Berkeley Rep Undergoes $7M Overhaul to Make Theater Sound Great

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Berkeley Rep's Production Manager Peter Dean and Sound Supervisor James Ballen in the renovated Peet's Theater (Photo: Cy Musiker)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust stage, named for the way it juts into the audience, doesn't look that different from its original incarnation, despite undergoing $7 million in renovations over the last nine months.

But there are changes that are difficult to miss for longtime attendees. First, it's been renamed the Peet’s Theatre, to honor a partnership with the Berkeley coffee company, now owned by a German investment firm, and the room's 400 seats are more comfortable and less squeaky.

“We actually found the original person that built our seats,” said Production Manager Peter Dean, “a gentleman by the name of Smokey, who took the original seats out, restuffed them, and they actually look brand new."

But the big changes, Dean said during a recent visit, are hidden in the walls: upgrades to the electrical system of a theater that originally opened in 1980. And Dean says audiences should be able to hear the most important change, the installation of a Constellation Acoustic System from Berkeley's Meyer Sound.

"Characters will be able to face upstage," Dean said, "and speak in a whisper volume, and still be heard clear as day out in the house."

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These days wireless microphones are becoming ubiquitous in live theater, usually for musicals. But those headsets peeking out from wigs and curled around actors' ears often don't sound very good, and voices can be muffled when costumes get in the way.

The Constellation system is different. It's a computer run network of microphones and speakers tucked away in the ceiling, that pick up and amplify any sound the engineers want to amplify.

Berkeley Rep Lighting Fellow Harrison Burke
Berkeley Rep Lighting Fellow Harrison Burke (Photo Credit: Cy Musiker)

During a tour of the newly renovated theater, Dean invites me on stage for a demonstration. He claps his hands with the system on, and the noise seems to fill the room. Then he claps with it off, and the sound dies quickly.

"It’s sort of weird," Dean says. "After talking with Constellation on for a little while, after Constellation has gone away, there’s almost a feeling of I can’t quite get the words out loud enough. There’s a feeling of actually being held back."

Still, Dean says audience members shouldn't even notice the Constellation system, except for how easy it is to hear every line of dialogue even in the last row. It's proved itself with some very picky listeners at Soundbox, the San Francisco Symphony’s experimental space, which opened last year. But this will be Constellation's first use in a stage theater in North America.

Berkeley Rep’s Sound supervisor James Ballen says he thinks audiences will find the Meyer Constellation system creates a feeling inside them. "So when you have a gunshot," Ballen said, "instead of feeling like it’s on stage, or over there, it’s going to feel like you’re really connected to it."

Audiences will get to critique the new Peet’s Theatre in early February when it hosts a world premiere by Los Angeles playwright Julia Cho.