d'n café - 21 May 2016
The Dramaturgy of the Sonic Arts
with Hanna Slättne
On Saturday 21st May we had the first d’n café of 2016 in the lovely café area of Theatre 503, and it was fascinating. Hanna Slattne, dramaturg on Reassembled, Slightly Askew, took us through the making of this piece about writer Shannon Yee’s traumatic brain virus and her eventual recovery, although still ‘slightly askew’, as told through binaural technology. Audience members walk into a waiting room and wait until they are taken by a ‘nurse’ into the performance space, which is set out like a ward. They are then tucked into bed, blindfolded, and earphones are put on. For the next 43 minutes (yes, we learnt about precision when it comes to the sonic arts!) they experience what Shannon experienced. At the end, audience members are led back to the waiting room and can either watch a video about it all, or chat to each other, or just gather themselves before launching back out into the real world.
So before Hanna explained her dramaturgical work within this process, she explained how binaural technology works, basically – recordings can either be made via a microphone placed in either ear. This means that not only the person speaking is recorded, but also the ambient sounds, so for example, when someone sits or lies down, the ambient sound changes. Recordings are also made with a Dummy Head as featured in The Encounter by Simon McBurney.
Hanna explained that the creation of Reassembled, Slightly Askew, which took five years in total, was a collaborative one, that each creative (writer, director, choreographer, sonic artist, dramaturg) took turns to lead the process, but that as dramaturg her job was to find a common language they could all share across their respective art forms, to try to find the most constructive process for this journey into the unknown and to keep an eye on the shape of the whole piece allowing the others to get fixated with details.
There is a great temptation to go wild with the potential of this wonderful technology so one of the dramaturgical challenges was to make sure the team used it to its full potential (see the image of the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Belfast below) whilst creating a gentle, caring experience placing the audience inside Shannon’s head. The team’s motto became: “If it sounds like a radio play – we have failed.”
In response to a question about the challenges of working with a playwright writing their own traumatic experience, Hanna told us she spent an evening working with Shannon, hearing the story, and asking many detailed questions whilst capturing the emotional aspects of Shannon’s experience on a picture-board across several sheets of A3. These sheets were then rolled up and carried around to every meeting, every recording session, as the story-board or script of what they were working on.
The delicacy of Shannon’s story was one thing, working with the sonic artist was another. As the recording progressed, miniscule changes could take weeks to implement, as the technology is so complex and the layering of sounds are like a tightly woven quilt. So any notes from the team required precise timings and clarity in the reasons and above all, an awareness of the implications for Paul the sonic artist. It’s a bit like making a film. Things take much longer than in a rehearsal room.
They became quite inventive: not only were the microphones placed in the actor’s ears, but to get a real sense of what brain surgery was like, a cabbage had the microphones placed in its ears … and then Paul cut the cabbage open …. with a variety of tools. At all times, consideration had to be given to finding the line between revealing unpleasantness of brain surgery and it not being unbearable for an audience.
In response to another question, Hanna said that she felt her role as dramaturg was as a kind of overseer, ensuring that everyone was able to work to their best ability and that all aspects of the experience were taken into consideration for the audience (hence the time spent in the waiting room before and afterwards). All in all, it was a fascinating way to spend Saturday afternoon, and in fact the conversation continued in the pub afterwards.