New experiments in binaural sound technology


Originally written for The Stage.

Binaural sound technology is nothing new. The technique of binaural recording, which creates the sensation of 3D sound for those listening through headphones, has been around in one form or another since the end of the 19th century, when it was used in the transmission of theatre and opera performances over telephone lines. What’s more novel, however, is its use in theatre.

Director David Rosenberg has long been aware of the potential of binaural sound. “I first came across it through my dad,” he remembers. “My dad was a physiologist working in the area of soundand he was doing work with binaural sound when I was about 10.”

The technology was not put to use in Rosenberg’s theatre-making, however, until he and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham started creating experimental scratch performances with theatre company Shunt, of which Rosenberg is a co-founder.

“Ben and I and David developed that interest together,” Max Ringham tells me, recalling their early experiments at the Shunt Lounge under London Bridge station in the mid-2000s. “First of all, we were working with an illegal radio transmitter and we would set up impromptu illegal radio stations to send audio out to people.” From these illegitimate beginnings, the trio gradually refined their use of the technology, eventually putting it to full use in the 2007 show Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith.

In Contains Violence and subsequent shows Electric Hotel and Motorshow, Rosenberg explains that the use of binaural sound was “about trying somehow to bridge the visual gap between the audience and what they were watching”. In each piece, audience members were positioned as onlookers, with the sound pumped through their headphones immersing them in distant spaces, be those hotel rooms or car interiors.

But there are problems with this as a technique. “There’s a hierarchy of perceptions,” says Rosenberg, with sight at the top. “Sight occupies the very safe territory where lots of other sensations then attach themselves to what you see,” he continues, using the example of an experiment in which participants attributed different sounds to the same set of moving lips. “Sound is not a precise thing in the way vision is,” Ringham compares the two senses. “When you look at something you can see the clear relationship between a tree and a car, for example, whereas there’s an element of subjectivity with sound about where things are coming from.”

This explains why, for their latest experiments with binaural sound in Ring and Fiction, Rosenberg and his collaborators have plunged audiences into darkness.

“We wanted to completely change that hierarchy and have images created by the sound,” Rosenberg explains their thinking. “Deprived of other sensations, the audience become incredibly sensitive to the sound.”

Ring, created by Rosenberg, Ben and Max Ringham and writer Glen Neath, enveloped audiences in inky blackness and placed them at the centre of an unnerving aural experience. “With Ring, we were really looking at how to expand the role of the audience within this set-up and how to make them the subject of the piece,” says Rosenberg, “so they find themselves deeper and deeper within a performance that they have a role in, that they have a reason to be in.”

While audio performances often raise the question of what qualifies them as theatrical, it was this positioning of the audience that ensured that Ring remained a live experience and one that could not just be listened to at home. “The show for the audience is about being in a room full of people,” says Rosenberg. “You need to be in that situation in order for it to make sense.” Neath agrees, going as far as to claim that this work heightens the liveness of the theatre: “It feels like one of the most live experiences I’ve had in the theatre.”

Robbing the audience of their sight, meanwhile, has given greater scope for the sound. “The darkness is such a massive gift for us,” Ringham says. “It’s brilliant, because it means to start with everyone thinks you’re about 10 times better than you are. Your sense of hearing is so much more heightened in the dark and people’s focus is absolutely on what they’re hearing, because they have nothing else.”

As a sound designer, Ringham relishes the new opportunities that binaural technology allows. “The geek in me really enjoys throwing sounds around,” he says. He remembers a moment during Electric Hotel, in which the audio feed tricked audience members into believing that they could hear people speaking from among them. “Every night, watching 500 people turn around and look over their shoulder to see who was talking behind them when there was no one there, was quite a big thrill.”

Like any technological development, however, it has its challenges. “There are lots more facets to take on board when you’re trying to create it,” explains Neath, as well as lots of theatrical devices that are ruled out by the use of headphones and, in the cases of Ring and Fiction, the complete darkness. “There were so many things that you couldn’t do and you had to find a way round.”

Lessons have been learned along the way, such as the sound designers’ discovery that “people’s perception of things in a space has a limit; people can only hold three separate things in a 3D environment in their head and know where they’re coming from”. Ringham insists, therefore, that it’s important for theatre-makers working with this sound to keep it simple and not attempt to do too much at once. He also stresses that it’s “incredibly important” to use high-quality recording equipment in order to create the best experience. “There’s the KU100, which is the industry standard best and nothing sounds quite as good, to be honest.”

So what makes this technology so exciting for theatre-makers? “The main thing is a question of intimacy,” says Rosenberg. “With all live events we’re trying to create some sort of intimate relationship between the audience and what they’re seeing. How do you keep that intimacy when you have increasingly large audiences?” Binaural sound, which can create the sensation of a performer whispering directly into each and every audience member’s ear, is one answer.

Intimacy also seems to be the lure for audiences. Observing the growing interest in binaural sound across the theatre industry, Ringham suggests that “it’s more and more of interest to people as they’re more interested in an immersive type experience. It’s an incredible way of transporting people and putting them into different environments.”

This sensation of immersion is central to Fiction, the team’s second show using binaural sound and complete darkness. This time, the show puts audiences in two places at once: the room of the theatre, and the dream world that the sound transports them to. “The principal difference is that we’re taking the audience to a lot of different locations and there’s been quite a lot of discussion about how we actually record that,” says Ringham.

The effect of this sound, Neath hopes, is “something magical”, allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief even as they are made aware of the physical space they inhabit. “This is not real, but we challenge you not to believe it.”

Photo: Alex Brenner.

The Roof: Free-running Meets Gaming


Originally written for The Guardian.

In an age of screens, avatars and online anonymity, David Rosenberg and Frauke Requardt’s latest collaboration performs an intriguing reversal. The Roof, which is part of the London international festival of theatre, explodes the video game out of the screen and into the open air. In a car park opposite the National Theatre, audiences are invited to look on as a three-dimensional hero runs, jumps and fights his way through level after level. Virtual meets real.

Surprisingly, neither Rosenberg nor Requardt are big gamers. The concept of gaming as a structural and visual reference point emerged from the idea of an audience inhabiting a single character at the same time as being able to observe that character’s actions from an external perspective – the relationship between gamer and avatar, essentially. The resulting show is, according to Rosenberg, “a bit of an out-of-body experience”, in which audiences invest in an avatar whose movements they have no control over.

This unsettling dual experience is created through the use of headphones and binaural technology, harnessing immersive sound to transport audiences to the heart of the action. But while each audience member is offered an individualised, isolated experience through the soundtrack being pumped into their ears, Rosenberg and Requardt insist that it is vital to observe the piece as a group. “We want to create an environment where the audience feel that they’re part of a mob and there is something gladiatorial about the perspective that they have on the action,” says Rosenberg. As a group, spectators can watch, but not intervene.

“We never set out to create an interactive experience where an audience can determine an outcome,” Rosenberg explains. He compares the helpless experience of both inhabiting and watching a character to how we live our lives “through a collection of mainly random events and attempt to attach our own agency onto those events”. As Rosenberg and Requardt discuss, the clear parallels between gaming and life – progression, growth, levels – invite an audience to draw such connections.

“We were interested in taking the structure from gaming because the structure holds the audience through the show,” Requardt adds, suggesting that the “predictability” of this structure helps to give shape to a piece which relies more on movement than on words. Layered over this simple logic, Requardt’s choreography has been able to access a more abstract language, exploring “existential things about what it’s like to be alive”.

Despite this abstraction, Rosenberg and Requardt are also interested in some of the concerns particular to gaming – violence chief among them. The Roof may not explicitly address this issue, but Requardt believes that “there’s a question about violence which is raised, just because it’s a live performance and it’s not a game”.

The implications of this might have as much to say about the culture from which those games arise as the games themselves. After all, as Rosenberg reflects, “there aren’t many video games where you get rewarded for altruism or empathy”.

Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian.

Agency or Entrapment? Audience Interaction & Shunt’s The Architects


In Shunt’s labyrinthine new show, the visible maze is just a warm-up. After navigating our way through a bewildering mass of MDF corridors, all chillingly kitted out with surveillance cameras and television monitors, we emerge into what appears to be the monochrome belly of a luxury cruise liner, where we obediently sit at tables and chairs while our bumbling Danish (0r are they?) guides jolt us through a disorientating litany of escalating crises. The heating is broken, someone’s taken a shit by the barbecue and a beast appears to be on the loose, as all the while the band plays frantically on. This ship is going down and there’s nothing we can do about it. But despite this sense of immobile powerlessness, this feeling that we are at the mercy of our none too trustworthy hosts, there is an atmosphere of consent. As one character acknowledges, “we’re all adults here”.

Meatier than it appears at first glance, there’s plenty to dissect in The Architects: the mutation of the central Minotaur myth, the structures and exercising of power, the very nature of spectacle. But as a spectator of Shunt’s latest offering, it was this positioning of the audience that I found myself repeatedly returning to – no doubt coloured by the preoccupations that I brought into the space. When speaking to company member David Rosenberg for Exeunt a few weeks ago, one frank admission of his intrigued me: “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”. He went on to describe spectators as being “imprisoned” within the world of Shunt’s creation, be it a conference, a tennis pitch or, in the case of The Architects, the cruise of a lifetime. We have little to no real agency and the company are not shy of acknowledging that fact.

This way of speaking about the work startled me because it was so divorced from the rhetoric surrounding the majority of theatre that falls within the broad brackets of “immersive” and “interactive” (two slippery, problematic and not necessarily interchangeable terms). This kind of work usually invokes a discourse of action, empowerment and choice; audiences are granted freedom, the accompanying material typically states, given a space in which to play and explore. Though, as one of my fellow MA students pointed out in a recent seminar discussing spectatorship and audiences, having to be told that you are free is something of a paradox. Surely audiences already are active and empowered – a starting assumption much like that suggested by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator – and do not need to be granted agency.

Far from the patronising provision of a freedom that should not need to be “allowed”, the knowingly problematic role in which Shunt casts its spectators, particularly in The Architects, presents a far more fascinating, knotty proposition. Within the scenario created by Shunt, there are three hierarchical levels of power: the leering, TOWIE-esque overlords at the top, appearing as a distant video-projected presence that conjures and collides the fickle gods of myth and the grotesquely guzzling modern day elite; our slyly manoeuvring but essentially powerless hosts, positioned as an opportunistic political go-between; and us, the audience, on the bottom rung. Not for the first time, a ship comes to represent a nation, and our role within that sinking nation is all too clear. Seen as part of this rigidly structured and depressingly resonant power dynamic, the imposed powerlessness of spectators is integral to the theatrical metaphor.

While Shunt can to an extent trade on the desirably experiential nature of their performance events, which now inevitably have a currency born from reputation, their very calculated and inherently problematised form of audience restriction seems to present a contrast with the kind of falsely empowering interaction discussed in a recent essay on Culturebot. Discussing the work of Punchdrunk, whose brand of immersive theatre has now become a lucratively sought-after commodity, Agnès Silvestre analyses the hypocritical illusion of agency that the work cultivates, painting its model of spectatorship as one designed to maximise profit rather than to test the boundaries between performance and audience.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that many people find Punchdrunk’s shows an exhilarating experience, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that in itself. What grates is the promise of freedom in which it is framed, with marketing material that speaks of “roaming audiences” who are free to explore. Audience members might be encouraged to move around more than in “traditional” theatre settings, but as Silvestre points out, they are only “free” so long as they play within Punchdrunk’s set of rules. Those who transgress are silenced or removed.

The Architects also has unspoken rules of engagement, ones subtly laid out by the structure of the piece from the off and obediently adhered to by the spectators around me. But this restrictive framework is engaged in an implicit dialogue with the piece itself, a dialogue that asks us to look at these power relationships from a critical perspective. As already identified, there is inherent consent, making us complicit in our own inactivity. Just as the cruise promises us the opportunity, should we so wish, for a romantic encounter with a dolphin (or other beast of our choice) on the basis that we are consenting adults, we have chosen to be here and it is our choice to get meekly tugged along by this spiralling disaster. And not just to passively endure it, but to actively enjoy the hilarity of the destruction that steadily engulfs us.

After playing along with this power game, the final big reveal – that element of surprise or unveiling that all Shunt fans are eagerly waiting for – has a tinge of disappointment. The concluding image, framed within a raised box, is painful to watch yet loudly demanding of our attention, cultivating the same kind of morbid fascination that compels passersby to crane their necks to look at car crashes. It is repulsive yet disappointing because it simply shows to us what was there all along and what we as good theatrical citizens decided to happily accept. The big reveal is not really a big reveal at all, in that it turns the mirror on something we already half knew about our place within this constructed scenario and within the wider world to which it metaphorically refers.

It’s all there in the name: Shunt build the accepted architectures of power and sculpt our place within those. The realisation, and perhaps from that the resistance, are down to us.

Shunt’s The Architects


Originally written for Exeunt.

Shunt have always nurtured an unusual and striking relationship with space. From the theatre company’s initial base in Bethnal Green Arches to their residency in the vaults under London Bridge Station, the site of performance has been integral to their work.

There is something deeply appropriate, then, about the title of Shunt’s new piece. The Architects, a disorientating riff on the Minotaur myth, is the first of their shows to be staged in a space that is not their own, but its name immediately conjures the role that the company have previously taken in constructing the environments in which audiences experience their work. Shunt embrace theatre as event, building entire worlds into which spectators are “immersed” – a term that has since become a fashionable and problematic tag for the kind of work that the company have always been interested in producing.

Central to these precisely assembled fictional worlds is the element of surprise, which makes writing about Shunt’s work a delicate activity. Perched at the edge of their rehearsal room in Marylebone, I feel a slight illicit thrill at peeking inside a process cloaked with secrecy, an outsider flicking through the embryonic blueprints. Later, speaking to company member David Rosenberg during the rehearsal lunch break, it is made clear that the less I reveal about the show the better. The journey that audiences are guided on by Shunt hinges on the unexpected and on knowing as little as possible prior to the event.

“We’re always looking for ways in our work to bring people very much into the moment of where they are in a performance,” says Rosenberg, reaching for adequate words to describe this element of the work. Shunt want audiences fully inside their pieces, fighting the conditioned impulse to be constantly drawing cerebral connections between the performance and the world outside, and encouraging audience members to feel “something that isn’t part of the suspension of disbelief”.

This displacement of the usual relationship between audience and performance relies heavily on moments of surprise and disorientation, moments that shift the atmosphere of the piece and create something from the resulting discomfort. “Points of surprise are points where you begin to imagine that you know the architecture of the space or understand the logic of the space and then that logic changes,” Rosenberg explains. “In that brief period when you’re trying to adjust, that’s a very exciting state to be experiencing a show in.”

For all the care taken over the audience experience, however, there is an intriguing tension in Shunt’s work between a level of freedom not normally enjoyed by audiences and the very orchestrated nature of the experiences they craft. Shattering the usual rhetoric that surrounds this type of work, Rosenberg freely admits that “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”, going on to describe audience members as being “imprisoned” in the worlds that the company create. At the same time, however, he is intent on giving audiences as little instruction as possible, insisting during rehearsals that the performers should not be telling the audience what to do, but instead the shape of the piece should guide their behaviour and interaction. In this way, paradoxically, the more controlled the environment, the freer the audience feel.

This tension between agency and entrapment is likely to also be key to The Architects. Writing about Shunt’s new piece without dropping several clunking spoilers is a problematic task, so my conversation with Rosenberg – at least outside the rehearsal room – remains largely in the realm of the vague. As loudly announced by the bull emblazoned on their marketing material, the show’s basis in the Minotaur myth, a myth that Rosenberg tells me they have been interested in exploring for several years, is no secret. Unsurprisingly, it was the room for interpretation that appealed to the company. “We were interested in taking as a starting point a very short and well known story,” says Rosenberg. “Whatever account you read is barely more than a page, so there are a limited number of elements within it; we could extrapolate a lot from something very simple.”

I wonder whether the unique nature of the myth as a mode of storytelling and its role in the formation and communication of cultures and ideas is significant to Shunt’s appropriation of this form. As acknowledged by Rosenberg, this inspirational springboard marks a departure from the historical starting points of most of the company’s previous work and is thus being utilised and interpreted in a different way. “The fact that this is a myth brings in interesting ideas about the creation of myths and how they can continue to be useful in contemporary narratives.”

Rosenberg’s mention of the contemporary brings us onto the real world resonance that Shunt’s work attempts to achieve even within its sealed-off theatrical worlds. Despite engaging with historical or fictional narratives, the company’s shows are typically informed by the social and political climate of both their conception and their subsequent development throughout performance. Money, performed in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, refracted the financial crisis of that specific moment through a tale of past financial failure; the inspiration of the gunpowder plot was married with the anxieties of a post-9/11 world in Dance Bear Dance.

“There is an idea for a show and then there is the current climate in which that show is being made,” Rosenberg makes the distinction. “There are events unfolding throughout the whole time we’ll be making a show, so we try to be a bit permeable to those events.” As for the current significance of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, Rosenberg is more elusive, but it is clear that the piece is heavily coloured by the present moment, with the company hinting at metaphorical links between the audience’s experience and the wider political and economic landscape.

Equipped with only partial information, the glimpse I witness of the rehearsal room is often as disorientating as the finished experience is engineered to be, but one thing I do get a clear sense of is Shunt’s collective method of working. One performer leads an improvisation, to be replaced the next moment by someone else; any hierarchy that might briefly emerge is fluid and ever-shifting. Likewise, while individuals inevitably take on different roles within the company, everything is conceived and credited collectively. As Rosenberg puts it, “when we make the work we aren’t fulfilling the vision of one person. We are all the authors of that work.”

This notion of collective authorship steers the conversation into ideas of legacy. With no sole author, how can a textual trace of the work remain? This question of documentation is one that intrigues Rosenberg, but one that he admits the company have not been particularly good at addressing. Despite the existence of a Shunt archive, the collective are unsure how these documents might translate into a record of the shows they create.

“It’s very difficult to document an audience experience, and that’s the point of the work,” Rosenberg pins down the central problem. “What lingers around afterwards is a mess of different images and snippets of things.” Precisely because of their idiosyncratic melding of history, fiction and the present moment, together with the particular combination of artists who make their work possible, Shunt’s shows exist very much in the moment of their performance. As such, any form of documentation must recognise this.

“The archive could become something that exists in its own right,” Rosenberg muses, “something that isn’t just about a record.”  This too, perhaps, could become a new space, an area carved out by Shunt to offer their audiences yet another way of experiencing their work. As Rosenberg speaks about the possibility of touring next year, a departure from previous ways of working that once again shifts the company’s relationship with the space of performance, Shunt leave the impression that they are still far from finished with manipulating the architecture of theatre.

Photo: Susanne Dietz