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Microphone Mishaps

March 7, 2011

Okay, imagine this scenario: you’re doing a musical.

This means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  Audio Engineers will think “dear god, how many mics?”; Actors either “I didn’t even audition, I can’t sing/dance!” or “I belted my heart out and that damned audience better appreciate it!”; Lighting Designers: “well, that adds about 70 more cues…”; set designers “will the dancing ruin my set?”; Directors “I hope I get along with the choreographer!”; Choreographers: “I hope I get along with the director!”; and Stage Managers “Please, Dionysus, do not let anything go wrong with the mics!”

But, inevitably, there is a time in almost every musical I’ve heard of that something goes wrong with the mics.  We can all play the blame game: “That actor put his mic on mute!!!” or “that audio engineer doesn’t know how to mix” or “that producer didn’t buy enough batteries.”  None of these fix the problem as it arises in front of an audience.  A decision must be made.  Audio mistakes are the most obvious in any production: if the phone doesn’t ring, if the actor’s voice is cutting in and out (not to mention the dreaded FEEDBACK).  If a lighting cue or almost anything else is missed, an audience is most likely not to even notice.  But you can’t ignore an audio mistake, especially in a musical.

So what do you do?  My rule as a Stage Manager is to ALWAYS have a hand-held fool-proof microphone on standby.  “But what if you’re doing something period like Oklahoma?!” Relax you dramaturgs, my point is that once the microphone problem arises, the audience is already taken out of the period and just wants to hear something a little more pleasant than a screeching microphone and a distressed actor.  (I’ve even heard applause when the actor accepted the hand-held from the techie and continued with the power ballad).  2nd: ALWAYS have a back-up wireless that’s tested before each show so that once the actor is off-stage, they can switch the mic instead of wasting precious quick change seconds trying to trouble-shoot the mic.

But, not everyone foresees the problem, and some do not handle the challenge of a problem mic with the most dignity.  Some of my favorite microphone mishaps (the names and shows have been changed, to protect the guilty):

BAD ACTOR: Huck Finn in Big River

Huck is about to head onstage for the 2nd act of the final performance of a fantastically reviewed/sold out/just-plain-fun run.  He hugs his ASM, his cast is holding back closing-night tears and he reminds everyone to “just have fun!”  Huck heads onstage (where he only comes off for one quick change during the second act).  Suddenly, we hear on headset just before the showstopping: Waiting for the Light to Shine, “We just lost Huck’s mic.”  At this point in the play, 3 smaller roles have completed their solo lines.  The ASM notifies them of the situation and everything is done to prevent embarrassment.  Before the solo, an actor (in character) checks to be sure Huck’s mic was not accidentally turned off: result negative.  The solo begins, Huck is for the first time aware of the problem and looks in contempt at the audio engineer with eyes of fire.  He looks at the Stage Management booth and stops singing.  The musical director vamps and an ensemble member graciously offers his wireless microphone.  Huck tosses the microphone to the floor, breaking it.  The musical director continues to vamp.  A techie offers a hand-held.  Huck shoves the techie off-stage, refusing the mic. Huck finally begins his song (emphasizing weak projection) as the audio engineer does his best to mix the mess this dramatic moment has become.  Huck comes off-stage and throws his prop at the ASM’s head, screaming “this is f***ing ridiculous!”  Huck refuses to put on a new mic that is standing by and finishes the show with a low-energy performance.

BAD STAGE MANAGER: Oliver!

Nancy is alone onstage, prepping for the long awaited As Long as He Needs Me.  The A2 (backstage audio engineer) is standing by with both an extra wireless mic & a hand-held.  Halfway through the song, Nancy’s mic receives horrid feedback and is cutting in and out.  “I’m going out to offer the wireless” says the A2. “NO!!!!” responds the stage manager “Go get Nancy’s understudy!  Don’t you dare go out there, it will break the illusion”; “What do you want me to do?” responds the bewildered A2; “Have her start singing into the hand-held, we’ll cut Nancy’s mic”; “Are you serious?”; “I’m the Stage Manager, it’s my call, do it!”  The A2 does his duty, receives confused murmur from the audience, a (rightfully so) pissed off Nancy, and an apologetic understudy muddle through the show in near-rage.  The Stage Manager refuses to admit his call was awful and unprofessional.

These are the microphone mishaps I’ve witnessed.  Let me know, in your respective position (or as an audience member), what would you think is best to be done with there is an obvious microphone problem?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2011 9:59 pm

    This was a joy to read.

    Technology is terrifying because of its uncertainty but isn’t that what live theatre is? Everyone has an off day but technology seems to send people over the edge faster than a speeding bullet.

    Thanks for the write up.

    • The Practical Artist permalink
      March 10, 2011 10:42 am

      Definitely! Everyone gets the jitters around technology they don’t understand. I’ve come into the habit of saying on headset, “Places, lights: stand by house to half… and sound: stand by for anything”

  2. March 9, 2011 8:46 am

    I just cannot BELIEVE that he had the Nancy understudy sing her power ballad for her!! Man, I would have been so p*ssed off! Great post.

    • The Practical Artist permalink
      March 10, 2011 10:43 am

      Easily the worst SM call I’ve heard of… but I’m sure someone can top that, sadly.

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