Set Designing Around Sound


As a designer, I have had many opportunities to explore areas of collaboration — with artists, directors, managers, and especially lighting designers — while the sound department, constrained by its usual basic requirements, is often asked to move “unsightly equipment” from the set and made to lurk quietly in those dark recesses behind or under the stage.

As I started my initial design exercises for this tour, it became obvious to me that this show, more than all the others, was about designing for the sound. This, after all, was Barbra Streisand, with multi-Platinum quartet Il Divo as special guest, and a 52-piece orchestra of hand-picked musicians conducted and arranged by William Ross. This was not the show for elaborate decorative elements, huge LED screens, or drawbridges, but a show that had to move from city to city, in halls with sometimes less-than-adequate acoustic properties and yet truly reflect the genius of our artists.

To add to the audio and visual challenge, the show would play in the round in some venues and in 270° configurations in others. Another overriding design obligation was to provide a comfortable home for the huge orchestra and ensure that our single artist would not be lost in a visual sea of musical instruments. She had to be able to visit different sides of the arena yet remain in eye contact with her conductor, and at all times, she had to be able to feel and be in contact with her musicians and her audience.

Ultimately, the stage became a series of ramps surrounding a sunken orchestra. I put small Juliet stages on all sides, creating intimate visiting spots with a table, a vase of flowers, and a pot of tea, which allowed for each side of the audience to receive a visit from our beloved diva.

And speaking of divas, the first question that everyone asks is, “How is she?” or, “Is she difficult?” I have to say that I have had the best time on this show. With Streisand, it was like working with another designer. She gets all of the design issues and difficulties; she understands color and has subtle taste. As a performer, it is no great news to say that she is a master. Her attention to detail and her aspiration to perfection is inspiring.

I thought that the most exciting way for Streisand to make her entrance would be to appear in the middle of the stage among her musicians on an elevator. Once that was approved by the director, Richard J. Alexander, that would be the last unilateral design decision I made on the show. Well, there were some subtle design details in the handrails, chairs, tables, and flowers, but from that point, my most important collaboration would be with conductor Ross and our sound designers and master audio technicians, Bruce Jackson and Chris Carlton.

After construction plans were drawn up to be sent to Tait Towers, the set shop that was selected to build the scenery, we approached David George of George and Goldberg, the veteran designer of Streisand's previous tours, who agreed to set up a mock orchestra and ramps at his studio in Los Angeles. This allowed Ross to come to the studio and personally place every seat so that he would have perfect eye contact with each of his musicians; nothing was to be left to chance. It was here that the ramp angles were adjusted and the final height of the elevator determined. The center ramp was adding to the difficulty of sound design, but Ross conceded that the entrance would be exciting and wanted to make it work. We took final measurements and sent the newly adjusted plans to Tait Towers to start building the set.

The next voice that weighed in was Jackson. He is a master sound designer who lives in Australia and is currently designing the audio system for the Asian Games Ceremonies. Jackson worked with the set shop to determine the height and width of the monitor trough that surrounds the stage. This trough had to not only support the stage monitors, but also position the front-fills on the apron so that the audio reproduction would be perfect for those close to the stage.

For the orchestra pit, I chose economical black-exterior carpeting, the kind that I have used for years on drum risers and orchestra floors. When I saw the look of horror on Jackson's face, I realized that, with the orchestra in such a dense arrangement, the potential for sound pollution was enormous. To resolve this problem, we substituted high-thread-count interior carpet. We also baffled the walls of the orchestra pit with stitched-black mattress padding.

Lighting designer Peter Morse and lighting director Joel Young faced a familiar challenge with shows in the round: no scenery and nothing to light except the air and the bodies.

Morse called for lights, provided by Upstaging Inc., in the pit to add dimension and visual separation for the musicians. Lighting gear included a predominantly Martin rig of more than 200 moving lights (a combination of MAC 2000 and MAC 700 profiles and wash units) and control via two Maxxyz consoles. Additional lighting and effects gear included an ETC Sensor 48×2.4kW touring rack, Tomcat trussing, Lycian M2 followspots, Le Maitre Radiance hazers, and Reel EFX fans.

The padding that baffled the walls of the orchestra had to be precisely cut around each lamp to make portholes, so there was no chance of sound escaping and polluting the clarity of sound for the musicians. Together, we chose the color gray that would be the best to reflect the projections and colors on the stage. After that, Morse and Young were on their own to create sculptural shapes of colored light in the air.

The next person to weigh in was Carlton. Together with Jackson, they assembled the team and equipment needed. The equipment, including the custom-designed front-fills and custom-designed delay floor monitors, was shipped from Clair Bros. in Lititz, PA. The custom-designed floor monitors had soft domes, which gave a smooth sound in the midrange. They also employed 88 Clair Bros. i4 cabinets that fed the final mix to the house. By comparison, the Rolling Stones carry 72 i4s for their outdoor venues. As we were in the round, the trim height had to be raised to 34' for the i4s, higher than normal, but necessary so as not to impede sight lines.

Carlton and Bruce functioned as the live sound mixers, positioned in front-of-house in front of the lighting consoles. Also at this position was the new Dolby Lake Processor that remotely controls individual speakers through a wireless network. In this mix were five digital mixing consoles, Digidesign's Venues.

Chris Fulton, the audience monitor mixer, was under the stage. Each of the 52 individually miked musicians was routed through Fulton's board. He was responsible for delivering true sound back to the orchestra. On stage-right, Ian Newton, Streisand's monitor mixer, commandeered his console, and Kevin Gilpatric, who mixed the orchestra, was in the hallway at the back of the house. The sound team was rounded off by David Montcrieffe, the crew chief, and technicians Michael Robertson, Chris Nichols, Rudi Paniagua, and Aaron Foye.

Meanwhile on stage, Plexiglas® screen baffles were placed to isolate the drums and percussion. Two padded screens baffled the sound between the brass and the woodwind section of the orchestra. Each musician was miked and wired to a sub-board that fed into the mixing system.

Monitors had to be placed in the pit so that every member of the orchestra could hear himself playing without being blown away by his neighbor. Additional monitors were positioned throughout the stage so that no matter where Streisand and Il Divo walked, they could hear themselves perfectly. Some ingenious solutions to support these monitors were created by Tait Towers.

As much as all designers try to delineate their turf and fight for the correct position for a perfect concert, we all realized that this was a tour that had to load into an arena in one day, load out after the show, and move on to the next town for the following night's performance. Our production manager, Michael Weiss, had the responsibility of making sure that this process worked flawlessly. Often, we would hear him say things like, “I don't care if you think it will sound better in your head or look better in your mind. If I can't get it up, it's not going to happen.” When faced with these stark realities, some of our most cherished designs go out the window, and, as in all aspects of show business, it's a matter of how quickly you can think on your feet to make it all work. At the end of the day, everyone on our team made everything work.

The final result was a giant audio cabinet, a simple and practical set that was comfortable for the artists, changed color and mood for the eye, and provided the best sound possible to the artists and the audience.

Barbra Streisand Tour Credits

Executive Producer: Martin Erlichman
Production Manager: Michael Weiss
Stage Director: Richard J. Alexander
Music Director: William Ross
Music Supervisor: Jay Landers
Tour Manager: Marty Hom
Sound Designers: Chris Carlton and Bruce Jackson
Lighting Designer: Peter Morse
Scenic Designer: Jeremy Railton
Supervising Producer: J.J Erlichman
Lighting Equipment: Upstaging Inc
Sound Equipment: Clair Bros./Showco
Set Construction: Tait Towers

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