Some Thoughts on Slung Low’s headphones shows

I’ve just received the drafts of all 7 of the writing commissions for Anthology: a collaboration between Slung Low and Liverpool Everyman opening this Autumn. Each of them is very good indeed but the process of going through them got me thinking about the form.

Anthology is one of our headphone shows. A Headphone show is a form of show we started making last year with the Almeida (Last Seen), a model we will use for Anthology this autumn and again revisit next year with Mapping the City in Hull (in collaboration with iMove). In many ways the opposite of our Short Adventures for One model.
The premise and fiction of the shows are very different but they share some common themes with each other. The most obvious connection is that the audience wear headphones and follow a character, the character is miced so that the audience can hear them and there is an originally composed soundtrack and set of sound effects that accompany the actor that play in the audience’s ears. More often than not they are almost through scored.

In terms of technology we have tried everything we can afford over the last couple of years trying to get the best effect; pirate radio equipment, systems shipped from the states that normally are only used by Christian fundamentalist communities, infra red, and even i-trips. It’s been a constant struggle to find a system that can be both reliable, flexible and portable. And anyone who saw my repeated, unexpected appearances during the first few shows at the Almeida will know it’s a struggle we have not always won.

Finally we have settled on, and invested a not insubstantial amount of money in, the technology used to allow rugby fans to hear the referee during games. One of the reasons why I was unwilling to talk about Slung Low and technology at the recent ShiftHappens conference was because with this technology- as with all similar problems at Slung Low- the question isn’t whether the technology exists- it absolutely does- it’s how to find a way to harness it that we can afford. We’re not inventing anything- we’re just finding the thing that can do what we want within a certain budget. Although in fairness to the member of the company who has to create the systems (Matt Angove) that is a skilful and difficult operation in itself. Just not one I felt fitting for ShiftHappens.

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The most important aspect of the system is that the headphones the audience are wearing must not only deliver the audio content for the show but it is must also stop any noise from the environment around that we do not want the audience hearing. We do this by putting headphones in ear defenders. Total control of sound.

In all of the headphone shows there are multiple narratives. That is to say you buy a ticket for a show called Last Seen and you will have an experience for an hour or so. But the person beside you may well go on a completely different journey. You cannot see all the routes in one visit. Something about multiple routes, multiple stories going out at the same time is of incredible interest to me and the team. As is the fact that the audience are never allowed to choose their route- the route chooses them (if most of the time by the most random of selection processes). We only guarantee that if you return a second time to the show you will not repeat your experience. It is to my mind much more interesting when the theatre offers a deal so seeing a 2nd/3rd etc route is considerably less expensive than seeing the first- rewarding your commitment and curiosity with a financial discount. But each of the routes must stand alone- as well as understand in parts in a larger experience.

As we develop the model one of the things developing is the relationship between each of these separate routes; that understanding of being a part of a larger experience. In Last Seen there was no real link planned at all, the writers working in isolation. Next in Liverpool they are more consciously themed- together they form an anthology of separate but complimentary work, like the name suggests. In Hull next year the challenge will be not only how the routes can thematically correlate to each other but how they can physically intersect- which will in reality require the different writers to work in close collaboration with each other in a way that we haven’t tried before.

Another need of the model that has become apparent is the performer must have a direct relationship with the audience. Not so much the absence of the 4th wall (although that certainly is true) but that the audience exists and is recognised for the character completely. More specifically that the performer/text must actively engage with the reality that the audience will have to follow them, the audience must receive direct instruction from the performer (if only for sheer safety reasons as they cross a road) and that the performer NEEDS the audience for some reason- the story must be heard for a direct reason that is made explicit to the audience. That in following the performer they are of course (as I am a little too fond of saying) following or chasing a narrative but they are also serving a function- bearing witness to something that might otherwise slip a way; or carrying things when the performer’s hands are full; or passing the story on to others so as to relieve the burden to the character. Whatever it might be is actively understood by the audience- the audience know their importance. Because they are actually present in the story.

The shows (thus with their actor/audience relationship, complete control of sound, radio styled voice, film styled score in ear) then leave the theatre space and go out into the world- sometimes to specially prepared sites and other times to wonder amongst the ‘real’ world and either blend in or clash with reality. The backdrop of reality is often very surreal- robbed as it is of any connection to sound. How the unreliable and utterly irrepressible real world is folded in to the created narratives that must in some sense be ‘convincing’ is my biggest challenge. The fiction must be flexible enough to withstand reality- the copper that arrested one of our chorus, the drunk that starts chatting to the performer, the commuter that walks past and mouths “Nutters” to the audience.

The form is not combative- you simply can’t bully an audience around a 2 mile march. It has to be persuasive. There’s a lovely moment in one of the new drafts when the character says “So if you want to have a watch at the janitor having Elsie then you’d better come with me”. My money is the audience flying out of their seats in pursuit, if only to see how we fudge it (God only knows but I’m taking suggestions- maybe I can just pay two people to have sex in the bushes every other night for a 5 week run?)

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The form doesn’t naturally support certain types of naturalism or verbatim inspired material very well- real life is right there alongside the show as it walks the streets- the form doesn’t favour ‘gritty’. There are real scallies outside any theatre in the country- actors pretending tend to look a bit silly no matter how convincing they might be on stage.

The form does seem to favour Magic Realism though- being bedded in an everyday narrative that bu
rsts into flights of (especially) visual fantasy works very well indeed. A golden phone box on a high street tends to have a much greater effect than you would expect- the familiarity of phone box with the surprise of gold I suppose. I’ve started to use a bastardisation of Tassos Stevens’ “What is? What if?” to explain this to newcomers. That is to say, start with what is there, what life has presented. Now don’t ignore that reality, shift it slightly to make it magical- the impact on the audience is greater. A gold phone box. Not a space ship. It’s what all the best Doctor Who episodes do instinctively.
It’s a form as reliant on the suspension of disbelief as stage theatre is- just a different type of suspension.

It is totally unforgiving of any staged theatricality. If you want a special effect then you must talk the language of film, of event- there are no wings, no sight line cheats, there can be no flying lines. Which led once to a very expensive (not public money I hasten to add), very short-lived experiment to test whether we could use remote controlled helicopters to fly set outside. We can’t. As our magnificent composer Heather Fenoughty proved beyond all doubt when she nose dived the helicopter into the ground beyond all repair.
Stage Managers in blacks positioning a prop become ludicrous. I am suspicious that dance inherently doesn’t work in the form but I also think that’s because I haven’t contextualised it the right way yet- so I’m going to have another go at it.

And yet similarly ‘arch’, theatrical sound devices are completely acceptable to an audience it seems. Voices that exist in abstract (as ghosts, memories) are readily accepted within the form (as they would be in radio) in a way that wouldn’t seem to work in stage work.

Audience plants don’t work. I don’t know why- I just assume the audience sniff them out no matter how good the actor. Or maybe they are expected in the form and therefore have little impact. But moments of visual serendipity are given Derren Brown like amounts of respect. Again I don’t fully understand why- a helium balloon released from behind a wall is no more complicated or magical than any other cue but it will always get them chatting in the bar afterwards. *

Something I’ve also realised in the last few weeks as I’ve been preparing for Anthology is exactly how filmic a form it is in many ways. I was thinking about how our sound team continues to grow even in the face of a slight cutting back of the team overall. It’s perfectly natural and needed expansion, we are making full film soundscapes for 7 hour long pieces. They are not scored like a theatre show but like a film- each and every sound recorded and engineered, the headphones leaving no naturally formed sound at all. Each show is underscored in a manner that wouldn’t work on stage a lot of the time but gives an emotional cocoon to the piece as the audience move around, and counter intuitively (at least to someone who has only every worked in theatre) makes it feel more natural. In the way that exegetic music can be profoundly moving in film but tends to distract in stage plays (there are of course considerable exceptions to this).

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It’s also like film (or at least film preparation) in the sense that deep focus is also possible in a way that it isn’t on most stages (certainly not the ones they give to the likes of me). I can- given the right planning- create a picture tracking back 100 metres, longer even. I can have close up magic in combination with epic sky line; angels of death, burning with flame, condemning from 25 metres above the audience; a man crying in the same room as you are in with his dead daughter staring up at the window from the street two stories below. And while in Liverpool I’ll have all these things and more (permissions from councils and dioceses notwithstanding).
I can’t decide the exact focus point the audience will choose like I might with a camera but I can make intuitive suggestions to them and frame things in such a way as to make it more likely they see what I would like them to. And vitally not look in the direction I’d rather they avoided.
Certainly as I go through the scripts scribbling key images in the margins I am drawing on cinematic inspiration rather than theatrical. It’s much more to do with bodies in existing space, and therefore selecting those spaces rather than creating those spaces in the way that such story boarding exercises happen for stage plays.

It is often a bloody tricky form. If only because of all the technology needed to deliver the show. And how audience can behave around technology. I remember one audience member coming up to me after a preview and saying he thought it a very challenging and esoteric experience. That didn’t seem to fit with my understanding so after he had gone I checked his headphones. The tuning had slipped and he had spent an hour following an actor around whilst listening to the cricket on 5 Live. We should have checked, it was entirely our fault. But that he never said a word for 55 minutes was bewildering to me. Equally a number of people complained after an Almeida show of a bass like thumping noise in their headphones and reported a malfunction- some quite unhappy with the quality of their equipment. It was the sound of their own footsteps, resonating up their bodies as they walked in total silence. They didn’t believe me.
The technology allows us to create so much effect, bringing a magical quality to the stories. It also makes people behave awkwardly and I must overcome this if the show in Liverpool this Autumn is to really fly. The first step is for all involved in the making to stop behaving awkwardly with the gear and we’ll hopefully have the time to achieve this.

It’s also a wonderfully magical form. We’ve all dashed home in the rain with our iPod blaring something magnificent and vainglorious in our ears- ourselves transformed into the hero at the heart of a landscape snatched from a fast paced film. Well that’s just the beginning with this form. It can harness all the immersive qualities of a good radio play, a good iPod dash, a good film watched in the dark with the phone off, with the communal event of witnessing stories as part of a crowd. The personal and collective, the passive and participatory brought together in a way that I have never been able to manage with other forms.

The magical, fictional, hopeful side by side with the real, the everyday, the familiar.

Now just to get it right.

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All the images are from Last Seen; a collaboration with the Almeida Theatre in 2009.

*I remember in Helium at the end of a scene a card was revealed hanging above the audience’s head. Dozens of people asked me how we did it as there was no one else in the box with them at the time. I didn’t know how to break it gently to them that it had been there since before they entered- they just hadn’t looked.

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