Live theatre is a form of shared ritual magic, in which the audience willingly suspends their disbelief in the artificiality of the performance in order to experience the full range of emotion and learn more about what it is to be human. This magic is delicate; a poorly timed set move or misfired lighting cue is enough to break it. Communication between the stage manager, sound and lighting operators, stage hands, fly crew and all the other people behind-the-scenes that bring a show to life is paramount. In an environment where half a second can mean the difference between an audience crying or laughing, it’s absolutely vital that the command to ‘go’ on cue comes through clean and clear.
Ben Lightowlers, Head of Sound at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatres, had been looking for almost two years for a digital replacement for their aging wireless comms system, but kept coming up against the recurring problems of sound quality and digital signal latency. “There were teething problems in digital wireless technology,” he related. “Latency was a problem across many brands, and the audio quality just wasn’t there. Latency was particularly troubling; if there’s someone sitting next to you talking on comms, you’d be hearing them talk and then hearing them again 500 milliseconds later in your headphones. It’s very distracting, and as far as getting your cue right, it’s a pointless exercise.”
Late in 2014, American comms giant Clear-Com, already the industry standard in theatre communications, released FreeSpeak II, a digital wireless comms system operating in the globally license-free 1.897 to 1.933GHz range. Ben was intrigued, and trialled a demonstration system provided by Australian distributor Jands. “We did a demo and it sold itself,” he said. “It has low latency, it’s clear, and its wireless coverage is impressive.” Sydney Theatre Company invested in one FreeSpeak II-Base base station, eight FreeSpeak II Beltpacks, two AC-60 Battery Chargers, and three FreeSpeak II Active Antennas.
Ben and the team have configured their FreeSpeak II system to run four communications loops; show loop, stage management loop, sound loop, and lighting loop. Each Beltpack is capable of receiving five separate loops, and accesses them through four programmable push buttons. For simplicity’s sake, Ben’s programmed most of the packs to receive two loops only, customised to each user group – show loop plus lighting loop, show loop plus stage management loop. Production management receive all four, as does sound, who are responsible for monitoring and maintaining the comms system, a task made easier by the built-in remote monitoring via Ethernet. “We have the base station hooked in to our corporate network,” explained Ben. “We can access it from our office at the other end of the building to check its status. If an issue pops up, we see what’s happening at a glance.”
The FreeSpeak II system has integrated effortlessly into the Wharf Theatre’s existing Clear-Com wired system, giving technicians the option of staying wired at control positions or going mobile. “Our regular lighting operator has gone over to the FreeSpeak Beltpack,” Ben reported. “He keeps it plugged directly to the charger, but at interval, if he needs to do a preset or leave the board, he can unplug and stay on comms without any trouble.”
The improved performance has inspired Ben to upgrade and extend the system. “We’re pretty keen to upgrade our wired system to Clear-Com’s digital system HelixNet,”he offered. “I’d also like to get more FreeSpeak II Active Antennas to extend our wireless coverage further down the wharf. We have three nodes in Wharf 1, but it is 500 metres from one end to the other. When someone needs to go and get something from our storage at the other end, it would be handy to keep them on comms.”
As touring crews and guest artists have come through the STC’s venues, Ben has noted that the FreeSpeak II system is accepted and used intuitively by a wide range of theatre practitioners. “We are constantly hosting different designers and creatives, production managers and crew,” he elaborated. “They just jump on, and I don’t really get any questions. I’m happy, and our regulars are happy.” As is so often the case in theatre sound and comms, no feedback is good feedback. A system as vital as communications in live theatre must simultaneously be invisible and undeniably present. Clear-Com’s FreeSpeak II is allowing Sydney Theatre Company’s staff and guest technicians to concentrate fully and act together seamlessly to create an experience that is real, dangerous, live and electrifying for their audience.
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