Knaïve Theatre

By Jo Phillips

Knaïve Theatre presents: A Digital Lyceum is rather magical: it feels like a luminescent venue you stumble across – something like the door into the ‘place’ in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop” Lavinia Murray, dramatist, writer, poet. In times of lockdown, we are in need of not just entertainment but also ways to help creative businesses survive. when they come up with brilliant ideas utilising amazing technology what could be better?

For theatre companies and practitioners, the restrictions wrought by coronavirus and lockdowns have necessitated dramatic changes in their process, an embracing of digital innovation and experimentation and an expansion of the realm of what theatre is/theatres are and can be. in truth this is a reality for all but it has been a true large struggle for the theatre industry but worry not.

Harnessing this spirit of technological exploration, Knaïve Theatre’s co-artistic directors, Tyrrell Jones and Sam Redway, determined to go further, creating a new online venue, Knaïve Theatre presents: A Digital Lyceum, that is not just a showcase but also a testing ground for the possibilities of digital content; that generates a conversation between artists and audiences about the efficacy of digital formats; and that tackles the disconnect of performers and audiences not physically sharing a space, through cutting-edge, technological production techniques, interactive works and post-show discussions via communications platforms.

Director, Tyrrell Jones, and sound designer, Dr Robert Bentall 

Importantly and of course wonderfully to increase accessibility and engagement all shows are free, but to support the season audiences are offered clever little ideas like they are invited to buy a virtual drink at the venue’s bar, the proceeds from which are split between performers and venue.

Neatly encapsulating the venue’s remit is the work that marks the mid-point of its inaugural eight-week season (which runs until 12th December), Covid Lockdown Breath Machine. Written by Lavinia Murray — whose credits include close to 100 original works and adaptations for BBC Radio 3 and 4 — and composed and sound designed by performer, composer and Leeds Conservatoire principal lecturer in music production, Dr Robert Bentall, this innovative and experimental new work expands the parameters of radio drama through the use of binaural recording technology.

This creates a very different audience experience to regular radio programmes or podcasts. It is a 3-D sound sensation placing the listener into the heart of the action, as Bentall explains:

Your experience of space will be quite different – this should feel a lot more natural and immersive. You should, at points, feel as if you might be projecting the words and sounds yourself! You might also feel like you’re actually in the protagonist’s flat, or local park. Normal radio pieces are made with mono microphones and foley (separate environmental sounds) are layered in for an atmosphere. It is much more a case of putting things together like a jigsaw. Your experience of a binaural radio piece should be much more like a piece of cinema for the ear.

Binaural audio is in fact, far closer to how humans normally hear sound; ‘bi’ meaning two, ‘aural’ referring to your ears. But, while that might be how you normally hear, it is not how you listen to recorded music.

Actor, Sophie Coward

“When you put on your headphones, the sound places the soundstage squarely in the middle of your head,” says Bentall, “binaural recordings, however, are optimised for headphones and can recreate the perception of distance – making your audio more immersive!”

He goes on,

the beauty of binaural audio is that you don’t need any fancy equipment to experience it; even a standard pair of headphones will be able to recreate the effect”.

Hence, Covid Lockdown Breath Machine is specifically designed to be listened to through headphones.

Performed by actors, Sophie Coward and Sam Redway, and directed by Tyrrell Jones, the play is a fantastical, transformative, and ultimately an uplifting journey into the symptoms and imaginings of a coronavirus patient; a world of kaleidoscopes, household gods, mushroom spores, a goth campanologist and a protagonist who embarks on a quest in her own front room and marries a fresh but capricious westerly wind.

It is, says Lavinia Murray,

“an emotionally rough-housing, trippy comedy contaminated by horror and despair about human breath (such a gregarious medium) and its enemies”.

The inspiration to commission and produce the play and by extension to create and curate the venue and season, has it roots in Tyrrell Jones’ (Knaïve Theatre’s co-artistic director) own experience of falling ill with coronavirus and his expanding sense of what was possible upon recovery:

I came to from my fevers to discover my whole industry had pretty much closed overnight, the Arts Council had sent back our latest application, explaining that all plans for live work would need to be reconsidered. I should have been devastated, but I was so happy to be alive and the spring somehow felt so beautiful, I just found myself getting more and more excited about all the things that I might be able to try out for the first time. The situation was pretty clear, either we adapt or we sit around and do nothing. This sense of reflection and renewal was so oddly empowering. So we commissioned Lavinia to write a piece in which a protagonist underwent a journey of personal reflection and discovery through a coronavirus infection. Obviously, normal means of creation and distribution of work were entirely barred to us so we, like many others were forced to adapt and embrace new technologies which might help us reach new audiences with exciting work.

Recording sound effects for Covid Lockdown Breath Machine with the binaural microphone 

The pandemic has been devastating for the theatre industry, but in its digital expansion Jones sees some cause for celebration and optimism in all the fear and chaos it has caused:

We all want to go back to the theatre spaces we know and love, we are desperate to hear the collective intake of breath from an audience packed together in an auditorium. Viruses are supposed to change us, change our DNA even (some suggest that without viruses, evolution would have taken far longer). This virus has changed the theatre industry for good. There is no going back from this embracing of digital technology, the aesthetics of the coronavirus, now learned won’t be unlearned. The decade after theatre returns will likely see an explosion of digital technologies within the work. We are all nerds now, that is how we will survive through the next few years.”

Covid Lockdown Breath Machine runs until 12 December at Knaïve Theatre presents: A Digital Lyceum. Until 14th November it can be accessed in the venue’s theatre auditorium: Click Here

From 15th November – 12 December it can be accessed in the venue’s gallery auditorium Click Here .

The Knaïve Theatre presents: A Digital Lyceum season programme can be downloaded from Here

Massive shout out to Guy Sangster-Adams for being our guide and hero with this article. If you enjoyed reading Knaïve Theatre then why not try if music be the food of love…Spray on

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