques if you ain't gonna use them.