What should designers expect from rental theaters?

I’ve been fortunate, of late, to work steadily in a few college theaters. There I find solid equipment, purchased and maintained by excellent TDs. I work with well-trained student crews who can set up the sound system and run the shows. I can walk into tech week with confidence that, even if things do break down, there’s a support structure in place to get it sorted by opening.

I’m spoiled, really.

Walking into a rental theater in Chicago, on the other hand, can be a bit of a crap shoot. Over the ten years I’ve been designing sound in this city, I’ve worked in quite a few of them, and it’s frequently an adventure. One theater’s mixing board was a 1970s-era Radio Shack DJ mixer with a bashed-in faceplate and a microphone transformer adaptor (also from Radio Shack) duct-taped into the input. At another place I found that the stage left speaker was facing a wall, and the stage right speaker was not plugged in—though there was an orphan ¼” plug sticking out the back and a severed speaker wire hanging from the grid ten feet away. Recently I spent several hours troubleshooting and rewiring a system that had purportedly been used the previous day by the outgoing production –though given the condition I found the gear in, I don’t see how.

On the other hand, I’ve also put up many shows in theaters that had nice speakers and amps, a mixing board with a full complement of functioning channels, and even (in one case) a computer running QLab…though the EQs for the mains were in a closet down the hall where you couldn’t conveniently use them for…well, anything, and there were no audio lines from the booth to the stage to run mics or specials.

But see, there I go. This last place clearly put some thought into their sound install. Not as much as I’d like, but more than a number of places. And all of their gear worked. What the hell do I expect?

No, seriously, what do I expect? And what should I expect? If the company that hires me to do a sound design is renting theater space, what do they expect to get out of their (sometimes pretty darn expensive) rental, soundwise? What does their money buy them?

Of course, one very valid response is, “work all that out in your production meetings. Get a gear list from the rental space and figure out what more you might need, and make arrangements. A rental theater can’t be all things to all people and shouldn’t be expected to cater to your grandiose need for surrounds, subs, 4 onstage specials, 16 wireless mics and wedges for the band if the majority of the shows they host are only as demanding sound-wise as The Glass Menagerie.” And that’s a good point…so I think I’m talking about two different issues here: gear selection and gear maintenance. As far as selection, the basics are fine, and all I think I can reasonably expect: some FOH speakers, amps, a mixer with a few channels. A CD player is nice, but do people design shows for CD much anymore? A cable for plugging in an iPod or iPad might be a good, modern alternative (and they cost less than ten bucks at Radio Shack). The in-booth QLab rig was a great find (I will admit, it’s nice to not have to wonder where the show computer is coming from), but does that fall into the “I can reasonably expect this to be there” or “my, that’s a nice extra perk” category?

If the audio gear is itemized on the rental house’s list, that’s lovely. Without insisting that I be able to test-drive the system in advance of tech, though, I can only trust that what the list promises, the list will deliver. Which brings us to gear maintenance. Walking in to find a pile of broken or improperly-wired sound equipment is frustrating and takes valuable tech time away—sometimes hours, sometimes days. Ultimately I’m not expecting a custom install or a big mic closet or infinite routing options. I’d just like to find all the gear that’s promised on the rental list in working order.

Is that too much to ask?

Lighting designers, I’d like to hear from you as well: what do you expect to find already there when you walk into a rental?

About toxicbag

Toxic Bag Productions, Inc. provides sound effects and music for independent films, animated shorts, theatrical productions, dance performances, podcasts and video games. They work out of their studio on the north side of Chicago.

Posted on September 29, 2011, in Theatah and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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