Do you believe that no matter the path, we always end up where we are supposed to be? If you don’t believe that, Mackenzie Ellis might change your mind. She is the head of audio for the Dear Evan Hansen tour, and the fourth amazing woman that “Un-Block The Music” has met in this Dear Evan Hansen series of articles. (At the end of the story, see the links to previous stories.)
Mackenzie did not grow up wanting to be a sound engineer. Her original focus at Virginia Commonwealth University was technical direction (TD). She didn’t focus on sound until her senior year. “I was one of the only students doing the Technical Direction track, so I was actually getting opportunities to TD shows as a student which was amazing. However, I got burnt out.” After she fulfilled her graduation requirements, Mackenzie thought she would try something else. “I started sound and I never looked back!”
An academic contact put Mackenzie in touch with Tony Winner Kai Harada (Kai’s credits go on and on, but he won a Tony for The Band’s Visit ) He answered! “Kai made himself available as a mentor, answered questions and gave me resources. He actually offered me my first Broadway Level Assistant Design position on the Million Dollar Quartet’s second national tour. I learned a lot and was able to make connections.”
Mackenzie then went back to Washington, DC and worked as the stage crew carpenter at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I was working a show one night and was assigned to move a band platform. The deck audio person, who had been on the staff for years, disappeared mid-show. I didn’t think about it. I just jumped in and did my best to cover her track. I did know sound, after all, so I just did the patching (routing the audio signals). Afterwards, I found out she had quit and they now had an opening in the sound department. I applied for the mix job and ended up with a 40-hour a week, salaried position doing what I love!” It was here that she met Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg. Nevin eventually offered her the position of A1 Head of Audio on the first national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
Mackenzie earned Nevin’s confidence! She was surprised one Friday night when he called her asking if she could be in Colorado the next day. The engineer for the tour of Mamma Mia! was in the hospital and would be out of commission for a few weeks. They needed somebody to take over immediately to mix the show. “I knew ABBA of course, but had never seen the show. On the plane, I had the script in front of me and the soundtrack on my headphones. I went into the theater first thing in the morning to familiarize myself with the console which I also had never touched before. It took me an hour to figure out how to turn it on!”
The whole cast came in for an emergency rehearsal. Mackenzie mixed for a full house that night. “It was the greatest thrill of my life! Of course, I don’t want anyone to be in the hospital but give me a job like that all of the time. I love to fly by the seat of my pants…the greatest adrenaline rush,” she said.
Mackenzie later worked the second national tour of Cinderella. She thenbecame Head of Audio forthe first national tour of Something Rotten before being offered the tour of Dear Evan Hansen which was sound designed by Nevin Steinberg.
Mackenzie loves being on tour, but admits the rewards do not come without challenges. You have to make each performance “sound like the same show in 1200 seat venues to 5000 seat venues. Some are old concert halls. Others offer completely modern architecture with not a single reflective surface. You have 8-12 hours to get everything loaded in and make it sound the same in acoustic environments that are drastically different.”
As you heard from Emma Thomson last week, “Dear Evan Hansen is a pop/ rock show. It has to be loud and punchy. “Most of the audiences are teenagers who are listening to the show on repeat and are coming back over and over. The music team wants to reward that by giving them a sound that is similar to the studio. But, then you also have 65 year old theater subscribers who come to the console and complain they can’t hear because the music is too loud. It’s a very delicate balance trying to make the show something everyone can enjoy,” Mackenzie explained.
The tour has been selling well, Mackenzie said. However, half way through the Salt Lake City stint they had to shut down because of COVID-19. “ We were sent to our hotels for a couple of days. We loaded out on Saturday and flew home on Sunday. The tour is open ended with a lot of cities we haven’t hit yet. There is a lot we are going back to …Fingers crossed.”
Next up from “Un-Block The Music,” will be an interview with the man who started all of Dear Evan Hansen’s sound…Tony winner Nevin Steinberg!