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Harold Pinter Theatre

We recently completed a lengthy and complex upgrade to the installed paging system at Ambassador Theatre Group’s Harold Pinter Theatre in London, a project that both recalled some of the company’s roots and also underlined the virtues of simplicity and future-proof designs.

The Theatre opened in 1881, and was formerly known as the Comedy Theatre until 2011 when it was re-christened to its present name. The Harold Pinter Theatre sits within the City of Westminster and is notable for the role it played in overturning stage censorship by establishing the New Watergate Club in 1956. At that time the outdated Theatres Act 1843 still required scripts to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, but formation of the club allowed plays that had been banned due to language or subject matter to be performed under ‘club’ conditions.

Like many of our projects, the theatre’s new backstage / FOH paging and calls system relied far less on new equipment than it did on the company’s intimate knowledge of theatre practice and their understanding of how equipment is used. TOA processing and specially modified 100v loudspeakers, Lab Gruppen amplification and Tannoy Di5 loudspeakers were variously deployed where appropriate, along with bespoke Autograph paging mics, but the real challenges faced by the Autograph team concerned the physical installation of a robust system into the fabric of the (Grade II listed) building, and doing so without any impact on busy daily life of an operational professional theatre.

Project-managed byChris Austin, the emphasis was not only on delivering a major upgrade that would work faultlessly for years but also introduce necessary system redundancy. Chris takes up the tale:

‘There are plenty of sophisticated digital paging systems available but in this case many of their features simply weren’t necessary, so we took a ‘back to basics’ approach that comfortably meets the needs of the theatre. Their setup comprises a simple three mic / two zone call system which provides a very easy and familiar interface (push to talk) with great reliability. It could have run off just a single amplifier but we chose to use two as this gives a very rapid failsafe option via a simple cross-patch if required.’

‘The original installation used a two-wire system and so had no override facility (where you can turn down the show relay but still have calls come in over the top), so we were obliged to run two kilometres of new cable throughout the building to supply the new loudspeakers. As the theatre is constantly busy with shows and rehearsals we worked closely with the production team so were never in their way, and in practice this normally meant working from early in the morning until mid-afternoon. We also installed the new equipment in parallel with the old system so the theatre was never without a paging system at any point’

He concludes, with typical frankness, ‘Theatrical paging systems are supposed to sit in the corner and be forgotten about for years so we designed this one to do just that! There’s no reason why this new system shouldn’t still be working perfectly in another ten or fifteen years without any fuss or major upgrades.’

Perhaps because of the relative lack of glamour associated with paging systems (especially when compared to the cutting-edge loudspeakers and consoles usually seen at Autograph shows) it is sometimes forgotten that Autograph wrote the book on theatrical paging systems, and continue to lead in this field today. The Harold Pinter project is a perfect example of a supplier with total understanding of the actual needs of a client, responding with a cost-effective and easy-to-use solution that will last for decades.

As if to underline this continuity in approach, the paging system that was replaced in the Harold Pinter Theatre was originally installed by Autograph Sound recording in the 1970s. To neatly underscore the long-term cost-efficiency of installing the right equipment first time, the original paging station and Stage Door loudspeaker were only taken out of service when the new system came online - ‘Do it right, do it once’ is a particularly apt epithet for Autograph’s approach to installing theatrical audio, as true now as it was then.

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