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How to accidentally attend a workshop

Article by Will McNeice

Ross Brown

Ross Brown

On Saturday I was given the job of finding and interviewing a lighting designer. After some nifty detective work I found out that they hang around at the Alfred ve dvore theatre, a little way south of the Industrial Palace. Armed with a camcorder, a tripod and the name Henk Van Der Geest, I set off with an optimistic heart. As an unprofessional reporter I have a lot to prove, and today I was going to get the best damn interview anyone has ever done. Henk wouldn’t know what hit him.

When I got to the Alfred I had my first problem: I didn’t know what Henk looked like. I went into the theatre and asked some people, only to find out that he wasn’t there. Who was there instead was Ross Brown, a sound designer from England, so I decided to interview him. Unfortunately, Ross was about to begin a workshop, and wouldn’t be interviewed until the end. And because he didn’t send me away to come back later, I decided to stick around and see what happened. What I saw was a sound workshop that focussed on the memory of sound, and the influence of sound as one of the five senses.

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Ross and his team come from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England. Ross is the head of the undergraduate department, and is a sound designer and composer. The school itself is involved in many workshops, as well as the sound sculpture installations. Ross is also a member of the OISTAT sound working group.

Noise, Memory, Gesture: The Theatre in a Minute’s Silence

The workshop was called Noise, Memory, Gesture: The Theatre in a Minute’s Silence, and it began outside, with Ross playing a Buddhist prayer bowl, a metal bowl with a particularly resonant quality. These bowls come in various sizes, and each size produces a different frequency with different harmonics. Ross’s bowl was quite small, which proves that it’s not the size of your bowl that counts, but what you do with it. The purpose of this, he later explained, was to clear your mind from other more obtrusive sounds, and to relax you and make you more receptive to what would come later.

The group entered the theatre to find two girls, dancers, standing in the performance space, immobile, in the position typically adopted by someone at a memorial, ie, hands resting together at the front, head slightly bowed, belongings at their feet. Ross played a few sounds that had been recorded that morning on the Charles Bridge, and the two girls slowly began to move. After about five minutes the participants realized that the dancers were responding to the sounds, and slowly tested this out by making their own sounds. As people became more confident, they were able to make more obvious sounds and test the dancers to see how responsive they were. Then the dancers arranged the participants into a line, and a moment of silence was begun, without the participants being told that this was happening. Jane Munroe, one of the dancers, later explained to me that when they carried out the minute’s silence on the Charles Bridge, it was the first time they had all stood in a line, and it created a different dynamic. The group took the opportunity of the workshop to further explore this new aspect of silence.

The workshop was about how sound affects us, and the how the memories of certain sounds provide associations with other memories and emotions. The workshop tied in with a project Ross has been carrying out for the past year, where he and his team have been gathering sounds from various events, particularly from flash mobs (groups of people organized on the Internet to meet in a public space at a specific time to carry out a predetermined public performance). The aim is to eventually create a piece from everything that has been recorded and experienced. However, because they haven’t finished gathering all of their source material, they don’t know yet what the end piece will be, and they are unwilling to guess at what it might be. It is important for them that whatever comes out of the project emerges naturally, with little or no influence and direction. The ultimate themes of the project are the coincidence of noise and bodies and space, the performativity of silence and stillness, and hopefully a new model for what sound in theatre might be. The team would like to create a style of theatre where the performing body is directly plugged into the soundscape, rather than the sound simply acting as an underscore to the rest of the performance.

After about fifteen minutes Ross ended the experiment, as the dancers were near collapse.

After the initial session of experimenting with the dancers, the participants were given a Q&A with Ross and the girls, and a discussion ensued on how people felt things were going, and what they would like to do in the final part of the workshop. This session was as beneficial for Ross and his team as is was for the participants.

The final part was similar to the beginning, except now the participants knew what they could do. As Ross said, they now knew the rules. The two dancers stood still again, and Ross began the experiment by jingling the coins in his pocket. Another participant took his cue from that and clapped his hands. Within five minutes everyone in the theatre was making some sort of noise, watching the two girls on the stage attempt to interpret everything they could hear at the same time in their dancing.

It was strange to watch this impromptu performance, and see how natural high and low points emerged; some parts were frantic while others were calm. After about fifteen minutes Ross ended the experiment, as the dancers were near collapse. With the end of the experiment, so ended the workshop. I had spent the entire afternoon in a workshop totally by accident, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the workshop was not technically orientated, but more emotionally based, and this was in fact one of Ross’s intentions. He wanted to remove sound design from technology, and see if something new could be created.

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