A STORY BY ROSS DRURY
The binaural technology for us started with a discussion between myself and Jill Rutland about our childhoods. We both felt that there were pivotal moments in our lives where our childhoods had ended. We started by writing letters to each other about our memories and tried to find the thread of these experiences and how this might have shaped our choices or character in 'adult' life. We went back and forth on this for few months and it was quite an emotional experience I think to do this. We then started to talk to other people we knew about it and it became clear to us that lots of other people had similar reflections on their past and I guess like a lot of theatre makers we bottled all these chats up and thought we might have an idea for a play.
It was at this point that I started to wonder how I might approach staging memory and the most effective way to capture memory as a theatrical experience. It would have been easy for us to work on tools like flashbacks and this that or the other, but our principal discovery that we sort of stumbled upon was that these pivotal moments of childhood were a shared experience regardless of time, circumstance and culture. A sort of universal experience of growing up. It was along this thinking that I realised that we needed our audiences to be inside their own heads, or to be situated inside their consciousness or the consciousness of other characters.
In my research about my memory I had also discovered that the experience of recollecting traumas or vivid recollections from childhood is sensory and often triggered from something like a smell or a sound. So y'know...headphones came into the equation. I wasn't satisfied that a normal staging of a play would be the theatrically cleanest way of bringing audiences into this idea and it seemed to me at least, like an effective way of exploring sense memory and giving the audiences a theatrical experience of memory.
It’s not really like me to make a self-confessional autobiographical piece of theatre and we decided to take our notion of 'throwness' and share this with others and hear what they thought about it. Through workshops we started collecting memories for lots of different groups, principally older people, and we talked to them about their childhood and what made them who they were. This was an exciting time as we came across common threads between the people we spoke to. Things like responsibility, parental fallibility, loneliness and a loss of innocence. It wasn't all bad. Some people had incredibly joyous stories about realising their potential or a feeling of freedom. To put it simply we were interested in putting these together in some sort of theatrical kaleidoscope.
It was around this time I came across the idea of a 'flashbulb' memory. A flashbulb memory is when somebody tells you a memory of their own and you imagine it with almost a dreamlike fevour, abstracting and giving poetry to what you have heard within your own imagination. Flashbulb memories are something that I think underpins a lot of our production because principally audiences are being asked to listen, watch and experience the memories of somebody else. Binaural technology just became the most appropriate way to achieve all the above. I think I fell for it as a director because I can create expansive, poetic landscapes with just about as many characters as I like and all I need is an actor, a microphone and a sound designer. It’s a lot more maddening and complicated than that but I really believe this is the potential of working in this way.
This kind of theatrical pragmatism is very freeing for a director who has mainly worked on the fringe - I am no longer inhibited by a lack of resources to communicate experiences or ideas, and because the technology is in the rehearsal room from day one of rehearsals you are working with the total effect of the production from the very beginning. I have often found, in the fringe, that you can spend weeks in the rehearsal room creating something special only to see it ruined and changed by the venue or space you are working in. Or perhaps a tech time that lasts ten minutes and sees you make insane and rushed decisions that spoil just about everything your actors are doing. Working with Binaural technology avoids all that. Before you walk into the theatre you have developed and can control the total effect of the experience and I have found this hugely exciting because I am able to maintain the experience for my audiences and offer clearer guidance to an actor.
Has it been easy? Hell no! It’s actually very noble of me to claim that I can maintain the experience of the play, in theory this is true but the major challenge I found making this show was that I had re-program just about everything I knew about theatre! This sounds dramatic, so I’ll explain. When you’re putting on a let’s say... a 'normal' play (using normal for ease)... you're generally, although not exclusively, looking to develop either a connection between the actor and audiences like with direct interaction in a Shakespeare play, or tap into the collective experience of audience as a whole with a fourth wall with audiences placed close together in one auditorium. The thing with putting audiences in headphones is that these two very important components of theatricality are not available to you. Thrown is our is Frankenstein’s monster of a third option is I hope, very much its own thing.
So as soon I started putting headphones on I literally had no idea what I was shooting for in terms actual effect for the audience or even how to approach making it. So, what to do? Well in my case it took quite a lot of mis-fires, particularly in preview performances with lots of trial and error. However, with each performance I learnt a little bit more about what it was doing and could do as a piece of theatre. What’s interesting about binaural theatre is that it swaps everything around, sound is your major storyteller with text as an underscore, how many shows have you seen with pianos playing underneath dialogue. In a binaural play the sound is your protagonist and the staging visua/textual devices l is your underscore, this by the way becomes a beautiful tapestry between what is seen and heard tapping into what is felt, unconscious and experiential - Binaural theatre is very hard to put into words, partly because its built out of sound.
At the end of the day underneath all the fluff that makes shows and the chat about technology, the people we spoke to made a great impression on us and the binaural technology has allowed us to put their memories into poetry. I think this piece captures a kind of intimacy with audiences that I have not seen before. And perhaps at the end of it all when our audiences have sat with the memories of Constance Ellis they might think about their own thrown story, or as Constance says, 'the thread running through the life that binds the story together'.
And then maybe they'll do what me and Jill did nearly year ago and tell their best friend about it….