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Getting Lit Up with “Tommy”

by Jerome Weeks 4 Sep 2008 2:46 PM

“The Who’s Tommy” at the Dallas Theater Center has got a real, live rock band on stage – complete with electric guitars, mics and keyboards. Right on a large pool of water. So the question is: How did they make that safe?


One aspect of The Who’s Tommy at the Dallas Theater Center that I didn’t mention in my review is its extensive, dramatic use of water  — right next to large amounts of electrical equipment. The set’s flooring is like a wooden deck or pier that sits on top of a shallow pool, a pool that fills up with water part-way through the show.

So we have a five-member rock band, Oso Closo, complete with head mics, hand-held mics on stands, electric guitars, amps and a synth, plus all the singing performers in the cast who also use mics. If they have head mics, they have the battery/transmitter pack strapped to them, generally hidden under their costumes in the middle of their back.

If anything was daring in the show, it was this: The entire set is humming with lights, mics and guitars — and the performers repeatedly wade, even jump, into the water. They usually do this gingerly, mind you, but they’re still standing in a foot of water or so, while often singing, holding a mic in their hands or wearing one on their backs.  Rock musicians have gotten electrocuted while performing on wet stages (Les Harvey of Stone the Crows) and so have local theater technicians. At one point, in the dark, a crew member toweled off the deck after some splashing, but this seemed more out of fear of slipping than of getting an unwelcome jolt of voltage. At another point, a mic on a stand was knocked over, hit the stage but everyone kept playing and running around — and I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if it had fallen into the pool.

I have to assume that, of course, all of this has been carefully checked and re-checked beforehand. But watching it still made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, particularly when the water was getting splashed around (it wasn’t just me — at one point, my wife grabbed my arm. She’s worked in theaters). A confirmation of my concern came when Cedric Neal, who plays the adult Tommy,  takes off his body mic equipment and carefully hands it all to an Oso Closo member. Because the musicians often interact more or less symbolically with Tommy, I took this to be some gesture of surrender, resignation — Tommy would no longer be heard, he’s mute once more.

But then Neal promptly got drenched with water.

So, obviously, the cast can’t just toss a live electric guitar or a mic into the water. But their general freedom around it was startling. So I confess I’m also curious: How’d they make all of this safe?

Image from photoshop lightning tutorial.

  • Thanks much for the clarifications. I stand corrected. I saw that the body mikes and hand-held mikes were wireless and therefore battery powered. But I didn’t know how much of a threat that would offer. I suppose it would be like shorting out a flashlight. But I also wondered about their shorting out — and affecting the sound.

    I also noticed that no one playing an electric guitar actually got into the water. I point this out in response to your statement about dropping a wired mike or an electric guitar into the water being dangerous only if there is a short: It may be a small risk, but short-circuits are precisely what killed Les Harvey of Stone the Crows and Keith Relf of the Yardbirds.

    Back in the day when I was a rock critic for the Houston Post, I saw Bryan Adams perform in an outdoor amphitheater and a rainstorm whipped in. He and the band, who were on wireless mikes but wired-up guitars, pulled back under the overhang and continued to play (the rain started halfway through the show — I suspect that, contractually, they couldn’t quit and, oh, tell people to get to safety and we’ll refund your tickets). It was a typical Houston afternoon rain, torrential but short. Roadies were mopping up what they could with towels, but when something caused a loud squeal in the speakers, you could see Adams and other band members flinch and jump back.

    Rock bands and theaters use an awful lot of voltage; add water, and being cautious, it would seem, is generally being sensible.

  • With theater, you are working within boundaries; everything is choreographed and rehearsed (unlike a rain storm at a concert). The design and production teams of DTC’s The Who’s Tommy thoroughly discussed logistics of staging a band with the key design element of water, i.e. keeping them out of it, and what we would do if they were to go into it, etc. Some of the solutions we considered were rubber mats, towel rugs to dry the feet, and baggies over the foot pedals.

    When choreographing the production, we took every possible measure into consideration to ensure the safety of our cast, crew and Oso Closo.

  • Chris (in oso closo)

    Also confused about the “haze”. You got me. I suppose there is that lyric “a vague haze of delirium seeps in his mind…” …?

  • Ha. Good one. Forgot about that line. So it was a drug warning?

  • As a courtesy to our audience members, Dallas Theater Center posts a production’s theatrical elements in the lobby so that patrons are aware of what to expect in the performance, and so they can fully enjoy the show without becoming unnecessarily alarmed. For example, an audience member who hears a gunshot may think a real act of violence is occurring, or someone may think the theatrical haze onstage could be smoke from a fire. Being informed of these elements minimizes unwarranted concerns and maximizes patrons’ experience at Dallas Theater Center.

  • OK. So how do you distinguish “smoke” from “haze”?

  • BC Keller

    Smoke tends to dissipate faster. Where haze lingers. I believe smoke also has a larger particle size. So for theater, haze will show the shafts of light wonderfully, where smoke is better to obscure something. So one is more atmospheric (haze) and the other is more special effect (smoke).

    I confess, those effects are more of a Lighting & Scenic Departments thing, so my knowledge, as Sound Supervisor, is not as specific as it could be. But, for purposes of this discussion, and your question, I think it gets you in the ballpark. Hope that helps.

  • Oh, sorry. I should have been clearer. I’m aware of the stage differences between smoke and haze (and, for that matter, dry ice fog). My question should have been: What difference does it make warning audience members about smoke and/or haze? In other words, if you say, there’s smoke used in this production, I think 99 percent of the theatergoers will not say, wait a minute, that’s actually haze. Or vice versa.

  • Diane

    Kevin and the most of the cast did the talkback after the show preview Sunday. It was great to hear the actors talk about the fear of the water and how cold it was. There were several guys in black that wiped the stage down during the show, when the audience attention was directed elsewhere. The band was saying how safe it was because most of the music was on a great wireless system.