Musical Theatre and the Common Gestalt

Many a stage actor and singer is told that there is a little old man who loves this show but can only afford a seat on the very back row of the theatre, so project your voice all the way to him. In many companies now, that no longer applies, or so they think.

Snapshots-VillageTheatreVillage Theatre is a professional playhouse near us that like many companies, puts a microphone on every performer for the purpose of making sure that the little old man can hear every line. Well, I am now that little old man and I do sit on the very last row of the house, along with a bunch of other people with white hair. Although every voice can be heard, not every voice can be understood, and not every voice sounds good.

When they produced “Mary Poppins” last season, the show was absolutely super, except for the two children’s roles. The kids did a great job, but their voices were completely unintelligible and shrill, and I don’t think that was their fault. Perhaps the sound system?

I spent many years working as music director with young people in musical theatre (“Oliver!”, “Oklahoma!”, “Brigadoon”, etc.). We had no mics and no amplification system, and a 1200-seat house (and walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways). For child roles in musical theatre, I am not a fan of the “Annie” school of voice production for children. It strains their voices, and worse, makes them think that this is THE way to sing, which puts a terrible limit on their vocal and even career possibilities as they grow up.

Sets are beautiful three-dimensional models of the world in which the story takes place, and the performers move around in that space with wonderful three-dimensional choreography. However, the amplified sound is two-dimensional, and it is worse for me because I love to listen to the singers, but am saddened by the loss of vocal color from some of the voices because of the amplification.

Last week, I saw the Village Theatre production of “Snapshots”, a wonderful revue of Steven Schwartz songs. It was a delightful show and the cast was superb. I was one of the first with the standing ovation. However, we often had to guess as to what they were saying or singing. We were able to pick up enough to get the story, but it would have been more fun, and may have had more meaning, if everything was clearly understoodable (my word).

Hugh Hastings played Dan, and Beth DeVries played his wife, Sue. The story is about a midlife marriage crisis, and they are played in flashback by four other very talented pros. We could understand everything Hastings said or sang, but lost a lot of words from the other members of the cast. In the second act, I think I noticed that the women’s mics did not pick up all ranges and volumes of their voices equally, and from many of the cast, their consonants were simply too soft to be picked up by the mic. Hugh’s voice seemed to work better with the mic, but he also delivered every consonant to the little man in the back row with skill and purpose.

For an example of the soft consonants, one of the songs seemed to be “Smara Cre-aysha” as sung by the cast. Turns out, the title was “Spark of Creation”, which has three extra consonant sounds that weren’t intended to be optional. This phenomenon may be caused partly by the sound system, and partly by the performer’s delivery, which is partly based on the assumption of a common Gestalt on the part of the cast.

What?! To our brain, making sense of our environment is a matter of evolutionary survival, and when the input is incomplete, the brain tends to fill in the details to make a whole from the parts, which is called a Gestalt. It is “connecting the dots.” When you look at puffy white clouds, you will “see” shapes of animals and people. When a child looks into a dark closet, she may “see” a monster hiding in the darkness. If you obscure the bottom half of the letters in one line of printed text, you will probably still be able to read the text because your brain fills in the missing shapes and assembles the information for you.

When you listen to someone speak, your brain fills in missing consonants to decipher their meaning. Actors and singers use this common Gestalt to their advantage when expressing a character. Depending on the context, “Wheh ya gone?” can not only be understood as “Where you going?” but it also can be used to paint the character as a backwoods bumpkin. By changing to “Wheah ah you going?” the same words project a totally different character, yet both rely on a common Gestalt in the audience.

The greatest problem of communication is the illusion that it is taking place. – Anonymous

Obviously, when the brain is unable to fill in the missing parts, the perceived meaning will have some blank spots, or those blanks will likely be filled with the wrong information. How many times have you heard, “Did she say what I think she said?”

Village Theatre will present “My Fair Lady” soon, which includes some real singing. It will, no doubt, be a great production, and since the plot requires it, all consonants will be clearly pronounced when appropriate, and I hope the sound system sends the warmth and color of the voices all the way to the little old man in the back row.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

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