Music by John Kander
Directed and Choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch
Conceptual Sound Design by Matt Stines
Lights by Tony Shayne
Set by Erik Flatmo
Costumes by Connie Strayer
Music Direction by Chris Yoon
Photos by Frank Chen & Zach Dammann
Department of Theater & Performance Studies at Stanford University
Roble Studio Theater, Stanford, CA
This design served as my capstone project for my Bachelor of Arts in Theater & Performance Studies
ABOUT THE PLAY:
Director and Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch brings a fresh, contemporary re-staging of the Kander & Ebb classic musical. This production shares a delightful, wild, and exuberant celebration of music and movement within a story that reflects a deep and ongoing crisis of oppression and fascism. Within Roble Studio Theater, the artistic team has built a world that reflects the individual and collective interests of the cast, and amplifies the themes of the original production in a modern context, asking the audience “What Would You Do?”
THE DESIGN PROCESS:
The task of the sound design for Cabaret was split between myself and Matt Stines. Matt created the playback side of the design, sitting in on rehearsals and devising it with the director. This allowed me to focus on the reinforcement side of the design, designing and tuning the system and making all non-playback choices. I was also the engineer for the show, so I mixed the show and took sound cues.
As is clear from the production images, this was not your traditional production of Cabaret. This gave me some freedom to strategically push beyond realism. My aim for the live design was to initially create a divide between the "real world" and the world of the Kit Kat Klub. This was achieved through using much more dramatic processing in the songs placed in the Klub. However, when we get to Act 2, this begins to break down as the characters are less able to separate their lives from the larger events happening around them. The songs in the club are more sparse, and when reverb is used in this act, it is used with the intention of creating a sense of isolation rather than blending voices together --i.e. emphasizing the loneliness of one or few voices in a large space rather than using a space to bring together many voices. These effects were accomplished using MainStage, interfacing with the console via Firewire. This allowed me to create each of these effects, and have them be dynamic throughout the show, easy to edit, and have changes triggered by MIDI from the console.
Each actor wore a Countryman B3 placed to maximize invisibility and adapt to their costume and hair. I mixed the show on an Avid SC48. While not a traditional theater console, this is one I am very comfortable with and was able to push to its maximum capabilities for this show.
The system design for this production was a little non-traditional. The set was in an alley configuration, which created two audience banks, and the band was on a raised platform at one end of the stage. For each audience bank, two 2-speaker line arrays were hung above the band, one for the closer half of the bank and one for the farther half. This placement allowed the entire audience (and the cast on stage) to hear the band, but also sourced the amplified sound to that platform. This was especially important in allowing the keyboards to blend with the acoustic instruments. Each audience bank also had three speakers hung at the edge of the stage for vocal reinforcement. These were hung as low as possible, working with lighting, to allow for an ideal sonic image. Overall, the mix aimed to just barely reinforce vocals during scenes, but then to allow those vocals to grow as much as needed over the band during musical numbers.
Cabaret was the first show the TAPS Department at Stanford had a student as a lead sound designer for a musical. Because of this, there were naturally some bumps along the way. The initial intention had been to rent a system, using primarily L'Acoustics speakers (the initial system design is below). However, the set ended up being more complex and costly than originally imagined, so the system design had to be reimagined from what the department had in stock. Since there was no one in the department with a focus in sound, these conversations were had between myself, the Technical Director, and an outside engineer with whom both myself and the department had worked with extensively.
The biggest difference of opinion between this group was about how the show was to be mixed. Until about three weeks before tech, I was planning on mixing the show on DCAs, line-by-line as it is the professional standard and something I had experience with myself. However, when I brought this up, I received pushback because this is something neither of them had used before. Though I provided them with both textual and in-person resources they were ultimately not comfortable with trying this different technique, in large part because it did not allow someone else to take over mixing the show if something should happen to me. This choice also made the show a more complex mix for me since it doubled the number of snapshots needed to run the show, and had me use all 16 input faders to mix rather than the 8 DCAs. I was not thrilled with this decision and was ultimately never completely happy with the mix of the show in this respect, though I understand why the choice was made.
There were also some set and blocking based challenges including a hidden ball pit which actors both emerged from and put their faces in while singing, and a set of swings, also used during a number. These were ultimately mixing challenges since not much could be done to prevent the issues (available windscreens were too bulky) and were not distracting while watching the show.
IT COULDN'T PLEASE ME MORE (THE PINEAPPLE SONG):
For the "real world" numbers within Act 1, I aimed for a naturalistic sound, as shown in this song. The singers are amplified just enough to be heard over the orchestra, but the overall effect is transparent enough that an audience member might not notice the actors are amplified. This number was interesting in part because Herr Shultz's part was taken down the octave, changing the how the voices played together.
MAYBE THIS TIME:
Traditionally Sally's big solo ballad, our version of Cabaret instead invited the other female characters and ensemble members to join in the number. This led to a slightly more complex mix. The ensemble members were left in the ensemble vocal group (with a slightly longer reverb and stereo image) other than their solo lines to allow for the focus to stay with the main characters–Sally and Fräulein Schneider. This number serves as an example where moderate processing facilitated the blending of these voices.
This song was one of the most difficult in the show. The vocal arrangement called not only for the melody to be traded between the three actors splitting the role of Emcee, but had them in a canon with the entire ensemble while also performing a high-intensity dance number, making intelligibility very difficult to attain.
The song begins in our heightened Klub space with the three Emcees, allowing for a longer tail. When we transition to the main part of the song, the priority instead shifts to intelligibility. While what the ensemble is singing is important musically, the words are of little consequence, allowing them to be mixed quieter and have a longer decay. When we enter into the dance break, I chose to keep their mics live–their breathing and loud steps were part of the choreography and it likely would have been confusing for the audience to have these percussive elements drop to its natural volume. Following the dance break, we move into the canon, with the three Emcees delicately balanced against the ensemble. Since they were the source of new musical and lyrical information, they slightly overpowered the ensemble, but not so much that it felt unnatural. Finally, we return to the original call-and-response structure, allowing for an easier mix to the end of the song.
ACT 2, SCENE 1:
The blocking for this scene was markedly different than all of the others in the show. Where every other scene had movement of some sort and often utilized ensemble members as part of the stage picture, this scene was blocked starkly and simply. Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz sit in chairs, facing each other several feet apart on an otherwise bare stage.
With this drastically different staging, it follows that there might also be a different sonic tone to this moment. During one of our later technical rehearsals, it was suggested to me by the director to put a heavy reverb over this scene. It worked–tying everything together, making the characters seem even further apart and lonelier than the staging already implies. As they eventually move closer, they speak more softly, naturally reducing the reverb.
I DON'T CARE MUCH:
This song represents a blending of the "real world" and Klub spaces. We have one of the Emcees appearing in what Sally thought was her space to sing to her. Because of this, it feels even more heightened than the numbers staged more firmly in the Klub space.
This is also a moment where Sally feels completely alone, so we are once again able to use this reverb to emphasize this feeling of being a small person in a large space. I used a reverb that allowed the actor's voice to grow, seeming larger than life without seeming overly loud. This song is also functionally a duet with the saxophone, and using that reverb on the voice but not the instrument allows it to take precedence without pushing it too far above the band.
(In the first few moments of the song, you'll hear the rustling of the costume of the actor playing the Emcee)
It is easy to imagine the titular number of Cabaret as something glossy, a humorous depiction of Sally's inner conflict. We decided to move in the opposite direction. For the first time, when he announces an act, the Emcee's voice is devoid of reverb. Watched from all angles by the seated ensemble, Sally enters and begins to sing. Even from the first note, we can hear her clinging to the performance she used to be able to hide in, made even more stark by the lack of reverb on her voice. As she sings her audience leaves, brushing up against her, ignoring her the whole time. The complete dryness of sound allows the audience to hear the rawness in her voice and creates a contrast not only with how she sounded earlier, but with the very thing she's singing about.