The Laramie Project
Produced by WaterTower Theatre inAddison Texas
Article by Scott Guenther and Curtis Craig

WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas recently produced The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman.  For this production, Curtis Craig - the sound/media designer - and Scott Guenther - the technical director - collaborated to design an entire show managed by SFX Pro Audio/Show Control.  This production combined multi-channel surround sound, live and pre-recorded video, motion control, and traditional light cues. To simplify the run and accomplish the design objectives on limited budget and manpower resources, SFX was used to solve large and potentially expensive problems.

SFX managed four aspects of this show: sound playback, lighting cues, video playback, and motion control.  Video and motion control each were assigned their own cue list in SFX, while the show’s master cue list contained all of the sound and light cues in addition to the effect sequences called from the video and show control lists.  The arrangement provided flexibility for the editing of sound cues while keeping the critical timing of the DVD and motion control sequences intact -- each element could be tweaked without the overall show timing being affected.

The sound system at the Addison Theatre Centre employs SFX as a playback and control source. For this show, SFX feeds 7.1 channels of 24 bit audio via a Layla 24/96 to a Tascam TM-D4000 mixer used to distribute and delay the feeds as necessary. After the mixer, QSC PLX series amps and Bag End speakers complete the reproduction system -- the feeds are not processed, with the exception of an ELF sub processor for the Bag End subs. With a little over 20,000 watts of power in a black box theatre (38’ x 70’), the sound system has the response and headroom to swell from a whisper to a tornado and back in a heartbeat.

Watertower has used SFX for shows in the past, and the playback has always worked very well, but this show required a level of multi-track synchronization that could not be achieved with SFX prior to version 5.6. The musical diffusion, multi-channel underscoring, and environmental sounds of the press conferences are perfect examples of what SFX has now become capable of. In the past, an Akai DR8 hard disc recorder was used to provide 8 channels of synchronous playback and was supplemented by MiniDisc or CD units. The original purchase of SFX replaced the two track sources, but for synchronous multitrack playback, the DR8 was still used; with the latest release, SFX kept the DR8 on the shelf.


Producing DVDs that ‘play nice’ in a theatrical environment can be a bit of a challenge, but the robust nature of the hardware and the video quality make the effort worthwhile.   By creating a DVD with a solid black menu, no buttons, and black text, the main menu of the DVD simply appeared as a uniform black screen.  Each individual title on the disc then had 5 black frames at the start and the end of each video clip.  By keeping the player in pause at the beginning of a track, we had a source for black for all of the screens.  After each track played out, SFX handled the timing to pause the DVD during the final black frames and then move to the next selection (while staying in pause).  An unexpected bonus effect came about by pausing a track in order to ‘hold’ an image on the screen.  Because the DVD in pause was free of video noise, the image simply acted as a slide.  After holding the pause effect as long as desired, SFX simply put the DVD back into play, thereby playing out the track – whether the play out was a snap out or a fade out was simply handled during the track’s editing in Final Cut Pro.  Just as before, the DVD then went into pause and moved to the next track.   Black signal and the ability to perform cue based sequences – all in one DVD.
The most complex element of this show was the video management.  Having 5 different input video sources (plus black) and 4 output feeds to 13 monitors and a 20-foot tall video screen was a real concern. Early on, we realized that the timing and cueing of the DVD playback was the critical issue that needed to be addressed first. By using the Tascam DV-D6500 DVD player with RS-232 control (click here for sample ), SFX enabled the DVD to serve not only as our large screen source, but also as the black source for all monitors (see sidebar).  A very simple and effective control matrix for the video was built using reed style video selector switches. This facilitated the distribution of recorded video sources, the live camera, and the DVD/black source from the Tascam DVD -- any output could receive live video, recorded video, or the DVD/black source.

Dealing with the video black source was a major consideration -- the screens would not have constant video signal through the entire show, so they would require some source of black. An automated video mixer was well beyond the budget, so we went to work trying to use the DVD player as the source of black signal.  By placing five frames of black at the beginning and end of each DVD title and by carefully programming the SFX DVD commands, SFX would treat each of the titles as a cue sequence starting the playback then waiting until the video segment was complete and pausing the DVD player during the black frames at the end of the title.  Once in pause, the DVD would then (without video noise) jump to next cue.  The result was perfectly timed DVD cues and a solid black source that could be fed into all of the monitors and projector while not in use. The RS-232 commands were available from Tascam, but needed to be made into an effect list for use in SFX (the command set is now available as an effect list on the SFX FTP site).  This was an inexpensive and highly effective solution for a complex problem – one easily accomplished by simple commands in SFX.

It is worth noting that we ended up using iDVD to cut the recordable DVDs and it has a unique method of creating menus. The individual menu items created by iDVD are actually separate titles on the DVD, which benefits this method of working, since once a DVD player completes a title, it simply returns to the menu screen.

Movin’ On Up (and Down)

For this particular show, chain motors would be used to lower in three flown monitors for the second act – helping to illustrate what the people of Laramie felt as the media overtook their town and transformed their lives. By using SFX to keep the timing consistent, we were able to lower the monitors in from above to their set trims and then raise them back out with precision that would not be possible by using the chain motors handheld controllers. Simple waits inserted in the cue list allowed the motors to move and stop in a specific pattern that was editable and repeatable. Scott built an interface to allow SFX to manage the Skjonberg control box ; by using the Adlink Technology I/O card suggested by Stage Research, he was able to build a relay device that SFX could drive safely and effectively. The box takes input from the 8 relays on the I/O card and drives another group of 8 relays rated for the current demands of the chain motors. These relays are interconnected so that an “up” and a “down” signal can not be sent at the same time since SFX will allow any combination of relay outputs. There is also one additional relay in the box acting as a run and stop switch. This provides the SFX operator with a panic stop and an easy way to skip the motion control cues while working sections of the show over and over. The device is simple and very effective; programming the individual moves became a simple sequence of move and stop cues linked by wait times to achieve the desired visual result.

The last task SFX was required to complete was sending commands to the lighting system -- an ETC Obsession 2 for standard and automated fixtures. SFX had no problem cueing the lighting by using MIDI Show Control to execute each cue by number, assuring that the show would always stay in the proper light cue, even when moving around during rehearsals.

The Show

Individual preliminary cue lists were assembled during the days leading up tech: video, motion control, and sound. Each would need to be tweaked during the technical and the dress rehearsals, but the structure of the lists remained fairly consistent. The real strength of SFX became apparent once the preliminary technical rehearsals were completed and the show moved into dress rehearsals and previews.

The day of the first dress rehearsal, the sound board operator and the stage manager spent the afternoon cleaning the stage manager’s cueing script and unifying the show’s cues. Sections in the stage manager’s cueing script transformed from standby sequences that took forty-five seconds to fully enunciate to “Standby Cue 185”. By unifying the cue structure for the show, the stage manager was able to call very complex sequences with a minimum of verbiage. Allowing the sound operator to control all of the automated elements also allowed the master electrician to serve as the ringmaster for the video circus. While the Obsession control surface was within arms reach of the master electrician, his button pushing prowess was never needed.

Simply put, SFX allowed us to create a show that would not have been feasible in this time frame, with these sized crews, and with these budgets. There were a few bugs to work out with each element (including SFX), but the customer service we received was incredibly responsive -- as always with the Stage Research crew. SFX proved itself as reliable, cost affective, flexible, and amazingly easy to work with in a fast-paced theatrical environment. Thanks again to Carlton, Brad, and everyone who helped out at SFX.











Scott Guenther , Technical Director at The Addison Theatre Centre in Addison Texas.  His work with WaterTower Theatre includes 8 years and over 50 productions as Technical Director/Designer. WaterTower Theatre is the only professional theatre in north Dallas.  Scott is also resident Lighting designer for RCT Theatre in Richardson, Texas.  Other companies include The Dallas Opera, The Santa Fe Opera, Dallas Summer Musicals, Chamberlain Ballet, and Contemporary Ballet of Dallas.  Scott is a graduate of The University of Texas, Arlington.

Curtis Craig , Assistant Professor of Sound Design, Penn State University.  'The Laramie Project' is Curtis' 15th sound design for Watertower Theatre and his first media design.  Formerly the resident sound designer at the Dallas Theatre Center, his sound designs and compositions have been heard in some 160 productions in the past decade.