No disruption here - performers embrace technology

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

The Encounter is a theatrical adventure that tells the true story of being lost in the Amazon rainforest.
The Encounter is a theatrical adventure that tells the true story of being lost in the Amazon rainforest.

Imagine you are National Geographic photojournalist and explorer Loren McIntyre; the year is 1969 and you are in Brazil to find the remote Mayoruna tribe, when you get lost in the seemingly impenetrable Amazon Rainforest.

You don't find the Mayoruna; they find you and you are catapulted back to the Stone Age entirely dependent on a tribe who believe they are descended from jaguars and don't exactly take a shine to you.

One of them leads you back into the jungle and, amid the incessant sounds of insects and animal eyes that watch your every move, you are left to die. Thanks to fate, you escape and live to tell your story (and, two years later, discover the source of the Amazon River).

Now imagine you're a theatre company wanting to tell McIntyre's extraordinary story. Do you go for a large-scale production that tries its best to compete with on-screen imagery? Or do you co-opt technology to do something never done before in theatre and trace McIntyre's journey so realistically that some in the audience swat away imaginary mosquitoes?

Complicite, a UK-based theatre company co-founded and directed by actor Simon McBurney, chose the latter. Its show, The Encounter, comes to town for the Auckland Arts Festival 2017and has more sound operators than actors.

Look through the programme for the AAF 2017 and it quickly becomes apparent that in an age characterised by "digital disruption" and new video and film technology, performing artists are ensuring audiences still find plenty to entertain them in the theatre - if they're in a theatre at all.

Talking to Weekend from New York, McBurney says people still come to the theatre because they want to be together and use their imaginations. But in The Encounter, he wanted to achieve feelings of isolation, aloneness and utter abandonment - the opposite to being in a comfortable space with other people.

So Complicite turned to binaural headsets where the sound recordings are reproductions of the way human ears hear it. Although binaural technology has been around for a few decades, its use in theatre is a lot more recent. With it, audiences perceive distinct surround sound.

Combining contemporary technology with traditional research, Complicite's crew went to the Amazon and spent a week hearing the stories of indigenous people and recording sounds so they could replicate it as accurately as possible. It has paid off, with critics describing The Encounter as "a sensuous, immersive foray into sound and an experiment in time-bending and mind-melding" and "contemporary theatre at its most immersive and thought-provoking".

McBurney says technology must never overwhelm the story itself, told by solo performer Richard Katz, and is only ever a means to an ends. The theatre game remains the same: tell great stories, entertain, inspire and provoke.

And that's just what you'll find on the AAF programme - theatre, music, dance and visual arts that marry the contemporary and traditional to great effect.

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan pays homage to rice.
The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan pays homage to rice.

Take Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan's Rice, which depicts the lifestyle of the world's great grain staple. Founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min took 22 dancers to the farming village of Chihshang, where they joined in the rice harvest.

A cinematographer spent two years, off and on, filming the landscape and the rice-growing cycle - flooding, sprouting, harvesting and burning - coupled with atmospheric shots of the wind billowing through paddy fields, clouds reflected in water and flames engulfing fields.

It forms an immersive video backdrop that will envelop the entire stage of the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre. There are times when it truly looks as if the dancers are moving on water and that fields are springing forth behind them.

And if we're talking immersive video works, Antarctica While You Were Sleeping is about the closest many of us with get to the South Pole. For three nights, the Auckland War Memorial Museum becomes a giant canvas for a 1-1 scale Antarctic iceberg projected on all its walls. Visual artist Joseph Michael and composer Rhian Sheehan not only offer a glimpse of this icy world, but you'll also hear ice crack and water drip as the 45-minute video circumnavigates the museum.

During Power Plant, visitors will see the trees, tracks and wildlife of Auckland Domain in new and surprising ways.
During Power Plant, visitors will see the trees, tracks and wildlife of Auckland Domain in new and surprising ways.

Meanwhile, the Domain is also the site for Power Plant, where light and sound installations illuminate the park and offer a nocturnal bush walk that combines art and nature. Artists from around the world create the installations, with New Zealander Phil Dadson, of Sonics from Scratch, providing the soundscape.

Speaking to Weekend from Wales, artist Mark Anderson describes it as a quirky but serious endeavour which began 12 years ago - Power Plant has travelled the world - to encourage people to see their neighbourhoods and nature in, well, a new light.

They picked a Domain site that descends through the bush into a deep gully, which he describes as primal and conducive to deep thinking. A 6m x 2m container of installations, cabling and equipment is now on a ship bound for New Zealand; Anderson may have to bring the odd installation or two in his luggage.

"Google Earth means that we're now able to be sent a list of possible sites and then zoom in on them to see if they'll work rather than having to travel to the other side of the world to choose," says Anderson.

"The only thing with the Domain site is that there are a lot of trees so we couldn't get as good a view as I might without the trees.

"We've seen some massive changes in the technology in just 12 years. Whereas once we were using CD players, now we're using MP3 players and we haven't switched to LED lights because they don't provide the effects we're after. It means getting replacement parts for the 'bastardised' lighting technology we use is actually getting more difficult."

And then there's the weather - but Anderson says he lives in Wales and is well-used to protecting electrical equipment from the ravages of the elements.

Horror is described as "ingeniously gruesome and strangely poetic, sinister and chilling..."
Horror is described as "ingeniously gruesome and strangely poetic, sinister and chilling..."

You should never become overly dependent on technology, says Dutch theatre-maker Jakop Ahlbom, who specialises in theatre designed to get the heart beating and pulse racing.

A long-time fan of horror movies, Ahlbom says it's a genre not often seen in theatre, possibly because it's difficult to ratchet up the tension in a big space and without certain cinematic techniques.

"But the imagination is open to suggestion and you can create a suspenseful atmosphere by taking theatrical rules and working with them. Technology can be as disadvantageous as it is advantageous because you don't want to become dependent and have it fail at a crucial moment."

In Horror, the Civic Theatre - already rumoured to have its own ghost - will double as a haunted house with spine-chillers like the movies The Ring, Evil Dead and The Exorcist all referenced.

Talking to Weekend from The Netherlands, Ahlbom says some of the effects are mechanical - dismembered hands crawling across the floor, wailing as they go - while others use projection and sinister - but never cliched - sound effects. He's talking about having blood spurting up to the ceiling but confesses in a theatre as high as the Civic, that may be trickier to do.

"I have studied illusion and the principles magicians use in their shows, so that helps with this genre.

"The mind can play tricks on people; it can make things seem especially intense. It's theatre where you can feel the tension and the suspense.

What: Auckland Arts Festival
Where & when: Venues all over Auckland, March 8 - 26, 2017

- NZ Herald

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