Beginning Friday, April 11, Clowes Memorial Hall will launch a first-of-its-kind project that enhances the concert performance experience through a system it has dubbed “audio sensory enhanced seating.” These seats are equipped with technology designed to convert audio into vibration to create physical sensation from sound.
The project started through an idea by Joshua Lingenfelter, Clowes Memorial Hall Director of Marketing, after an experience he had at the Clowes Box Office.
“We had a concert one evening, and the performer was also on a popular TV show at the time,” Lingenfelter said. “A man came to the window and wrote down on a piece of paper that he would like a refund. His wife stood behind him as they both communicated via sign language and written notes. Essentially, they were both fans of the performer being on TV, but even though the husband had great intentions, the wife couldn’t fathom attending a concert when they can’t hear.”
“That sparked an idea for me: What if we changed the way we perceived music by not only hearing it, but also feeling it. Would that have changed their minds about attending the concert? This wasn’t an entirely new concept. Think back to the stories of Beethoven chopping off the legs of his piano after losing his hearing in order to feel the vibrations and you can see where the idea comes from. If we aren’t able to hear it, can we feel it instead?”
Lingenfelter, who is also a percussionist, was familiar with a technology called the Buttkicker® sound enhancement system. The ButtKicker® brand low-frequency audio transducers were developed to solve a problem between a bass player and his drummer. They wanted to be able to feel the low end of the music without turning the stage monitors up so loud that it disturbed the rest of the band. A low-frequency audio transducer allows the user to feel powerful bass without excessive volume.
This week, Clowes will install eight systems into seats, which will be reviewed by members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community during the weekend performance of Blue Man Group at no cost through a generous grant from The Broadway League.
In recent years, the ButtKicker® technology has been installed with commercial applications, bringing excitement and depth to theatres for hearing audiences. Current customers include Disney: Mission Space, Center of Science and Industry – Columbus, Ohio, and Kennedy Space Center. Lingenfelter imagined that if he could use that same technology in the seats of Clowes Memorial Hall, then this could create an option to have music be a valid evening of entertainment for those who had no ability to hear.
Before proceeding with program development for this project, each department at Clowes worked together to develop a test of the ButtKicker® system with a performance of West Side Story at Clowes Hall on June 9, 2013. Clowes invited audience members from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to attend an ASL-interpreted performance and sit in a seat with the ButtKicker® unit. Invitations were extended to a member of the deaf community and his hearing family, teachers and students from the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) and ASL interpreters. This test allowed the patrons to feel the vibrations of the music in the show, enhancing their Broadway performance experience. Patron feedback was positive.
Clowes made initial calls to The Guitammer Company (owners of the Buttkicker technology) in May 2013 to investigate options to use the ButtKicker® at Clowes Hall with a specific focus on music productions. Ernie Yezzi, Clowes sound stagehand, spoke with Mark Luden, CEO and President of The Guitammer Company, to explore new potential uses for the equipment.
To date, the ButtKicker® has never been used in live musical theatre performances or to enhance the performance experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. This presents a unique opportunity for Clowes to pilot a program with potential national replication.
The education and marketing departments at Clowes plan to follow up with extensive research following the weekend to further develop the technology.
“Those of us who can hear don’t think twice about going to a concert for an evening of entertainment,” Lingenfelter said. “For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, a concert may be of little to no interest. However, if we can convert the way our senses perceive music then we can serve all populations in our community.”