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Tech magic

You’ve just attended a particularly satisfying play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You laughed. You cried. You were moved.

You also were manipulated — in a good way — by OSF’s magicians of sound and lighting.

It’s been a part of the movies for years. Think of the slasher film where several teenagers are talking and laughing and, mid-conversation, the musical score introduces an ominous, low synthesizer tone. Something baaad is going to happen.

And in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” when Dave, inside Hal’s processor core, slowly begins to deactivate the computer, Stanley Kubrick uses the color red to create an inescapable sense of dread and impending death.

Amanda Sager and Michael Maag are part of the team that has elevated the art of sound and lighting at OSF to a high level. It’s part of what makes OSF productions so memorable.

Of a sound mind

Sager is a sound engineer. A 2009 graduate of Louisiana State University, she came to the festival in 2014.

“The sound world is really fascinating because you get to manipulate the audience,” she said.

Her job is different from the sound designer. The engineer creates the effects conceived by the designer.

She and her crew also hang speakers, run cables and make sure all the mics are working. Each mic has its own channel on the console.

Sometimes that’s a lot of channels. In the show “The Wiz,” they had to mic 32 people — 24 actors and eight band members. It can get complicated.

“I’m responsible for maintaining balance,” she said.

Sager coordinates all the sound effects and sets the right mic levels for people talking, singing and playing instruments. On the console, she might have one finger on an actor’s mic, another on the door knocks, while getting cues from a marked-up script and from the stage manager over a headset.

“That’s where the nerd in me comes into play.”

Mics can’t be on at all times.

“When two people hug, the level has to be cut so the audience doesn’t hear ruffling noises from the clothes. And when they go in for a kiss — nobody wants to hear the sound of that,” she said, laughing.

There are times when the mic level is tweaked because of an actor’s style or preferences.

“In Hamlet, when Danforth (Comins) began the ‘to be or not to be’ monologue, we took his mic to a lower level because he wanted it to be very intimate,” Sager said.

In 2014’s “Richard III,” Dan Donohue never left the stage. So, to avoid his “sweating out” his mic, causing it stop functioning, they decided to give him two transmitters, hidden in his hump. If one transmitter failed, they could switch to the other.

“During the preview, both transmitters cut out,” Sager said. “They were sitting next to each other and the frequencies were too close. The material in the hump caused an interference.”

That’s what previews are for, to iron out the kinks.

The sound engineer is busy even during a show that uses no mics, making sure sound effects occur on cue.

Repertory theater can be challenging. The sound crew makes next-show changes 800 times a year. A typical day for Sager begins at 9 a.m., when they take out one show and put in the next, and ends at 11 or 11:30 p.m.

“I consider it a good day when I hit every cue correctly and don’t miss a pickup when an actor comes on stage,” she said.

Her work for next year won’t start officially until January, but she received a letter of intent for the 2020 season on Sept. 1. Plans are tentative, pending the needs of the shows, but she knows what plays she’ll probably be assigned.

Making light work

Maag is resident lighting designer at OSF. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in technical theater with an emphasis on lighting design. He joined OSF in 1999.

In addition to designing light plots, he also designs and builds custom electronics and lighting for costumes and scenery.

As part of the design process, he talks with directors.

“What do they want to say? How can we support the word, support the story?” Maag said.

He uses computer-aided design software, which replaces manual drafting with an automated process. Each show has a guest lighting designer, who usually comes to the first rehearsal and stays until opening.

“I do lighting plots and core lighting for all the plays,” he said.

“I work with the crew to shape, size, color and focus the lighting. They have to touch lights four times a day during the run, so we have to place fixtures in accessible spots.”

Lighting isn’t just about on and off. It sets a mood, focuses audience attention on an area of the stage, establishes time of day, and serves the plot by triggering or advancing the action — onstage and off.

Maag’s crew consists of two master electricians, two assistant electricians, four lighting techs, a video manager and an assistant. The crew assumes responsibility for running lights during the shows.

There are thousands of lighting parameters in a production, so they are computer programmed. Because timing can vary from one performance to another, programs can be slowed down or speeded up to compensate. Maag credits Ashland resident Dick Sweet, a retired computer scientist, for teaching him a lot about computer programming.

Maag has already begun work on the 2020 season.

“The Bowmer will be especially challenging next year,” he said. “The first three plays all have two levels, but not the same two levels.”

OSF is known for its accomplished actors and talented directors. But the unsung heroes of lighting and sound are key to giving audiences a memorable experience. You won’t see or hear the technicians. But you will feel them.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Amanda Sager, OSF sound engineer, talks shop at an OSF premiere member coffee. Jim Flint photo.
Michael Maag is the resident lighting designer at OSF. Courtesy photo.