caffeine is my enemyback to queerspace main page

'Hedwig' and the earplugs

Nov 11, 2001

Consider: The Firehouse Theatre Project is offering disposable earplugs to patrons at its first musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Take into account: All of the sound in this rockfest is amplified except the drums.

Logical question: Why doesn't the Firehouse Theatre just turn down the volume and tell the drummer to cool it?

"It would sound really stupid if it weren't loud," Daniel Ruth, the show's director, answers by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It's loud because rock'n' roll has always been the music of the rebellious. Loudness is a way of igniting people."

Not only that, but Dan questions the need for earplugs in the first place.

"The entire earplug thing is silly because it's not that loud," he tells Rialto.

"Anyone who's ever seen Blue Man Group or 'Stomp' or 'Rent' or 'Tommy' is very aware of the loudness factor of any show with rock music. People should be aware before they go in that it will be loud."

Christopher Dunn, producer of "Hedwig," says the earplugs are being offered "in an excess of caution."

"What we're finding is that people of all ages pick them up and then don't use them," he says, then adds, based on audience response in the show's first week: "We've had no complaints whatsoever about the volume."

Anyway, the earplugs were Carol Piersol's idea.

"We'd never done a rock'n' roll musical before, and our subscribers are accustomed to straight plays," Carol, FTP's artistic director, explains.

"The Firehouse is a small space, the speakers are near the front row and a lot of our subscribers like to be in the front. I didn't want to tell them not to sit there.

"The main reason for the earplugs is so people can have them in their hands and relax and enjoy the show. They might not need them, but if they didn't have them when the music came up, they might worry, 'My God, what am I in for?' Most people are returning the earplugs at the end of the show."

Chris, who bought an initial box of 200 packets of earplugs at a hardware store for about $35, sees the issue partly in generational terms.

"We think those who are older are more protective of their hearing than those who are younger," he says.

"When I was in my 20s, I sat in front of a lot of speakers at rock'n' roll concerts. That was the most exciting place to be. If you saw the Rolling Stones live, that was where you wanted to be.

"Much later, when I lived in New York, I went to see 'Stomp' and sat in the sixth row of a 30-row theater. When I walked out, my ears were hurting, but I haven't suffered any hearing impairment that I'm aware of."

Chris, a lawyer by day, and Carol say the decision to offer earplugs had nothing to do with buttressing a defense in a potential lawsuit over permanent hearing loss.

Many concerts and nightclubs produce sounds that register up to 120 decibels, which is louder than a pneumatic drill.

In a recent British survey, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People found that nearly half of the study's 366 concertgoers, ages 16 to 34, experienced hearing problems after exposure to loud music.

At the same time, eight of 10 who go regularly to clubs and rock concerts said they were not concerned about their hearing.

"Hedwig" doesn't mark the first time earplugs have been made available in Richmond theater.

Kathleen Panoff, director of the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts, had her ushers pass them out when Ondekaza, Japan's troupe of "demon drummers," performed in 1997 at the center's Alice Jepson Theatre.

Later, she made 2,000 pairs available to patrons when the Modlin Center presented the Black Watch Pipe and Drum Corps at the Carpenter Center.

"They usually perform in football stadiums and other huge arenas, and I was concerned about the 45 bagpipes, which are loud, in a smaller space," says Kathy, who often uses earplugs when she goes to the movies.

"I'm not as concerned with the liability issue as with the artistic issue. When it's too loud, some people will walk out because they feel uncomfortable."

Kathy keeps 1,200 pairs of earplugs - a two-performance supply at the Jepson - on hand.

Just in case.

Richmond Rialto welcomes theatrical questions, information, ideas, even back talk. Send your input to Roy Proctor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, P.O. Box 85333, Richmond, VA 23293-0001. Call (804) 649-6733, fax (804) 649-6836 or e-mail