[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/24309?ns=guardian&pageName=Warning%3A+this+play+may+contain+headphones+%7C+Matt+Trueman%3AArticle%3A1315974&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Culture+section%2CStage%2CTechnology&c6=Matt+Trueman&c7=09-Dec-08&c8=1315974&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]Experimenting with audio can yield amazing theatrical results â€“ but is it in danger of becoming a cliché?
People keep sticking things in my ears. Specifically, theatremakers and headphones. (Theatremakers being the people rather than the items poking from the sides of my face.) Whether they deliver live transmissions or prerecorded tracks, personal audio devices are threatening to become the latest must-have theatrical accessory.
This year's Edinburgh festival included several such pieces, courtesy of David Leddy and the ever-rigorous Rotozaza. In the past month alone, I've taken part in three very different theatrical events that conveyed information and instructions to participants via headphones.
First, in the Barbican's underground car park, was Slung Low's vampire-evasion simulation They Only Come at Night. Here, the voices in your head form part of the fiction itself: one is a friendly advisor, the other a malicious intruder of the airwaves. By contrast, the guiding voice in 19:29's Hall â€“ an eerie audio tour of a run-down municipal building populated by ghostly bureaucrats and crazed architects â€“ sat outside the narrative, variously directing you through a maze of corridors and stairwells, instructing your interaction or simply providing a commentary. Duncan Speakman's As If it Were the Last Time sent its participants out into the real world, on to the cobbled streets of Covent Garden, and transformed the present moment into something precious, something worth savouring, by asking us to look differently and behave extraordinarily.
Now, I might have bemoaned technology in live events, but that's not to say I wasn't eagerly anticipating the latest developments in this hi-tech form. My previous experiences of headphone-led theatre have been exciting: variously playful, unnerving and mischievous. However, this latest wave of audio-instructed performance has left me cold. Yes, they uncovered some interesting possibilities: I enjoyed the convergence of separate paths in Hall, where you suddenly realise the presence of other participants; and I liked the communing element of Speakman's so-called subtlemob, which involves sharing an experience with some, but not others, as if tuning into another frequency. But neither really delved into what it's like for the audience to encounter their surroundings in this new way.
In these theatre pieces, listening is a part of the overall experience, rather than the whole. The relationship between what is heard and what is seen is crucial. Where sound is transmitted live, as in David Rosenberg's Contains Violence (where the audience watches the action through binoculars from a roof top across the street, hearing the dialogue through headphones), this sound-vision relationship makes sense. The audio device becomes a way of amplifying the dialogue, like a one-way walkie-talkie.
However, when the audio track is prerecorded, the relationship becomes more complicated. First, there is the absence of the voice's owner, which, if it exists anywhere, is only in your head. Then there's the matter of pace: we are pulled along, inevitably out of sync in some way, by the soundtrack's instructions and observations.
This combination results in a curious experience: one that feels active, but is actually passive. We are told where to move, where to look, and even what to think. It's a form of submission, stripping us of agency, which can seem unnatural â€“ but not necessarily negative.
I don't want to criticise a theatrical form before it's had a chance to flourish, but if audio-instructed performance is to thrive, it has to make the most imaginative use of the technology. In short, it can't afford to ignore the headphones: the form cannot be readily separated from the content.
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Guardian: Warning: this play may contain headphones | Matt Trueman
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