War Horse on Broadway

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Amongst the many plaudits and awards garnered by the play War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s book, is an underlying recognition that this is no ordinary production. Collaborative in the extreme, the performance is successful because, when confronted by the unconventional, every department responded with innovation and creativity. While d&b audiotechnik is inordinately proud to be associated with the current sell out run at the Lincoln Center New York, it is undoubtedly the work of Sound Designer Christopher Shutt that can teach us most about how to apply the tools of audio in ways that imbue the production with so much emotional power. For Shutt to be awarded the Tony for Sound Design is surely fitting; it also underlines the growing recognition of the significance of modern sound design in drama: and not before time.

In talking about his design Shutt quickly makes apparent the unfamiliar nature of its development. “War Horse is between theatrical genres; a straight play dealt with as a musical. The task is in many ways comparable to a musical, to get above the underscore of folk songs that, though not directly part of the narrative (not as they would be in a musical) are still important to the evocation of place.” That evocation of place is emphatically brought home in the thunderous second half of the play, when action moves from rural idyll to World War One trenches.

“When we first presented War Horse on the Olivier Stage at the National in London, which is installed with a house d&b system, we used the installed PA and made additions. Yes the costs did creep up and up, but that’s because we built the show organically in rehearsal. We all had to adapt, we had, for example, to see how the puppetry of the Horse would work. That first production in 2007 made us realize how much ‘War’ there would need to be; everybody could see that development in the process of rehearsals. So as opposed to when you do a show and day one, submit a proposal and say, ‘we need this amount of equipment please,’ the necessity of equipment emerged from the process. When we brought back the production the following year we took it to the next level (thanks to its success) and it would be true to say every time we restage it, it gets bigger.”

Shutt’s implementation of audio for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center is a complex sound field, “The system comprises some one hundred and thirty boxes of various types, d&b Q, T and C-Series loudspeakers with associated SUBs, divided into some thirty eight zones. There are two systems really, to explain that, I need to describe the play. The second half of the story is set in World War One; a treeless landscape under constant bombardment. The sound of projectiles passes from one side of the auditorium to the other and then detonates with enormous impact: it puts the audience right in the middle of the action. The audio system has to be capable of enormous SPLs and surround the audience with them. In normal circumstances you would use loudspeakers such as d&b E0s or E3s, but for surround sounds of this type and intensity you need bigger boxes for that greater impact; hence there are SUBs beside and behind the audience. Generally the trajectory of the missiles is from behind the audience, across and overhead onto stage so the explosions are witnessed and the lighting effects have to be closely tied to the sounds, QED the use of the Q Lab system to enable the synchronization between visual and audio effect. The first half is different; you wouldn’t necessarily notice the surround effects, they are much less dramatic. It’s more a pastoral setting; birdsong, chickens, background farmyard noises, but sound is still important to set the context nevertheless, even if it is more subtle.”

Shutt explained it was the nature of the theater itself that exerted most influence on his redesign. “The Vivian Beaumont is almost an exact copy of the Olivier, well, almost an exact copy. The house is 180 degrees wide, the Olivier is about 120 degrees: that impacts on how we stage it. We are bringing the two techniques, of devised, or twig-and-string, and musical theater together; in that respect the Producers showed a lot of faith. Every theater has its foibles; because the Beaumont is broadly based on the Olivier but the audience is wider, we built a thrust which brings the Horses and the actors out into the midst of the audience; so they’re seen from all angles. With microphones out in the field of the PA system you do need a watchful operator; more than that you need other people in the room to tell you what is happening, what the audience is hearing in different areas of the house.”

As Shutt indicated each restaging has prompted a revisionist approach to audio. “Actually, going to New York did not entirely prompt a switch in PA. The National’s system is d&b but a lot of it is relatively old. So before John Owens went to NY we sent him to d&b to look at and hear the latest boxes from them and to learn how we might best apply them.” Sound Associates in New York prepared and supplied the system with Shutt’s Associate Designer John Owens, who, now armed with a comprehensive knowledge of d&b loudspeaker’s performance, oversaw assembly. “The main drives for me in any system are clarity, quality of reproduction, and level,” said Shutt in conclusion, “on those three counts the d&b system works really well.”

Besides War Horse playing the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center it is currently being staged at the Prince of Wales Theater Toronto and is already on an extended run in London at the New London Theatre.

Photographer credit Paul Kolnik.

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