SFX at the Actor's Theatre in Louisville
By Jason Czaja, Audio Supervisor
Actors Theatre of Louisville

How do you cram six full length plays, an anthology, and several ten-minutes into a three-day weekend? Blood, sweat, tears, and the right tools for the job.

For the past eight years Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has been putting Stage Research's SFX software to work in both their regular season, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays. As audio playback moved away from reel-to-reel, MiniDisc, and samplers towards more flexible solutions, SFX seemed like the right way to go. The software was reasonably priced, could run on a standard Windows computer, and most importantly, was easy to use. Even guest sound designers who had never used the software before could quickly go from a hard drive full of files to a programmed show in a matter of hours. Once in technical rehearsal, changes to the show could be made in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

Fast forward to 2006, to the 30th Humana Festival of New American Plays, a world renowned showcase for new work entering into the theatre scene. In a nine-week period ATL rehearses, presents, and closes eight productions in rotating rep in three different theatres. In addition to the full systems in three theatres, the Sound Department at ATL provides small sound systems in five additional rehearsal halls to support the creative process from the beginning.

"With the complexity of the shows and the time constraints we are under, there's no way we could do these shows with MiniDisc and other tools we used to use. SFX in this year's festival allowed me to try more things in rehearsal - I could just move files from my computer onto the SFX rig and layer them together in a matter of seconds." - Ben Marcum: Sound Designer for Act A Lady, Neon Mirage, and the Ten Minutes.

SFX has become a more desirable and standard tool in the rehearsal hall. ATL has cycled computers originally purchased six years ago for performances into rehearsal halls where designers can create most of the production in coordination with the actors before they ever set foot on stage. Though there is still plenty of tweaking once tech rehearsals begin, most of the soundscape can be developed and relative timings adjusted in the hall, under more relaxed conditions.

Says Martin Desjardins, Sound Designer for Natural Selection and former Resident Sound Designer at ATL, "I was introduced to SFX eight years ago during Humana. The creative power and logistical advantages of the software were immediately apparent to me, and I have used it as an indispensable and tightly integrated tool in my work in rehearsal, tech, and performance ever since."

For the 2004 Humana Festival premiere of Kid-Simple, Director/Designer Darron West used the MIDI implementation in SFX to expand the notion of who's running the show. A foley artist who had previously been creating sound effects live on stage, turns to beating drum pads which in turn send MIDI notes to SFX, triggering sounds effects that replaced words in the actors dialog on stage. This rapid-fire dialog replacement was happening alongside the rest of the soundscape being played back by the sound engineer through SFX, which was also sending MIDI commands to a separate video computer. Effectively two people were running the show on the same SFX computer.
In the 2005 Humana Festival Resident Sound Designer Matt Callahan took SFX to the races. Through a series of actor-driven sequences, Matt ran several horse races around the 600-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium in the play Pure Confidence. It took a lot of finessing to get it right, but once all the straightaways and turns were programmed, we were off to the races.

During the Humana Festival there are times a designer must be absent from rehearsal, often to work on a show rehearsing simultaneously in the next rehearsal hall. The intuitiveness of the SFX user interface allows a designer to train in minutes a stage manger or rehearsal assistant to execute cues while they are away. In addition, the security features also allow you to secure SFX programming from inadvertent changes by unskilled hands.

Actors Theatre doesn't have a sophisticated SFX system. No centralized, isolated audio network. But SFX makes it possible to take a collection of audio files into rehearsal, put them together in collaboration with the design team, move that work seamlessly into the performance space, and finally finish the presentation off in front of an audience.

Stage Research's SFX helps make the crazy busy experience of Humana Festival a little less crazy, and sound a little bit better.

Find out more information on the Actor's Theatre and the Humana Festival.
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