For a long time, I thought it was just me.
Almost every time I went to a Manatee Players show in Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, I was annoyed by the sound. Sometime I couldn't hear dialogue. Often I couldn't understand important lyrics. Sometimes one actor in an intimate scene would be way too loud and the other barely audible.
I've mentioned it in some reviews. But most of the time I didn't say anything because I figured I was being overly sensitive at best, or overly critical at worst.
But after a while I started hearing from other people who were just as annoyed. During the intermission of Manatee Players' excellent staging of "Jesus Christ Superstar," I started to remark to a friend about the muddy sound.
"If you didn't already know every word of this show" I said.
"You'd be totally lost," interrupted the stranger next to me. It was word-for-word what I was going to say.
The woman in front of us, also a stranger, turned around and said she really liked the actor who played Mary Magdalene, because she was the only actor she could understand. (The actor was Melanie Bierweiler, and she was great, but I don't think her diction was better than the other actors'. She just had quieter, slower songs, so the lyrics were easier to catch.)
Recently, I saw "Spamalot" with a couple of friends, one of whom has played in the pit orchestras of a lot of musicals. We all absolutely loved the show -- loved it -- but we all agreed that the poor sound quality kept us from hearing a lot of the dialogue, and a whole lot of the lyrics. We sat about two-thirds of the way back. Another friend who sat in row three said she caught every word.
People have, on occasion, thanked me for harping on the sound quality. Then someone else told me that she knew two people with minor hearing problems who refused to go
to shows in Stone Hall because the sound is so bad.
So it wasn't just me.
The sound problems are all the more exasperating because all the other technical and design elements of Manatee Players shows at Stone Hall -- the lighting, the costumes, the sets -- are usually impeccable and imaginative.
"A lot of times sound gets treated like a second-class citizen," said Del Couch. He's the director of the Del Couch Music Education Foundation and he has a master's degree in sound engineering. He has experienced shows at the performing arts center and has found the sound quality inadequate.
The good news is that Manatee Players officials know there are problems, and they're working on them.
"Yes, we're very aware," said Rick Kerby, Manatee Players' producing artistic director. He sounds as if he'd rather be talking about just about anything else. He doesn't hide the fact that he's annoyed with me for bringing the topic up so much. "You mention it every time you come here," he says to me.
It's a problem with a lot of different causes, and Kerby and his crews are attacking it on several different fronts.
One problem is the space itself, he said. It's too "live," and sound bounces around the room. That makes the sound muddy in some places, because you're hearing the sound come from different directions, and there's a split-second difference between the first and last sound waves reaching your ears.
"There are seats in this theater where you'd swear the actors' voices are coming from behind you," he said. "But then you could move over three seats and it would sound perfect."
Help is on the way, Kerby said. A Manatee Players supporter got tired of hearing people (mostly me, Kerby admitted with a chuckle) complain about the sound quality, and he's promised a sizeable donation for structural features that will deaden some of those wayward sound waves. Those should make for noticeable improvements, and they could be in place by the start of next season, in the fall of this year.
Manatee Players is also improving its equipment and aggressively educating the people who handle the sound.
It's tough, Kerby said, because he's dealing almost entirely with volunteers. They don't spend every day worrying about sound and sound technology.
The actors are all volunteers, too, and actors are cast because they can sing, dance and act. That's not an easy combination to find. But sometimes a talented performer might have less-than-perfect diction. Kerby can point to one or two Manatee Players actors who have been difficult to understand just because of that.
Another problem is simply that sound is a very hard thing to master. We've all been to expensive professional musicals and concerts, run by the best sound people in the business, and heard blasts of feedback or heard microphones cut out. The problems are exacerbated in community theater, where budgets are limited.
Couch believes some of the sound people who work for Manatee Players just don't have the background to handle such complex problems.
"The sound engineers need to be better educated," he said. "When you're working the sound board for a musical, you have to be right on top of the show. You have to be a part of that show. You have to know every single word, every single note."
There's also something that audience members can do.
If the sound is bad where you're sitting, switch seats. You can probably do it at intermission (if the show isn't sold out), but if not, you can ask for different seats next time.
But even if switching seats doesn't end up helping that much, the people at performing arts center have heard the complaints, they're taking the problem seriously and working hard to make things better. They're very good at what they do, so there's reason to be optimistic about improvements that are on their way.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.