The Broadway sensation Come From Away landed in London’s Phoenix Theatre in February 2019. The heart-warming production focuses on the kindness and fortitude of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland; a small Canadian town that welcomed 38 planes full of passengers in the wake of the Federal Aviation Administration closing American airspace on 11th September, 2001.
The production also marked the first d&b Soundscape show in London’s West End. The sound design provided by Gareth Owen, along with associate sound designer Russell Godwin and production sound engineer Andy Green won Best Sound Design at the 2019 Olivier Awards.
Using d&b Soundscape, Owen was able to overcome one of the major challenges of a show that features a 12-strong ensemble cast with actors playing multiple characters, often in the same scene. “There are so many people delivering so many short lines very quickly that before we had Soundscape, the audience occasionally struggled to work out who is speaking,” explained Owen.
Prior to the London show, Come From Away director Christopher Ashley initially relied on lighting cues and movements from the actor to create the required focus. With the d&b software module En-Scene, up to 64 sound objects can be placed within a scenario so that what is heard aligns with what is seen.
”After doing the first run with Soundscape, the director said to me ‘This is a revelation. Suddenly I don’t need to worry about lighting or staging or what the cast are doing to know who is speaking. My ear is drawn automatically because of the acoustic element. I can hear the sound coming from the people.’ He said it was an absolute game-changer,” said Owen.
Not only did Owen achieve the focus required but using d&b En-Space he was able to ensure that each seat in the architecturally impressive three-level theatre experienced the same acoustic sense of space, whether tucked under a balcony or in the open stalls.
“We’ve now done five productions using Soundscape, more than anybody else from a musical point of view,” adds Owen. “Come From Away is by far the show where Soundscape has made the biggest, most significant fundamental difference. More than just improving the sound of the show, it’s actually added a new creative element that the show didn’t have before. It’s noticeable to everybody who’s involved. Very, very noticeable.”
As well as installation of multiple loudspeakers from the d&b Y, T and E-Series throughout the auditorium, Owen wanted some “really serious low end” for a few key moments in the show.
“We would normally use J-INFRAs for that, but I simply couldn’t find room for them in the theatre,” said Owen. “I had resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t going to have that in the London version.”
With help from d&b, Owen discovered he could have his low end and fit it under the stage too, using the 21S subwoofer from the d&b xS-Series. This was the first time Owen would work with the 21S, which is capable of extending the frequency response of a system down to 33Hz when operated in INFRA mode.
“Steve [d&b Education and Application Support] told me it was a very shallow 21in subwoofer that goes really, really low. Phil Hurley at Stage Sound Services arranged to borrow it for us, so we tried it, we managed to get it in the space and arguably it worked even better than the J-INFRA for what I wanted to achieve. And it sits in a much smaller space. Phil very generously agreed to buy the sub. I didn’t tell him it was only for six seconds in the show. I guess when he reads this he’ll know [laughs]. It works brilliantly, and it achieves exactly what I wanted it to achieve.”
While on the surface it would appear that Come From Away deals with very weighty subject matter, the production tackles the full range of emotions. Tears of sadness are followed by tears of joy and much, much laughter. It is a human story that absorbs its audience, and that connection is maintained throughout thanks to Owen’s masterful sound design using Soundscape. Effortless listening for the audience, but for Owen using d&b Soundscape is a whole new way of working with sound.
“It’s like being at school again. It feels like for the last 20 years we’ve been doing sound for theatre in fundamentally the same way. And here we are just completely re-thinking what it is we’re doing… So often in the professional sound world people do things differently because somebody’s brought out a new piece of technology. I would say nine out of ten pieces of new equipment just end up making life more complicated, without really making the sound that much better. Whereas with Soundscape, yes, everything needs to change. Everything needs a re-think, but the result is something that you can clearly hear. That’s exactly the kind of technology that, in my view, is worth investing in.”
Soundscape may be a wonderful tool, but it’s the people using it to create something great that deserve the recognition. As Owen is quick to point out, the success of Come From Away involved many people.
“The work that my team has put into the London show to make this work and make it as good as it is, particularly Russell Godwin and Andy Green as well as the show crew… I mean they’ve just gone above and beyond to deliver it. Steve Jones at d&b has been nothing but supportive. He’s always been there when we’ve needed him. When we got stuck, he helped us work out what’s going on and how to achieve the results that we need.”