La Jolla Playhouse

Regional Theater Exceeds Broadway’s Production Standards



By taking advantage of Clear-Com’s HelixNet® Digital Network Partyline, La Jolla Playhouse has saved time and resources, improved its production workflow, and surpassed the expectations of UCSD graduate students and Broadway production experts.

Background

La Jolla Playhouse, the nationally-acclaimed theater located on the campus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is known for creating some of the most exciting and adventurous new works in regional theater. Since its founding in 1947, the Playhouse’s innovative productions have merited over 300 major honors, including 35 Tony Awards for productions that have transferred to Broadway, along with the 1993 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

Together with the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, La Jolla Playhouse has sent more shows to Broadway than all other theaters in the country combined. Not only that, but the theater continually attracts visiting talent and creative teams from Broadway and across the nation. Its extensive exposure and the high expectations of its guests mean that the theater must ensure that its venues, technologies and communication systems are kept to the highest standards.

Business Challenges

After two decades of use, its five analog partyline main stations and wired beltpacks were reaching end of life. The Playhouse’s sophisticated production requirements had far outgrown the capabilities that its partyline intercoms could deliver.

Joe Huppert, Sound and Video Master at La Jolla Playhouse, explains, “We want people to sit down and have comms be the least of their problems. If you start off your technical rehearsal with a comms issue, your credibility is gone for the rest of the production. Communication systems are like our receptionist and we always want to put our best face forward.” It was apparent to the production team that modernizing its communication infrastructure was critical to keep the Playhouse at the forefront of the global theater landscape.

Not only would the new communication infrastructure need to meet the demands of production experts, but it would also have to address the needs of the UCSD graduate students. Though two independent organizations, the Playhouse and UCSD work closely to provide an integrated environment for the Playhouse’s productions and the theater training program offered by the UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance. The intercoms must offer sufficient capability for production legends while being simple enough for the theater students to operate, without any supervision.

Communication Challenges

Complex infrastructure amplified costs
Thorough preparation is key to a safe and flawless production. Nonetheless, the tedious process of getting ready for a show laid a huge burden on the production team. For each large-scale musical, the production crew spent at least three hours setting up the communication systems and then another hour testing them.

To configure the partyline intercoms, the staff had devised a complex star typography network to run cables from the main station to the beltpacks. The legacy systems also required many cables, which made the setup process labor intensive.
 
After setup was done, all the power and channels for the main stations and beltpacks were tested. During testing, the production team may decide to alter the configuration by moving the tech table to another location or discover that a beltpack was assigned the wrong channel. To make these changes, the technician would need to run extra cables. This was incredibly troublesome since a staff member had to readjust the lighting and then tape down the cables between people’s feet.

In addition, the production crew was constantly moving the communication systems, power supplies and cables within or between theaters for technical rehearsals during the day, show previews at night, and other production changeovers. The first transition took 45 minutes to an hour and each one that followed lasted around 20 minutes. With multiple transitions a day, the total time spent on changeovers became substantial.

Planning for a show was becoming more difficult and inefficient. As performances increased in number and sophistication, the time, labor and cost of preparation escalated as well.

Constant interruptions to workflow
The Playhouse’s analog partyline systems had hum and buzz due to electromagnetic interference. Even a very slight buzz would distract users since they were wearing their headsets for up to 12 hours a day. Consequently, the Playhouse staff had to track down and fix the noise on the intercoms.

The systems also failed on occasion, interrupting their workflow. This was especially frustrating for the graduate students, who felt a lot of pressure to quickly resolve the problem. Instead, the Playhouse wanted to achieve high quality communication and deliver it reliably to all intercom users, in every production space.

Lack of system options hampered agility
The Playhouse’s intercom systems did not provide users with access to system settings from their beltpacks. A technician had to be present to adjust the intercom functions on the beltpack from the main station, whether it was changing the channels, volume level, sidetone or any other option. Adding to the inconvenience, the beltpacks did not have a feature to identify what channels were assigned to them. Having to rely on a technician to manage the systems prevented them from responding quickly to frequently changing production needs.

Insufficient group connections restrained teamwork
Although the Playhouse’s analog partyline main stations supported up to eight user groups, the intercom had insufficient channel capacity. Only a maximum of two channels were accessible from the beltpack. Switching to an additional channel required the technician to run another cable. Thus, this prevented users from collaborating with other people in a timely manner.

The Intercom Solution

Choosing Clear-Com
Because its analog partyline systems were inadequate, the Playhouse began renting Clear-Com intercoms for visiting production teams to use. The staff members selected Clear-Com systems for their advanced features and solid performance. In addition, the Playhouse already owned two Clear-Com HME DX210 wireless intercoms and an HME DX200 wireless intercom. With years of positive experience using that brand, it was a logical choice for the Playhouse to choose Clear-Com for its future communication requirements. 

The Playhouse acquired four HelixNet Partyline main stations, two HelixNet remote stations, an Ethernet linking module, a two-wire interface module and 30 digital beltpacks. No other partyline system could surpass it in terms of ease-of-use, flexibility and reliability. “Using HelixNet is a game changer for our productions,” says Huppert. “The stability of the system and the confidence that it inspires is mind-blowing.

None of the main stations are rack mounted because the production team frequently moves them within and between the Playhouse’s production spaces. These production areas include the Mandell Weiss Theater, Mandell Weiss Forum, Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, Arthur Wagner Theatre and Dance Studio 3.

For any given production, up to three networked main stations and 10 shared audio channels are used. Using linking modules, they can integrate HelixNet with their legacy partyline, HME DX Series wireless systems and intercoms from traveling productions to create an all-encompassing communication solution.



Results

Simplified setup maximizes productivity and savings
HelixNet’s minimal cable requirements and ease of configuration allow setup, testing and transitions to be done in the shortest time possible. It takes the production team only an hour to get the intercoms ready and tested for a show. Similarly, production changeovers take half the time that they use to.

The HelixNet systems only use a third of the cables required by their previous partyline intercoms. Each beltpack receives all audio channels, program audio feeds and power over just a single shielded twisted-pair cable.

Plug-and-go installation and hardware auto-discovery permit connected beltpacks to be immediately recognized by the main station for a rapid startup. The waterfall menu structure of the intercom further enables convenient access to settings, making system configuration fast and painless.

To confirm that everything is operating properly, a user simply checks that the labels on the OLED display are lit up and assigned to the proper channel. Channels can be reassigned in a matter of seconds from the beltpack or main station, without added cable runs.

All in all, the deployment of the Playhouse’s communication systems is now much simpler, less time-consuming and more cost-effective.

Smoother coordination
Designed with high quality “Clear-Com” sound, HelixNet enables members of the production team to hear and understand every word with absolute clarity in both loud and quiet production spaces. Program volume levels are easily adjustable to aid concentration and communication in the noisy areas. It is also unaffected by electromagnetic interference and ground loops, eliminating hum and buzz. The reliability, low-latency, and exceptional audio of HelixNet promote smoother coordination between members of the production team.

Achieve tailored production experience
HelixNet enhances users’ production experience by giving them greater control over their own workflow. User-defined channel labels are presented on high-resolution, 10-character OLED displays, helping them identify the channels on their beltpack or main station. With one quick training session, they are able to effortlessly adjust system settings from the beltpack or main station, without the help of a technician. The buttons and volume knobs on the beltpack are also optimally positioned for them to quickly locate and operate. Customizing and maneuvering HelixNet is impressively easy for any user.    

Increased flexibility and extended collaboration
Using Ethernet linking modules, the Playhouse crew can network three HelixNet main stations together to support a total of 12 shared channels. As a result, additional user groups are now able to collaborate over the same intercom network.

“The linking capability is really important to us,” says Huppert. “We get requests from designers who would like to have all the key production areas on the intercom. We used to be short on delivering this. Now, we are using more channels and it’s just phenomenal.”

The staff members have added a channel for communication between the automation operator and those on wireless intercoms. A music channel has been included for private collaboration between the composer and music director. They have also added channels for two assistant lighting designers so that they can talk to the spot operators and motion programmers.

Users have access to any channel within seconds, giving them the ability to reach people that they never could before. Each beltpack user can talk on any two of the total channels. And from the main station, a user can select any four of the shared channels. Each person is capable of modifying his or her own communications setup when needed, without any planning beforehand.

Heightened user satisfaction
With HelixNet Partyline, students and production staff are more engaged, productive and satisfied.  It is easier for students to focus on their work since they no longer worry about system failures or hum and buzz. Moreover, HelixNet is very intuitive for students to manage since the settings are displayed on screens, similar to other technology devices that they use day to day. Having 12 channels also enables them to collaborate with the entire production team and their mentors, significantly enhancing their knowledge. 

Likewise, production experts are extremely pleased with the operation of HelixNet. “Our objective is to consistently exceed what production teams encounter on Broadway, including communications. HelixNet has helped us achieve this goal,” exclaims Huppert.

“A Tony award winning lighting designer who recently came in was absolutely delighted by HelixNet’s performance. For him to be able to sit down and use the intercom without latency or any issues was very important.” The Playhouse is able to better serve its guests by providing them with an outstanding communication solution.

By minimizing cabling and thereby simplifying setup, HelixNet frees up time for the production crew to focus on what matters – the creative aspect and execution of its performances. And by delivering better audio quality, flexibility and advanced intercom capabilities, HelixNet empowers those at the Playhouse to accomplish more than they could have ever imagined.