Like theatre, The Memory of Theatre will be experienced as an event, a social event

So, as Cliff wrote, in some ways it’s ideal timing that The Memory of Theatre is happening alongside the restoration, refurbishment and reopening of the Theatre Royal, the Georgian auditorium. The project enables audiences, those who’ve worked and performed in the building to look back on memorable moments in order to look forward to the theatre’s future. But, at present we’re waiting on the arrival of the new seats, which does mean that interviewing people in situ is a little difficult. Still, Cliff’s testing of the WiFi location system has been progressing well, using the foyer of the Bristol Old Vic. The Coopers Hall and sometime fruit and veg warehouse, which now serves as the foyer, is the other space where we will be collecting memories. This will be transformed in the second phase of redevelopment in 2014.

Whilst Cliff has been testing the most appropriate, accurate, stable and affordable indoor system for delivering the recordings, we’ve been developing our conversations around the sound design and methods of recording with Lewis Gibson. With Matthew Austin of MAYK we’ve been considering appropriate ways to market the project to the various people who use the building, to encourage them to gift their memories to the collection.

In terms of the method of recording we’re very clear about the conceptual importance of recording each interviewees’ memory in the place where the original event took place. We would like to think of the invitation to gift a memory to the collection, returning with your memory to the theatre and telling it to one of the curators of the collection as part of the work. This should be an engaging event for the participant in which they locate their oral story in the memory theatre, invest in the collection and have their memory accessioned. There should be a specialness to the occasion of gifting your memory; it should be a memorable event.

We want to explore making recordings with the memory-giver wearing binaural microphones in each ear. This should have the effect of putting the listener in the place of the rememberer - in their shoes so to speak. Hopefully you’ll hear the interviewee’s voice as though it’s a voice in your head. We’ll also explore some variations, for instance with the interviewer wearing the binaural microphones and the rememberer whispering their recollections of what they saw and heard into their ear, intimately as they sit beside them. The hope is that these 3D sound recordings will make the absent interviewee present again for the listener. And that the event from recent history will encounter the theatre's present. As we will also capture the acoustic and location sounds of the foyer or auditorium alongside the interviewee’s description of the place in the past, the now of the interview will be overlaid with the remembered place and the time of listening for the future participant/audience.

We discussed using the binaural technology to signpost users to other locations in the theatre where there are memories to be found. Whilst in the dress circle, listening to the background soundscore, which plays between memories, you might hear someone call out from the stalls. It could be as simple as a voice saying, “I’m over here, I’m Daniel Day Lewis; come listen to me, you’ll find me in F15”, or a quote from their story, “I saw a ghost over here once”, some associative sound effect or musical motif. We’re certainly keen on the narrative being interwoven and motifs or cross-references returning. References to each of the stories told can be cross-referenced or embedded as clues in the background soundtrack. This way the narratives can weave together, so you hear a sound, music or a speech related to each of the stories in the continuous background soundscape. Ideally of course you would hear these sound effects or speeches coming from the place where they happened, but this may be beyond the scope of this prototype. A next step would be to spatialise this background soundscape so that using the phone’s compass and g-force sensor sounds from the stage always come from the direction of the stage, even when you turn your head and sounds from the audience always come from the actual stalls. This would require the phone being attached to your head so that the app knows which way you are looking and whether your head is tilted, which I’ll come back to below.

We also spoke about scoring the rememberer’s story, that the function of the location sound or soundtrack should be to focus the listener on the voice of the rememberer and to transport you to the time described. This may mean that the soundtrack is composed as a segue into the memory and/or works evocatively to help the listener conjure up and imagine the event described after hearing about it. The sound and music could act as an audio trigger that enables the listener to recognise that they are approaching a new memory place/location or work as a segue transporting them from then back to now, from imagining what the rememberer described back into the continuous background soundtrack. What we should avoid is a directly illustrative relationship between the sound and the events described in the story, which would be redundant.

We’re considering the content of the background soundtrack, which could have its own narrative that might be as simple as beginning with the audience entering the theatre and the social hubbub of conversation, as the anticipation builds for the start of the show, before silence and audience responses, interval chatter and then the rounds of applause, post-show exchanges and the noise of departure. Out of this hubbub of many voices, when you approach a memory place, a single voice, that of the rememberer, becomes clear and the sound “zooms in” to focus on them. Their voice emerges out of the crowd.

We decided that the background soundscore would be zoned, so that it is specific to different areas in Bristol Old Vic. So, the foyer soundtrack would relate to what happens there, the sounds and behaviours of arriving at the theatre, meeting friends and picking up tickets from box office. This could also reference the history of Coopers Hall, for example as a fruit and veg warehouse/market. The auditorium of the Theatre Royal would be another zone and the stage or backstage could potentially also have its own specific soundscore.

Another possibility that we may explore is having people approach you within these zoned soundscores. Perhaps there’s a ‘friendly guide’ voice who encourages you to move on to a different area – like a hand being placed on a shoulder. Perhaps there are voices that come up and whisper in your ear to make the experience design more layered.

We’ve been having an interesting discussion around the use of tenses in the recording of memories. Whether the interviewee says, “It’s 2012, and I am standing…”, or “It was 1956 and I was standing…”, or “It’s 1956 and from here you can see…”: The present, the past or the remembered ‘present’. Tom was keen to ask the memory giver to begin by describing the present, what they see in the auditorium of foyer now, and then describing how it was and what happened in their memory. This would add a layer to the oral archive, accounts of the theatre at the time of the interview, which will be in the past when the future audience member listens to the recordings. Tom’s thought was that this would conserve something of now, bearing in mind that the theatre  - especially the foyer – is about to undergo a radical renovation and will continue to change over time. I’m keen to encourage the interviewee to describe the remembered event at though they are seeing it happen again. This may take some careful questions and responsive direction, but I’d like to explore them conjuring up what happened as though it’s playing out before their eyes again now, and as though they are sharing the experience with the interviewer. As part of our prototyping we will explore interviewees speaking in both past tense and present tense. This seems important to experiment with: we may settle on one tense consistently or find that different people’s accounts lend themselves to past or present tense and that this variation leads to a richer experience.

As the accuracy of the indoor WiFi location system is yet to be determined, and in light of the earlier Technology Strategy Board trial, we considering how best to precisely locate the listener where the remember was at the time of the event described. We’ve talked about subtle audio cues, looped soundtrack. We’ve discussed recording directions from the interviewee, so that they guide you to their seat, saying, ‘Take a seat, I was sitting in the third seat from the end of the row” Or “Hello, I’m Daniel, come and join me in F15”. Or describing what you ought to be able to see, e.g. “So, from here you can see… to our left is… we’re right below…” We’re also considering some consistent visual signifiers, for instance, footprints on the floor that you discover when you approach and align your feet with, so you’re both standing in their place and facing the right direction to “see” the story staged.

On perhaps a lighter note – although comical as it sounds we are serious – we’ve returned to an earlier idea. This comes back to what I wrote above about g-force sensors and compasses in phones. We’ve returned to an earlier idea involving participants having their mobile phones attached to their foreheads. This could either be achieved using the kind of gear a head torch is attached to or  - for a more theatrical approach – attached to a hat from the Bristol Old Vic wardrobe, once worn in a seminal production from the theatre’s history. We don’t want users/participants to need to engage with their mobile phones or be distracted from their listening experience and experience of being in the theatre, we want the interface to be walking and for people to trigger the memories that ghost the space hands free, simply by placing themselves where a memory once happened. But we are interested in a different use of the phone’s display. OK, it’s a bit like the Rizla game where you have to guess who you are; whose famous name is stuck on your forehead, but here’s our idea: The mobile phones attached to participants’ heads or hats display the name of the person whose memory they’re listening to and the year of the event recalled, for other participants to see. This way you would be able to see who others were standing in for and the Memory of Theatre could become more social and game-like. In fact, if a number of participants/users wandered the theatre at the same time, tuning in to the various voices and memories, it could become like a memory game. You would see that someone was listening-in to a particular person or time and make your way to the place that memory is located. You might see someone smiling or chuckling to themselves across the theatre and make a mental note to remember to go there and experience that story for yourself. You might want to collect all of the memories and there could be some impetus to do so, perhaps collectively. 

Obviously it would be ideal if you could do the Memory of Theatre at any time, if the theatre was accessible all day everyday and if those using the app could always go where they pleased, wandering the Theatre Royal, taking to the stage and going backstage. Of course such unsupervised wandering around the theatre isn’t really practical so the App will be advertised and offered to audiences on particular days, like Open Doors Day. This will make more of an event of it. The showing of the curated collection of oral histories will be more of an occasion and – like theatre –the work will be experienced collectively, as a social event that will generate good conversation and exchange. Perhaps an exchange of stories about the memories you've heard or your own stories of experiences in the theatre, triggered by doing this memory work.