Sound Design, SFX, and Broadway's THE COAST OF UTOPIA
By Mark Bennett

Yes, we all knew it was going to be BIG.

Now, I don't mean "big" as in the way it ended up being received, the sold out run, the whole Tony Award record-breaking thing. Who could have known that? No one would ever have gone there. Not with three plays about 19th century Russian philosophers. That's the "out-of-our-hands" thing that just happened. At the moment we first gathered as a group in mid-July 2006 in the basement of Lincoln Center Theatre (two producers, a director, 2 set designers, 3 lighting designers, a costume designer, our sound engineer and this sound designer/composer) we all knew it was going to be, for us, artistically thrilling, singular, challenging, and yes, "Big".

And honestly, at some level, all of us were scared s***less.

What lay ahead of us was the American premiere of Tom Stoppards THE COAST OF UTOPIA. Nine hours of theatre that presented 33 years in the lives of the shapers/debaters of the philosophy that lay the early groundwork for the Russian Revolution. Produced on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, The first play is set in Russia, then the next two plays follow the lives of the main characters through Germany, France, and Nice; as close as England and as far away as the Isle of Wight. Over the course of those nine hours we would present a tumbling journey through countrysides, revolutions, uprisings, funeral processions, assasination attempts, spectral visitations by friends long gone, exiled, or imprisoned, hallucinatory musical dream sequences, holiday celebrations, steamer ships rides, births, and deaths. There would also be many small moments that built up towards a picture of a community of forward thinkers who were trying to create a movement of change in the social order in spite of the capricious "zig zags of history". The schedule was daunting: From the first day of rehearsal on Sept 5th, we had five and a half months to rehearse, tech, and preview these plays before all of them would be up and running. [We were going to rehearse the first, tech it, preview it and as soon as it opened start rehearsing the second while the first continued to perform. We would do the same thing when we added the third play into the rehearsal mix. With the exception of a month of lead time on the score, all the music and sound content would be written and created as we rehearsed, so the trick was going to be to stay ahead, just ahead, of actors and the director in the rehearsal room, and translate the minimal music and sound used in rehearsal into a three dimensional tapestry of aural movement and story-based sonic propulsion.]

So back to that first mid-July meeting: There we were, a bunch of designers with a roomful of incredible ideas, a huge amount of excitement, a bare bones model set, and that adrenal pump of thrill and fear you feel right before you jump off of the high board. All of us took a deep collective breath at that moment, realized that we were in it for the long haul, and, under the bright, inspiring leadership of Jack O'Brien knew, somehow, that we would support each other and climb this Mount Everest of theatrical storytelling.

Long story short: There was a lot of cues to create and a lot of music to write.

My experience as a composer on COAST was it's own incredible journey but the evolution of the sound design was equally as exciting, and, very possibly, even more challenging. I've been using SFX for many years now and it's flexibility and reliability was the no-brainer choice for use on this enormous playback show. This project contained somewhere between 12-15 scenes in each of it's six acts so there was an enormous amount of transitional soundscape material as well as in-scene effects. SFX would afford me the speed to keep up with the fast paced changes we knew we would have to face as we reshaped the play and changed up sequences in tech and then in rehearsals on preview days.

Even though we all first met together in that room in mid July of '06 we had all already been working for months, laying the groundwork and paperwork in each of our respective areas. Sets began drafting in January of '06 and I had my first system meetings with our mixer and Vivian Beaumont Theatre Sound Engineer, Marc Saltzberg a month after that. The sound team consisted of Salzberg (production audio engineer/system design collaborator) Leon Rothenberg and Tony Smolenski (Associate Designers/sound effect collaborators), and three Assistant Designers: Jane Shaw, Bridget O'Connor, and Alex Hawthorn. Our Sound A2 was Gary Simon. As the schedule spanned 6 months of rehearsals and techs our team kept shifting amongst these personnel, with Salzberg always the man behind the console, and Gary always on deck. In addition to mixing the show, Salzberg coordinated the creation of the specialty hardware for the Trilogy (including three wireless babies, 2 wireless baby carriages, a wireless grand piano, and various point source speakers (one scene had parents running around with infant prop twins, each being fed their own baby cries, gurgles and tantrums, all separately cued through SFX). On Marathon Days (when all parts of the trilogy would be performed between 11am and 11pm), the choreography of the limited number of remote speakers and receivers in and out of small prop infants and carriages, etc. was worthy of it's own NFL playbook.

Reinforcement was achieved through the use of 11 foot mics (AKG 451'S), a couple of specific area mics, two wireless mics for Parts 1&2 and over a dozen wireless mics for Part 3 (Sennheiser MKE2's, body pack transmitters and receivers). The goal was to keep the show sounding as natural as possible, every word heard and, with Salzberg's skills as one of American theatre's great foot mic mixers. nothing ever feeling amplified or canned. To balance the technical vocal skill of the adult actors, the young children in the company were always mic'd. The speaker system included 18 Meyer Sound UPA-1P's, 4 Meyer UPA-2P's,16 EAW JF60's, 12 JF50's, 9 JF80's, 9 D&B Audiotechnik EO's, 4 Meyer 650-P's, and four EAW UB12's.

The SFX Procontrol system was fully redundant (two computer systems triggered by the same midi GO button and outputted into 2 Motu 24 IO interfaces which then sent the SFX info into a 32/16 switcher unit and then onto a Yamaha DM1000. The playback info then went out the DM1000 to about 70% of the speaker areas, with the other 30% of the channels feeding into a Yamaha PM5D (MDE64 Digital Mix Engine) and out to the remaining areas. The PM5D was the main front of house console and also received all the mic signals. Effect/Processing gear included 2 T.C. Electronic 3000 reverb units, 1 Waves MaxxBass BLC, 1 DBX 1066A Dual Compressor and 7 XTA DP226 digital audio processors. In addition to hard assigned channels out of SFX, we dedicated four of the outputs as "wild" which, given midi program changes to the PM5D generated by SFX, would re-route the signal to whichever baby, faeux-piano, or remote speaker was required for that particular scene.

The Vivian Beaumont Theatre has one of the largest stage space in NYC, only eclipsed by the the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music Hall. The set was an enormous black box that was as deep as the space could allow. Centered in front of the procenium line was an enormous turntable disc, a rotating thrust with slipstages and elevators for set pieces stored below, and entrances and exits for the actors by way of stairs on the side. The thrust "disc" was "ringed" with footmics. Needless to say, the acoustic challenges of micing voices in that space, and creating directional effects, were enormous, and as we could not either tilt the backwall up or the side walls out, we had to find other ways to dampen the space. All of our spectacle was in the service of the words, and the words had to always be heard clearly, and, primary in my aesthetic, NATURALLY! In the end, we requested that all the backs of the returns from the wings be heavily padded. Ultimately the set design allowed for three fairly large openings in each of the sides of The Box and that gave us a fighting chance to break up the acoustic anomalies of the "the black raquetball court". We also benefitted from the amount of set soft goods in the flyspace and requested black soft goods hung anywhere there was an opening. Anything to dampen the echo and slapback that such a hard cubicle would create. To help locate and separate playback space upstage we had 11 positions behind the procenium. high, low, upstage, downstage. There were four subwoofers in the house. Two timed to, and hung with, the music playback system and two further off for effects. In front of the procenium there was a basic house left and right proscenium position for both orchestra and balcony. We used front fills under the "disc" and overhead "ring" that mirrored the disc (those systems were where most of the vocal reinforcement was assigned). Under the ring there were four speakers positions and two in the vaum entrances. A delay ring for the balcony, surrounds for both orchestra and balcony, and, pointing upwards to the ceiling, point sources for passing flocks of geese. We tapped into the old 80-speaker SIAP house reinforcement system which we used as a way to create another layer of audio "shell"; ambiences sent to that system became completely non-directional and that basically allowed us to "glow" the space with sonic textures in delicate moments. Through SFX midi commands and board program changes we could pretty much isolate and access any one of these areas separately for mono or stereo playback.

Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke in a scene from COAST OF UTOPIA
Three shows, thousands of lines of SFX programming. Many splits of music cues which required that we have "preload" sublists to precue the separate tracks so they played back in synch. The Opening Sequence, a sublist played at the start of each part of the Trilogy, was a few hundred lines itself, all preloaded for accuracy with the timing of the lightboard cues and timed stage manager calls. Starting with a gentle zephyr, and distant tolling bouey bells, it tumbled into a surround sound roaring oceanic maelstrom as the main character, Alexander Herzen, spun in a chair above a roiling black china silk sea that covered the entire stage of the Beaumont. Each time the silks would retract in about two seconds and, almost instantaniously, we would reveal a new tableau, which then bled into the start of each installment. Part one was a multitude of serfs staring out at the audience, Part 2 was a forest of white Birch trees out of which the characters walked into place, and Part 3 was a surreal shoreline landscapes with refugees and emigrees seated on their luggage, a live piano buried in the rocky shore, and a young boy flying a kite while the main character dreamed... all this taking place with a seemless three dimensional soundtrack executed by SFX.

There was so much about THE COAST OF UTOPIA that I am grateful for, but perhaps nothing more thrilling than being able to collaborate with my director and fellow designers in the way that we all always hope it can be. The level of trust and generosity of spirit on COAST never faltered. There were many hours of spotting the script with director Jack O'Brien, who speaks of original sound and music in the most evocative ways imaginable. Then hours in the rehearsal room learning from the staging and the actors themselves. Hundreds of hours with my associates shaping and playing with sound collages both in Protools as they were built and then programming/installing them in SFX in full surround in the space itself. In tech conversations back and forth with the director, set, lighting and costume designers about how to all, collectively, create a theatrical moment, a rush of motion, light, and sound that, together, that would lift the audience from one place and carry them gently, reflectively, or headlong furiously to some other place and time, where years have passed, or maybe only an instant. And those deeply meaningful moments when Stoppard would come by our 16 feet of sound and music tech table and offer his own sincere encouragement or start by saying "you know, I was thinking..." and then add his own deeply incisive and valuable thought about the sound or music into the collaborative mix. What gets better than that?

It was an honor to be a small part of a production where the stagecraft was operating such an advanced level, and all of it always in the service of a story and text that delivered a drama of the highest order. It made perfect sense that the sound of this fabulous collaborative fury was made manifest nightly by SFX.

Mark Bennett (R) with COAST director, Jack O' Brien

Mark Bennett's original score for "The Coast of Utopia" is available on Ghostlight Records, and can be found on iTunes, Ghostlight's website or in record scores that specialize in broadway musicals and soundtracks.

Production Photo Credits: Paul Kolnick