Thin edge of the wedge. Increasing use of amplification endangers essence of OSF experience: the unique, intimate power of unaided human voice

UPDATE 2.24 Allen Elizabethan Theatre getting new sound system. All actors will be miced in all outdoor shows this summer.

To theatre purists, among whom can probably be counted a good percentage of both the OSF company and audience, nothing is more central to the electrifying experience that is live theatre than the unaided human voice. You don’t pay $100 to sit outside under the stars and experience Shakespeare in traditional format unless you feel strongly that there is something special about this style of delivery. Interpretations of plays change, on stage effects and technology evolve, but what has always been the same, from the time of old Bill to now, is that nothing got in between the actor’s lips and the audience’s ears: filling a space with sound depended entirely on the power and clarity of the actor’s voice.

When the first musical came to Ashland a few years back, so too did the practice of electronic amplification of the actor’s voice. Based on the current production of THE COCOANUTS, the practice now is to mic not just during the songs of a musical, but throughout the entire show. The practice is also being used increasingly for effect in straight plays (such as Ariel’s songs in THE TEMPEST) as well as on the outdoor stage.

It seems worth reflecting that electronic amplification totally changes the essence of a live OSF show – and for the worse. For one thing, the sound is notably inferior. On opening night of THE COCOANUTS, levels changed as characters moved in and out of center stage. The absolute quality of amplified sound was also worse, making it harder to hear certain high speed passages. Taking an actor’s voice and amplifying it degrades the quality of the output by definition. There is no case in which the quality and texture of the output is enhanced – though in a loud room audibility may be improved. In the case of THE COCOANUTS, while mic-ing during songs is understandable, there was no need to amplify during the rest of the play at all, and doing so degraded the overall quality of the live experience. This should be a concern for actors as well as the audience. Mic-ing makes you sound worse – which is in no one’s best interest.

Amplifying an actor’s voice unavoidably changes it. It is no longer 100% human. Done poorly, the effect can be simply awful. But even when done well, the feeling and tone created by amplification is completely different from the traditional live experience that keeps OSP audiences coming back. It feels more like TV or film. For purists or anyone else who believes that the essence of the live experience at a place like OSF is the human voice, this should be cause for concern. For hundreds of years, live theatre has never needed electricity to be electrifying.