You will find that the way your lighting and sound are set up can sometimes make or break a performance. Here are some tips that will get you going in the right direction from the start. I only wish that I had someone savvy in these areas when I first started out.
Hopefully you have access to some professionals of whom you can pick their brains.
About the Sound
Chances are that you will rarely, if ever, find yourself in a situation where just using your voice and a portable CD player is going to cut it.
You can have the best performers in the world, but if they aren't heard, it is to no avail. You can have the best performance in the world, but if the sound cuts in and out it will irritate the crowd and throw off the puppeteers. It is this reason that sound quality is very important.
The Five Basics of Sound systems
The Microphones. Because of the odd positions that puppeteers have to contort themselves into, sometimes the microphone will be placed way too close to their mouths and you catch every breath they take and every move they make and any “P” sounds come out as if a tornado was about to rip through the building.
Most puppet teams, especially new ones, do not have the luxury of wireless headsets for their team members, so if you are using hand held microphones, it is a good idea to make sure that they are no closer to the puppeteer’s face than 2 inches and not directly in front of their lips. Allow the sound man to adjust the volume to pick them up.
Another trick that is used in professional recording studios is to use a pop-screen in front of the microphone to block out excess air so you do not get the over emphasized “P” sounds. An average cost for one of these is around $30 and can go up to $50, but an inexpensive substitute that works just as well is to get an adjustable ring at a craft store and stretch a knee-high stocking over it.
Speakers. There have been great strides in new speaker systems that allow for big sound to come out of small speakers, so coming up with a portable system that works great is becoming easier and less expensive to do. You need to get speakers that have larger woofers and small tweeters, or for a more expensive set up, use a surround sound style set up with a sub base in the center of the stage with high-end tweeters on either side. With the latter system, you will run the risk of causing hearing damage to the puppeteers if you are not careful. Woofers are made specifically to carry the bass while tweeters are designed to carry the higher pitch sounds.
Bust out the Amps. Your amplifier is needed to send the input signal (mics, music players, etc.) to the soundboard. This helps regulate the sound and keeps you from having blown circuits and split speakers. Always make sure that the amp is positioned on a solid surface that is not flammable as they have a tendency of getting hot.
Mixing it up. Your mixer or soundboard is the central hub of your sound system. This is what controls the output. For a good portable system, a 6 to 8 channel soundboard is ideal.
Music input. A good portable CD player that is both battery operated as well as having an AC adapter is ideal. I always suggest burning the sounds of the performance onto a CD in the order they are used in the performance. This way all you have to do is go down the line track-by-track. Make sure to have more than one copy as well, on a separate CD or flash, in case the one you have stops working.
Old School vs New
Everything just mentioned is old school and works great, but with the new technologies out there, you can literally run everything from a laptop now. The sound for an entire performance can be set up on an ipod and plugged into an existing sound system. With the right set up all you need is an amplifier to take the signal to the speakers because you can run microphones through a computer now with the right hardware.
Play Nice with Others
Never assume that you can use a per-existing (house) sound system. Always ask first. Even if you do get to use someone else’s system, find out what kind of system it is. A P/A system at a school, for example, is for giving announcements and not good for distributing quality music and multiple mics.
Even when someone else lets you use their system, make sure to have the connection cables and adapters that you need to hook everything up. Trust me, this seems like a non issue, but if you are lacking an adapter and you have to “borrow” one from them, it could cause some dirty looks, where as, on the flip side, it looks very professional for you to walk in and be able to assimilate to their system with no hitches or glitches.
Taking It to the Streets
If you are performing outside, whenever possible, pre-record the entire performance ahead of time indoors, so that you can just lip sync and not worry about wind issues or keeping mics steady.
I Have Seen the Light
If you are starting out small, a good lighting system is not required, but there will be a time (like when taking your act on the road) that you will need to consider having a dedicated light system to take around with you. Like with the sound, you never quite know how the lighting setup is going be.
Lighting, Not Just for Letting People See
Lighting from spots are used to focus the attention on a specific area and move the audience’s attention elsewhere as a scene changes.
Light fades as well as lighting gels can establish or change the mood. By changing the light color of a spot on a particular puppet, you can express a number of emotions.
Lighting will help open up and close out a scene, act, or performance.
Inexpensive light sources to use are the small floodlights that can be found at any hardware store. They are lightweight, usually come with a built on clamp system and are easy to adjust. The negative with these are that you have what you have. In order to change the focus or light color, you will have to do a lot of rigging to get them to do what you want them to do and adding any rigging to make these lights do these extra functions could lead to potential injury and in the very least, it is a fire hazard.
I always suggest to start off with a couple of these lights for flood light purposes, but be willing to invest in at least one professional theatrical light. These are designed to hold light gels and many have the ability to concentrate or change the shape of the beam with barn doors.
When you get to the phase of checking out lighting on the computer or actually visiting a theatre lighting store, you will first notice the price, but many of these systems are designed for portability. With any light system, you are going to have to factor in setup and tear down of the system and how it will slow down the overall functionality of the program.
Disclaimer: Before I go any further on this, I want to officially say that I do not recommend anyone do this without proper electrical knowledge or without having an electrician put it together.
Now, that being said, often times we do not have the money to purchase everything on our wish list, so some of the items we can make. One of the things that is a must that can be made by visiting hardware stores is a control table. If you can rig up your lights on a light tree (I recommend two) and have all of your lights run to a single control box, similar to a sound board, then you will be able to have one person run the lighting. In a serious situation, you could even set it up so that the one person can run both lighting and the sound.
At first I just used on/off switches, but later moved to dimmer switches to control the intensity of the lights. Each switch on the control panel is connected to a plug in the back that the light will be plugged into.
Another thing that I have learned on this is to split the board’s power supply. Instead of having one plug going to the board, have two. This way, if you have two light trees, you can have one power source for each tree. The reason for this is because I have seen many a breakers get tripped because too much power was being drained off of one plug.
Of coarse, if you have the money, they make small, compact light control panel boxes that are very portable and user friendly and you don’t have to worry about fire hazards or electrical issues.
Light placement is very important. Odd cast shadows will cause visual obscurities to the audience. The optimal placement of your lights will be from the perspective of where the shadows are being cast. You primarily want all of your shadows to be at the back of the stage and down, which means that most of your lighting needs to be even to or higher than the stage. Many of your light trees average at 8 to 10 feet in height with some being connected with a cross tree allowing for lights to be set above center stage.
Now it is impossible to have all of the lights hanging in the exact same location, so you will have to compromise on your placement, but as long as you minimize your shadows as much as possible, it will work out.
Now we can't get into lights and puppetry without discussing black lights, but that will have to wait until the next post.