Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, Venerable Springboard for Broadway Productions, Upgrades Assistive Listening Devices with Sennheiser
Launchpad for Broadway’s ‘Shrek,’ ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ ‘Memphis’ and ‘Hairspray’ Installs Sennheiser RF System, Ensuring Quality Sound for its Hearing Impaired Patrons
5th Avenue Theatre has been a landmark in the Seattle and broader Northwestern regional arts community, and indeed a springboard for many Broadway productions over the years. Helen Hayes, the “First Lady of the American Theater,” called the 5th Avenue Theatre a ‘National Treasure.’ Since the beginning, the theatre has pursued ‘the highest standards of artistic excellence and service’ — this includes its audio infrastructure, which was recently fortified with the latest ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant systems from audio specialist Sennheiser.For almost a century, the
With a capacity of 2,130 and a subscription series with roughly 25,000 subscribers, the 5th Avenue Theatre recently installed a Sennheiser infrared assistive listening system consisting of 85 HDI 830 headsets, several RI 830-S bodypack receivers and EZT3011 induction neck loops. This comprehensive upgrade, which enabled the historic theatre to take advantage of the latest infrared technology while offering increased audio fidelity, replaced an older Sennheiser system, which was in place since the early 1980s.
The Chinese-inspired interior design of the building is based on The Forbidden City’s Throne Room, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven. Cathy Johnstone, director of facility operations at 5th Avenue Theatre, says that it can be a challenge to keep up with upkeep and maintenance on a classic, historic building but that patrons expect the very best when it comes to audio: “Now, audiences are used to listening to high-end sound,” she says. “Whether they are in a movie theater, or on Broadway, expectations are very high. You cannot offer something that is noisy, has dropouts or is anything less than fully intelligible.”
One of the catalysts for 5th Avenue upgrading its ALS (assistive listening system) infra-structure was the theatre’s continued strict adherence to ADA requirements. However, another important consideration was the demographics of the theatre’s regular patrons, who routinely rely on the system for clear, intelligible audio: “This particular system squelches any noise, so if the receivers aren’t getting the signal, you don’t get blasts of static,” observes Karen Katz, sound department head at 5th Avenue Theatre. “This is a major improvement, because for someone who is trying to intently listen to a program, any squawking coming through the receivers can be unnerving. With the new Senn-heiser ALS system, it is all just clean sound, and if the receiver is blocked, the sound simply cuts off.”
Seamless transition, intelligible performance
Johnstone reports that the entire installation took about two weeks, and was facilitated by Stephen Weeks of Lynnwood, Wash.-based Morgan Sound. The installation of the new system was scheduled to take place between the close of one show and before the opening of another. “We left the old system in place because we didn’t know how easy the installation of the new system would be, but it was seamless,” says Johnstone. “Stephen Weeks was wonderful and helped us figure out the power distribution, emitter coverage and which wattage units to use. He created a bridge between the gear and the actual installation, so it would all work well in our space.”
So far, according to both patrons and the 5th Avenue staff, the system has performed successfully, delivering clear and intelligible sound. “We had some of our patrons do a comparison between the infrared assistive listening system and a radio frequency sys-tem,” says Katz. “All six of the patrons we gathered feedback from strongly preferred the new IR system because of the sound quality. That’s how we made the choice of which system to go with from the very beginning.”
With worry-free operation of its new ALS system for over a year now, The 5th Avenue Theatre has one less thing to worry about as it embarks on its 2013/2014 season, start-ing out with a new production of ‘Secondhand Lions,’ which is based on a Warner Broth-ers film from 2003. Later in the season, they will be featuring ‘Room With A View.’ “The-se are all new musicals that have been in workshops up until now. They will get their first performances on our stage, and then hopefully move on to New York after that,” says Johnstone.
Katz is very clear on the importance of crisp, intelligible audio in a theatre production environment, particularly the 5th Avenue Theatre: “Musical Theater is there to tell a sto-ry, and if you’re not getting the story, you won’t enjoy the experience,” she concludes. “This is a high quality system that I don’t have to think about so I can focus my efforts on creativity and production instead of managing the sound system.”