Harold Burris-Meyer: The Unorthodox Stevens Theater Professor Who Made Noise On Broadway
Stevens theater professor and Dramatic Society director Harold Burris-Meyer (1902-1984) was once described as "a humorous, voluble, ebullient man…with a lively imagination, and a wholly unacademic outlook on life."
That unusual outlook informed his thinking as Burris-Meyer integrated the arts and engineering while creating a theater department partly based on illusion techniques. He also boldly collaborated with civil rights activist and actor Paul Robeson to create Synthea, an "acoustic envelope" that powerfully transformed theatrical staging at the time — and continues to influence concert acoustics today.
Robeson said he had begun to feel as if he’d "lost his own self" in the large, echoing auditoriums he’d been performing in during the late 1930s. So he and Burris-Meyer developed a new device allowing a singer to hear himself or herself onstage, as though "singing in the shower." Over time, Synthea and the "Robeson Technique" strongly influenced theatrical engineering and the creation of the monitor speaker systems still used in contemporary staging.
Burris-Meyer later founded Control, Inc., an acoustical engineering research and design firm, and served as effects designer for 13 Broadway shows and seven Metropolitan Operas between 1929 and 1954. He co-authored theater design books and professional journal articles, and his classic volume "Scenery for the Theatre: The Organization, Processes, Materials, and Techniques Used to Set the Stage" remains a resource for designers and engineers today.
It's safe to say Broadway wouldn't sound the same without him.