There’s no reason for a normal person to think about the relationship between professional theater and latex barrier devices, but consider this:
Broadway musicals, outdoor plays and even children’s theater might not be possible without condoms.
Leaving aside the theater’s colorful history of backstage sexcapades, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the presence of condoms in dressing rooms. They are, in the modern age of electronics, an absolute necessity. And here’s why:
If you see a show at Starlight, if you take in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Southmoreland Park, if you see a musical at the Coterie or Kansas City Repertory Theatre, of this you can be sure: The actors will be wearing wireless microphones.
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The mic head, placed somewhere in the vicinity of the actor’s mouth, is attached by a thin wire to a transmitter pack hidden somewhere in the actor’s costume. The transmitter sends a signal to a central receiver, which then relays the sound to speakers in the theater.
That’s where the condoms come into play. They have proven to be the best protection against the wireless mic’s biggest enemy: Moisture.
“One of the biggest problems is sweat,” said producer/director Richard Carrothers of the New Theatre. “It is so easy to sweat out your mic.”
Some actors, in fact, are known as “sweaters” and they tend to pose a vexing challenge. If moisture gets into the transmitter pack, then you’ve got problems — as in mics shorting out. So the pack is wrapped in a condom to keep it dry.
“It’s the industry standard...the condom industry has made a fortune off of theater,” said veteran musical director Anthony T. Edwards.
“If you’re a person who sweats, you sweat. You can’t tell somebody not to sweat. A lot of time we take a mic off someone at intermission and blow it dry and put it back on.”
Wireless technology is a boon to technicians responsible for mixing sound during the performance.
But theater is, after all, the art of illusion. And for viewers — especially those near the stage — the microphones often make suspension of disbelief challenging, if not impossible.
Each generation of wireless microphones is smaller than the last, and directors and designers have become adept at hiding them in wigs and costumes. But sometimes they can’t. Which means you, the theatergoer, can see the things taped to an actor’s cheek or attached to the middle of his or her forehead. They can look like a wart or an insect clinging to the actor’s face.
But mics are so commonplace that audiences may not mind them any more than they object to painted corrugated cardboard meant to look like a castle wall.
“We look at things differently,” said Edwards, currently the musical director for KC Rep’s “Hair: Retrospection.” “We just accept that there’s going to be a microphone on somebody’s head. And when we see shows with people using what I call the Madonna mics, things like that just go away.”
Putting mics on virtually every actor onstage has been a common practice for at least 25 years, especially in musicals. Carrothers said the New Theatre has used them since the playhouse opened in 1992, and that includes nonmusical plays.
Before that, theaters employed floor mics on the edge of the stage and sometimes hid microphones in the scenery, requiring actors to “park and bark” — to position themselves near a mic and sing without moving.
Go back even earlier, before sound amplification became routine, and actors were expected to be heard by people on the back row. The modern musical is traced to “The Black Crook,” an extravaganza that opened in the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway in 1866, decades before electrical sound amplification was even possible. Those 19th-century actors were expected to sing clearly over the orchestra.
“Fewer and fewer schools teach young actors how to project their voice,” Carrothers said. “It’s an art. If none of these actors coming forth have that craft, you have to mic ’em.
“How was it done in the old days? You had actors who could project their voice to the back row without sounding like they were yelling. There was a reason Ethel Merman was a superstar on Broadway. She had the voice.”
Actress Lauren Braton, featured in the current Musical Theater Heritage production of “Guys and Dolls,” summed up her feelings about the devices this way: “I have a love-hate relationship with wireless mics.”
Braton is a classically trained singer whose voice likely would carry quite well in a space like the Folly Theater. But at the 8,000-seat Starlight, mics are a necessity; there are no walls to contain the sound, which drifts up into the night air.
Even at the intimate Coterie, which occupies a space in Crown Center that was not designed as a theater, Braton said mics are needed to compensate for its acoustical deficiencies.
“The way theaters are right now, we wouldn’t be able to do the show without them,” she said. “But they are incredibly awkward and some of them don’t always fit your face very well and a lot of times they are constantly slipping. The mic pack can slip down your leg and fall off if you don’t have it attached properly.”
The bigger the cast, she said, the bigger the potential for problems. A stage full of wireless mics increases the chance of feedback.
“Sometimes the sound designer is so great that you don’t even know they’re there,” she said. “But I’ve been in shows where wireless mics have almost ruined the (performance).… Through the years I have had a good variety of wireless mics. One time, I swear, I had a (bulky) wireless mic that looked like I was reporting on the Olympics. I’ve had mic-tape rashes because I’m allergic to latex tape. It becomes like a costume piece; you just have to learn how to deal with it.”
Tim Scott, who appeared in “Hair: Retrospection,” which closed last weekend, said the advantages of wireless mics outweigh the drawbacks. And they help singers protect their voices.
“The biggest pro is for vocal health and more dynamics,” he said.
When mics suddenly go dead during a performance, Scott said it’s “heartbreaking” for actors.
“In a perfect world, when everything’s going according to Hoyle, they’re great,” he said.
Sound designer Tom Mardikes, chairman of the UMKC Theatre Department, doesn’t care much for wireless mics. For years Mardikes designed sound for the Shakespeare Festival. He’s also designed for Starlight. If he had his druthers, he’d opt for foot mics placed on the stage floor.
“It depends on how they’re used,” Mardikes said. “The problem all too often is when, say, you have 15 actors out there (with wireless mics) and when they’re onstage in an acoustical space and the audience isn’t able to get depth perception and width perception.”
In other words, the dynamics are limited. An actor standing on the stage apron is no more or less audible than one standing far upstage.
“You can’t tell who’s talking or singing unless the lighting designer spotlights them or the actor does something to draw attention,” he said.
Still, certain kinds of shows demand individual mics for the actors. Sound mixing became much more challenging after the advent of rock/pop musicals, according to Mardikes.
“The whole game changed when they put a drum kit in the pit,” he said. “Drum kits and electric guitars changed everything.”
Edwards said people have become so attuned to amplified sound that they actually listen to shows in a way theatergoers from earlier eras never did. Musicals are louder than they used to be.
“We’re not used to listening to singers in opera houses,” he said. “The singers are actually trained differently now. We’re learning to be a microphone culture. So many of the musicals we produce now are pop-based, that there’s no way you can sing over the band.… As a culture we are used to hearing things out of speakers and amplified sound, rather than just the acoustic sound of the singer. The culture has changed drastically in the way we hear and the way we sing.”
Every now and then, when theater trickery fails in public view, audiences can get a sense of how it used to be. Back in 1994, this critic caught a Broadway matinee of Harold Prince’s much-praised revival of “Show Boat.”
Lonette McKee played Julie and just as she began to sing “Bill,” the character’s big number in Act 2, her wireless mic went out. McKee didn’t miss a beat and just kept on singing. And it was wonderful. For a few minutes the audience got to hear a pure, unamplified voice. I can’t say how it sounded on the back row, but the audience enthusiastically rewarded McKee’s performance.
Edwards said he could easily imagine a small musical being staged in the Folly without amplification because the theater’s acoustics are so good. But most theaters require amplification.
“As an art idiom, theater had just gone along with technology and the nature of shows has changed,” he said. “There’s a big difference between ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and Elton John’s ‘Aida.’ There’s such a difference in the way we’re singing, and we’re at the point where we have to use mics.”
The Shakespeare Festival, of course, has to worry about more kinds of moisture than an actor’s sweat. The biggest threat is rain. And after rainfall comes humidity.
Artistic director Sidonie Garrett said she believes her actors would prefer performing without the mics, but there’s no way their voices would carry to the wall that runs along Oak Street in Southmoreland Park. That’s where some viewers watch when the festival attracts a standing-room-only crowd.
So there’s really no choice in the matter.
“So we buy all these condoms every year,” she said. “So you see condom wrappers all over the place.”