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The Sound of Theatre: from the Ancient Greeks to the Modern Digital Age

David Collison
PLASA
(2008)

Put it down to kismet, but I've been reading The Sound of Theatre by David Collison, which has obligingly offered an explanation for a puzzling sight I beheld recently at the theatre - that of performers lip-synching with each one's lips perfectly out of time with the words by the same millisecond!

But there is much more to this book than mere mechanical explanation. In this exposition Collison manages to combine detailed scholarly research with personal anecdotes, which renders it as much professional autobiography as technical study.

The book starts in the epoch before Christ where the Greek tragedies required thunder and earthquake to manifest the fury of the gods and moves on through the centuries, and often across national boundaries, describing how different effects were arrived at.

Since electric lighting came to theatres well before electrical sound, by necessity sound effects were created using manpower and the ingenuity of backstage crew well into the 20th Century. An effect in The Ghost Train (mid-1920s) required a team of ten men, operating four items of equipment for lighting and 15 for sound - a lidded milk churn, two types of drum and a garden roller amongst them - to produce a frenetic explosion of activity that provided such a convincing rendition of a moving train on stage that the effect rather became the star of the show. Such stories illustrate that when it comes to the ambitious demands directors and designers, nothing much changes!

The second section of the book opens with a chronology of sound recording. If this seems like a rather dry deviation from the principal thread, it redeems itself by having some titbits of social history and biographical pieces about celebrities of the day such Bing Crosby or significant figures such as Alexander Graham Bell; this is another successful technique for making the 'techy' sections more readable, though I have to admit to skimming over - what were for me - the very scientific bits. I suspect the boffins who read this book will do the same but the other way round: Never mind Bing, what about the high impedance signal!

Collison covers the different ways that amplified sound has been exploited, encompassing, as well as effects recording and voice reinforcement whys and wherefors, the hardware components and layouts required to achieve the desired impact and distribution across the auditorium. He follows the development of each through to the digital age dividing episodes according to the innovators and key players in each phase.

Of greatest interest for me was the progression from the early days of subtle, indiscernible augmentation for the support of actors who could not (or would not) project, or singers required to compete with brassy orchestrations, to the blast them out of their seats approach of the rock musicals and beyond. Partly the added interest was sparked by the familiarity of the shows he used as examples but partly because I picked up on strands from earlier chapters coming together: "parallel lines that meet", if I may quote from one of his examples - Company.

There are unlikely to be many better qualified to write this book than David Collison. His career started in the 50s with a mechanical wind machine and spanned decades of innovation in the field of theatre technology. He has been described as "a technician of genius" by theatre heavy-weight Sir Peter Hall, and recently received the US Institute of Theater Technology Distinguished Career Award in recognition of his contributions to this oft-overlooked art form.

With Christmas rapidly upon us this book is certainly worthy of consideration of a place under the tree for the boffin in your life, as well as those whose interest lies in the technical aspects of theatre but whose approach is less serious.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti