ANNA: Working with Binaural Sound in Theatre


Something that we’re really interested
to explore with this show is the idea that
the audience sit on headphones removed from the actors
through a piece of glass, but yet, they can be having
a really intimate experience of the characters’ subjectivity.Outside of the flat, you hear nothing
if you don’t have your headphones on.
It’s only through the headphonesthat you’re able to access
the world of the play.
— I like this dress.
— This dress likes you.
When d’you get it?I don’t think you really care
when I got it.
I think you only care
about when I get out of it.
— You need to shave.
— I need to shave?
— You need to shave
— (LAUGHS)
(HE HUMS IN HER EAR)We’re going to be late. Your colleagues
are going to think that I’m disorganised.
♪ Ba! ♪Paul is whispering into the ear
of Phoebe Fox and we, as a listener,
have the experience of hearing that in a very close proximity to Phoebe that you would not be able to achieve
in a normal theatrical show. Binaural sound is three-dimensional audio, and it can only be heard
through headphones because the way it works is it’s recorded through a mic in the same place
as both of your ears. What you’re able to do is hear sounds
in the same perspective as you would in the real world. So, if you hear someone
talking to your right, they sound like they’re talking to your
right, also behind and in front of you. And that’s the technology
that we use inAnna. (LOW MUSIC PLAYING, HUM OF CONVERSATIONS)— So, tell me how you’re getting on.
— I need to get things ready.
Oh, don’t make me talk to anyone else,
I hate them.
— You love them.
— I love you.
— Really?
— Have you met the new boss yet?
Herr Neumann? No. What’s he like?Um… He’s very handsome.Terrible kisser!(BOTH LAUGHING)What we approached the National with
was we wanted to use this technology
to see how well we could deliver
a narrative with it
and deliver a story with it.We met a few writers,and Ella Hickson was one that
we immediately felt we could work with,
and happily, she decided to do it.The script is sort of architectural. It has to have a spatial sense. So, where things sit on the page very much represent
where people are in the space. So, you’re always playing
this quite complex game of audio point of focus
and visual point of focus. Trying to make sure that you are in
control of where the audience is looking as well as where they’re hearing, so that you can tell the story
that you want to tell.It’s a very interesting way to be workingbecause often there are things
that I would direct in a certain way
because I’d be following things
with my eyes and ears in equal amounts
that then have to be made differently
if you want to prioritise the sound.
Often what’s happening
is that we’re out there
and I will discuss
with Ben and Max and Ella
how they think this certain thing
should be delivered,
before I then go and deliver the note.Yeah, working with binaural audio is… It’s completely changing the way that you might go about picking
apart a script in a rehearsal process. Whereas, normally, I think you would make
decisions based on emotional intention and then you might also think about visually how that comes across
to the audience, we are trying to make decisions
based on emotional truth, but also about what sounds good.All your instincts
of how theatre works don’t hold.
If we’re having an intimate conversationor we’re far apart on the stage,
I know what I need to do to be heard.
But in that glass box, in the flat,I cannot judge when I’m being heard
and when I’m not.
It’s really, really hard to gauge
what the mics are picking up
because of the surrounding sounds
that are happening
and the surrounding voices.And so we, literally,
have to trust people out here.
We can’t… It’s impossible to know what’s
right and what’s wrong, in terms of level.
The idea, in its core, is very simple
because it is about these two microphones, but then there is a whole other level
which is that this flat that Vicki Mortimer created is just
peppered with speakers everywhere.As she passes through rooms,
you might not be entirely aware of it,
but the sound of each room
has its own sonic identity.
So that you weren’t just watching
with your eyes where she was,
but you were also listening with your ears
to understand the places she went.
(MAN CLEARS THROAT, MUSIC PLAYING LOW) (QUIET CONVERSATIONS)— MAN: Ms Weber!
— ANNA: Yes!
— Are you leaving?
— No, I just thought I’d…
— Are you feeling all right?
— I’m not feeling very well.
(FOOTSTEPS)
Oh, the meatballs are burnt!
WOMAN: Please don’t waste them.
We’ll just have them later.
Ooh!
(TAP RUNNING)
Our rehearsal process is, basically,
a technical process. We’re sitting in the flat
where the actors are performing and then the creative team
is sitting outside trying to listen in and you realise the gap
between what you know is being said and you know is written on the page, and actually what is being understood
through sounds. In film, you’re often thinking about
character point of view and the camera is where people’s eyes are. Here, we want the audience
to be in Anna’s perspective, to make a really subjective piece that
they are following one character, Anna, through her experience over one evening.It walks a fine line between being
very cinematic and traditional theatre.
I think you get a little bit
of the best of both worlds
because the access that you’re given
through the headphones
is really intimate,
in the way that cinema can be,
and you’re right in there with it.But there is still the thrill
of a live experience that you’re watching.

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