Headphones in a theatre?!
October 24, 2011 6:37 AM   Subscribe

What was this person doing wearing old headphones and making hand signals in a theatre during a musical?

She came in just before the show started. The usher offered her a program and she refused, saying "I've read that thing a million times." She squeezed into a single seat in the middle of a row at the back of the balcony and put on a pair of cheap looking late-90s style headphones. They were connected to something the about the size of a cassette. She then raised her hand for a solid minute. She put it down as the lights were dimming, and then the show started and I stopped paying attention to her.

I had planned to ask when she returned after intermission, but she didn't come back -- her seat remained empty. However, one of my companions with better eyes than my own said she was sitting across the theatre in a similar seat on the opposite balcony with her headphones on.

So: what the hell was she doing? The theatre was the Festival Theatre in Stratford, ON, if it helps.
posted by AmandaA to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe she doesn't hear well and was playing a recording of the performance on her headphones?

Alternate answer: crazy person.
posted by ghharr at 6:44 AM on October 24, 2011

I don't know about the hand-raising, but I expect she was using a listening device provided by the theater.
posted by not that girl at 6:44 AM on October 24, 2011

It sounds like she was wearing a Comm headset and she had some technical position for the show and was probably calling cues (i.e. telling the techs when to do the lighting changes, turn on mics, etc). As for her headset did it look something like this and the pack look something like this? Those are just some examples of Comm systems, but they allow people to talk to the technicians in the booth and backstage.
posted by Deflagro at 6:45 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention: she was most likely one of the stage managers.
posted by Deflagro at 6:47 AM on October 24, 2011

Response by poster: Deflargro, that was my first thought too. But while the box looked like the last on on the list and the headset looked like the first it didn't have a mic on it. She also wasn't speaking AFAIK, but there was an odd whispering noise during the quiet bits that could have come from the headphones.
posted by AmandaA at 6:49 AM on October 24, 2011

Seconding "listening-device." Not sure what the hand-raising thing was - maybe she had something IN her hand and was trying to get a signal.

Delflagro, I am a stage manager, and that doesn't sound likely; that was my first thought, but the fact that she went to the ushers for a seat, and that the ushers didn't recognize her, made it sound like she wasn't connected with the show. Unless it was one of the very first performances; if this was one of the previews, it's possible she was a designer who was still on the headset because they were still tweaking some cues and she had to be the one to call them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:50 AM on October 24, 2011

Response by poster: Sigh, threadsitting. It absolutely wasn't the first the first show (the run ends this coming weekend).
posted by AmandaA at 6:52 AM on October 24, 2011

Perhaps they were video recording that show and she was involved with that?
posted by gjc at 6:57 AM on October 24, 2011

....Just had a look at the web site for the Festival Theatre of Stratford -- it's a big enough space that I doubt she was on the crew (we try to hide from the audience as much as possible, partly to preserve the illusion, and partly because we techies can be weird mole people sometimes). Houses a mere fraction of that size still have some kind of booth or hidey-hole for the stage manager (and I can tell you stories about some of them, boy). Bigger houses may have something more out-in-the-open at the back of the house, but nothing that would require the stage manager to actually sit IN a seat.

Since this was one of the final performances, that makes the "designer-working-on-something" theory less likely, unless she was training to replace someone for a day or unless they'd had some weird snafu she was coming in to fix. I'd say the "listening device" theory is more likely, and that the holding-her-hand-up thing may have been her attempt to "let me see if I can get a signal". The fact that she moved may also point to that -- she wasn't getting good reception on the listening device where she was, maybe, and they moved her to someplace with better reception.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2011

Could she have been blind or visually impaired? She could have been receiving a spoken description of the show through the headphones - the hand signals might have been for her to communicate with the person performing the description (which would be done live from the booth usually). Something like this or this.

I've attended a training (in museum interpretation for the blind, which is different but related) by people who perform these theater (and TV) descriptions and it's a fascinating discipline.
posted by mskyle at 7:05 AM on October 24, 2011

Response by poster: Yikes, sorry! I forgot a key bit of information. When she put her hand down, she turned to the man beside her and said, "haha, I must look crazy. Don't worry; this is my job," which is why I had ruled out hearing-impaired listening device.

Sorry all.
posted by AmandaA at 7:11 AM on October 24, 2011

Maybe her job is to test whether or not the assisted listening devices are working. She raised her hand to indicate that they were (or weren't) working from that seat. Then she switched seats to test another part of the venue.
posted by postel's law at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

EmpressCallipygos, maybe I read it differently, but I assumed it was an usher just at the door greeting people/handing out programs, I didn't think it was one who showed her to her seat. I was at a play just the other week and saw an usher offer a program to an actor at the back of the house who was about to enter through the aisle for the first scene! Since she said she's read the program a bunch it seems to me she was connected some way to the theatre.

I was able to find some pictures of the sound/light boards for the theatre here and it looks like they are on the ground floor. So it is unlikely she was signalling the board op.
posted by Deflagro at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2011

The headset, refusing the program, "this is my job" statement and the fact that the lights could possibly have gone down on her signal convinces me she was connected to the technical side of the show. Since she didn't have a mic, maybe she was a director or designer taking notes to give to the crew or performers. Moving seats at intermission would make sense if that was the case - she was checking how things were working from different spots in the theatre. And that the ushers didn't recognize her doesn't rule out that she was connected to the show in my mind - in some places, ushers are only very peripherally connected to the production - they might only know, say, the house manager, who directly supervises them.
posted by jocelmeow at 9:52 AM on October 24, 2011

I'm still not convinced:

Since she didn't have a mic, maybe she was a director or designer taking notes to give to the crew or performers.

That too is something that only happens at the beginning of the run; AmandaA said that they're nearly finished the run.

I'll grant that other companies may vary in this, but I know that most of the time, a director isn't supposed to be giving exhaustive notes to the actors once the show opens. The stage manager takes that over, generally, but really only gives notes about whether people are audible or whether someone's milking a laugh WAAAAAAAY too much; once a show opens it's kind of "hands-off" the actors when it comes to fine-tuned notes like you're suggesting.

I'll admit that I'm not sure what else it could be, though, and I'm only leaning towards "some kind of listening-device/typing the subtitles/etc." thing in the absence of any other theories.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:06 AM on October 24, 2011

Would you be able to recognize the person again? Have you tried skimming through the theatre staff's page just to see if you recognize them? That won't tell you exactly what she was doing if you do find her picture, but at least it'll give you some idea if she was connected or not.

If all else fails you could email the customer support on their website and explain you're curious and ask if she was involved or just a random audience member.
posted by Deflagro at 11:47 AM on October 24, 2011

It's been a long time since I've worked in theaters, but every one I have worked in had headsets that were older than dirt.
perhaps someone in the pit had a bad comm or cable and she was signaling them. During intermission they were able to get a replacement to them.
posted by gally99 at 2:59 PM on October 24, 2011

What if she was interpreting into sign language for someone sitting in front of her? You might not have been able to see the signing if the lights were dim/off, but someone beside her would. And sign language interpreters sometimes listen to performances through headphones rather than directly so that they can have higher volume on the spoken channel or the singing, if there are musical instruments that could potentially drown it out.
posted by lollusc at 4:46 PM on October 24, 2011

Hearing speaking from her headphones when nothing else was audible in the house says to me that it was either connected to a com system, or possibly related to an audio description system. I wonder if it's a PA (production assistant) calling some sort of an entrance for a performer in an odd location. The hand being raised, and going down at a certain time (especially while houselights are fading) signifies to me a "standby" for a cue, and then a "GO".

Could also have been someone on the house management team signaling to the stage manager that the house was theirs to start the show...

Possibly something related to B-roll (archival video footage); could have been taking notes on camera shots for later editing? This would make more sense towards the end of the run. Did you see any cameras anywhere?

I'm not a stage manager, but I'm a sound designer/systems designer who designs all of these communications and support systems.
posted by aloiv2 at 6:59 PM on October 24, 2011

« Older What is this smudge on my iPad?   |   Need help with managing a memorial page on a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.