Now Hear This: Oregon Shakespeare Festival to use electronic amplification for all outdoor shows this summer

There’s no way to soft pedal it: For many theatre devotees (which include both the audience as well as practitioners up on stage), electronic amplification of the actor’s voice is a kind of antichrist. With technology in the theatre providing an increasing array of special effects these days, the use of the naked human voice, and the audience’s direct connection with it (at least in straight plays – musicals are another matter), remains a stubborn holdout, with amplification being a kind of red line, no go area.

But amplification is on the rise – sometimes in the most unlikely of traditional theatre centers. After being somewhat shocked to find that three of the four opening plays (all indoor) of the 2014 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival use amplification to some degree (THE TEMPEST amplifies several speeches by Ariel, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS amplifies the entire opening monologue, THE COCOANUTS is amplified in entirety from start to finish), I caught up with Artistic Director Bill Rauch to ask what was up.

While expressing strong support for the naked human voice, which he sees as central to the theatre experience, Rauch also presented the arrival of increasing amplification on OSF’s outdoor stage as an inevitability given recent trends. To some degree, Rauch inherited this issue, and he said that OSF had been receiving complaints about difficulty hearing in the upper deck of the outdoor stage before he assumed the top job in 2007. But in recent years, complaints about hearing have become “epidemic” and “we had to do something about it.”

So what are the trends Rauch sees that got us to this point? There’s the audience, the actors, and the directors to consider.

On the audience side, Rauch believes the rock and roll generation is more comfortable with amplification and even expects it. Perhaps after attending a few too many WHO concerts, graying baby boomers NEED amplification just to get up to the level previous generations would have been at. Rauch also believes that more of the OSF audience is not used to having to lean in and listen hard to hear.

When it comes to actors, training today puts less emphasis on Shakespeare, and it’s harder for younger company members to stand and deliver to the nosebleed seats. For directors, there is a move away from presentational “park and bark” styles of oration, and more of a focus on relationships between characters. As characters face each other more to talk, it becomes harder to hear them.

Rauch also tried to spin the move toward outdoor amplification (which he calls by the mellifluous name “sound reinforcement”) as an issue of equity and access. Namely, “friends of the festival and critics” are somewhat oblivious to the issue. Front and center in the plush real estate where they typically sit, hearing is not a problem. But up in the cheap seats it is, and this discrepancy threatens OSF’s ability to bring the full experience of the outdoor stage to all audience members.

While that could be true, you can’t help wondering if the real problem today is that OSF simply has an outdoor venue that is too large for the type of theatre it now wants to do there. How unfortunate that the only tool in the toolbox to solve this problem is to fundamentally change the nature of the experience for all.

This summer will be an experiment on the outdoor stage, where all three shows will be amplified. Rauch said OSF will see how it goes and no doubt learn a lot.

Will the traditionalists be pacified? It remains to be seen. It’s worth noting that the art of traditional, unamplified Shakespeare (indoors and out) is alive and well in other parts of the world. And if a recent viewing of Mary Rylance in London’s Shakespeare’s Globe production of TWELFTH NIGHT at the Belasco in New York is any indicator, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the thrill of a commanding, unadorned, world class voice filling a large space with Shakespeare’s magic. Amplification, according to an actor friend, “makes the sound artificial and detracts from the immediacy of live theater.” And if the liveness of theatre is one of its strongest defining assets, what are we giving away if now everyone on stage sounds a little more like everyone on the screen? A lot.

What would Mark Rylance say about the trend toward amplification on OSF’s outdoor stage? Probably nothing very printable in a family-oriented blog!

OSF's outdoor stage.  Once upon a time, being able to project over this space was part of the job description.
OSF’s outdoor stage. Once upon a time, being able to project over this space was part of the job description.