10 Things I’ve Learned About Ring … by talking to its audiences

by Maddy Costa

I don’t often go to post-show discussions at the theatre, but when I do, I wonder what might happen if their focus were shifted, from the theatre-makers as the authoritative source of information, to the audience. Instead of the audience asking how the work was made, the theatre-makers might ask: how did it make you feel? Instead of the audience asking why the work has that title, the theatre-makers could ask: what did you think it was about?

It’s hard for audiences to be honest with theatre-makers about their work: enthusiasm and confusion alike embarrass us. By talking to other audience-members instead, people can learn a great deal about a production, seeing it (and the world around it) through many different eyes.

This is the impulse behind the Dialogue Theatre Club that I run with another critic, Jake Orr, and that I’ve been taking around the country as part of Fuel’s NTiYN project. I didn’t plan to host four separate post-show discussions on the subject of Ring, but I’m so glad I have, because each one has been illuminating. With no one present who was involved in making the piece, audiences were able to discuss their responses openly, without deferring to people “in the know”. What follows are some of my favourite things I’ve discovered about Ring, and the people I “watched” it with:

1: Ring is a great big magic trick, and most people want to know how it works.
Ring takes place in a pitch-dark room; instead of actors performing in the space with you, everything is delivered through headphones. Well, almost everything: Simon Kane plays a man called Michael (not, he says slyly, his real name), who sets the scene and makes sure we’ll all be comfortable in the oppressive blackness before we proceed. The actors’ speech, and their movements, were captured using binaural recording techniques: effectively, microphones are planted in the ears of a dummy head, picking up sound the way human ears would. It creates the extraordinary sensation that recorded sound is genuinely happening all around you: far over to the left, nearer to the right, in a whisper just behind your ear, so close it makes your muscles flinch.

At the first theatre club I discovered that 80% of the people in the room had lifted their headphones at some point, to find out if the sound were really all recorded, or if some of it were happening live. Deep inside I was appalled: whatever happened to the willing suspension of disbelief? But as more and more people told me that they, too, had lifted up their headphones to ascertain what was real, I realised that Ring is like a magic trick: people want to know how it works. And, as with a magic trick, the technical explanation is ever-so-slightly dull.

2: Several tiny illusions cohere to make that big illusion.
When we first meet Michael, he walks with a crutch and accidentally, incongruously, drops a ping-pong ball. He paces up and down, establishing a percussive rhythm: tap, step, tap, step; the ping-pong ball skitters across the floor with a pop-pop-pop. Once we’re marooned in a sea of blackness, these sounds become markers, warning us of Michael’s presence.

For most people, such illusions only fully work if the dimensions, and particularly the flooring, of the room in which the audience are sitting, correspond with their equivalent in the recording. The audiences I spoke to in Battersea Arts Centre in London weren’t alert to this, because they didn’t have to be: the room and the recording correlated. Audiences in Belfast and Margate, however, were alert to every disparity.

In Margate, the issues were largely to do with space: it was evident throughout that the room we were in was smaller, and less echoey, than the fictional room. Plus, it was carpeted: in our presence, Michael’s crutch made a muted thump that bore no resemblance to the sharp clicks in the headphones. Not everyone was troubled by this – but those who were found Ring quite hard to take seriously.

In Belfast, issues of size were exacerbated by the fact that everyone in the recording spoke with an English accent. How could audiences believe these people were in the room with them if they sounded like characters from the Archers? (Please note: EVERYONE I spoke to who commented on this used the same reference point. It was like a word association game: recorded English accents – the Archers!)

All together, it made me realise how difficult it is to tour work, and re-create the conditions under which a show was originally meant to be experienced. And it made Ring’s ability to hypnotise people in Belfast and Margate, despite these drawbacks, all the more impressive.

3: Most people think the central character is male.
Early in the show, when everyone in the room is scraping their chairs to move into a circle (at least, that’s what the recording tells you is happening), Michael unexpectedly whispers, directly in your ear, “Not you, Francis.” Or, indeed: “Not you, Frances.” The intention is that right away you will believe that you have a role to play in this piece: that of a mysterious character who, it gradually emerges, represents the worst of everyone in the room.

I didn’t really believe I was Frances – but I believed absolutely that she was a woman, a woman who made questionable choices and put herself in dangerous situations without any particular regard for other humans or the consequences of her actions. And I was astonished that almost everyone I spoke to – despite the deliberate absence of gendered pronouns, despite the androgynous name, regardless of whether or not they believed they were Francis – unequivocally believed Francis was male. It just goes to show how dominant the masculine is in our society.

4: Ring is extra disturbing if your name is Francis.
I met a lovely man in Belfast, christened Francis, who, from the very first whisper, spent the duration of the show freaking out. How did they know he was there? Was everyone hearing their own name in their headsets, too? How was that possible? That was one protective layer of fiction I was glad to have maintained.

5: It’s participatory in more ways than one.
From the moment you’re called Francis/Frances, you’re invited to participate directly with Ring – at least, within your imagination. For many people, however, this is the moment when another kind of participation begins. “You’ve got the wrong person.” “I’m not Francis!” Night after night, audience members were talking back to the recording – and I had no idea, until I spoke to them afterwards. In Belfast, whole groups of people were so enraptured by the scene in which the characters serenade Francis/Frances with a rendition of the Carpenters’ Close To You that they sang along. Isn’t that lovely?

5: It’s remarkably effective at getting people talking about fear of the dark.

As someone who was afraid of the dark for a good 30 years, sitting through Ring for the first time wasn’t easy. By the end, I thought I was going to vomit. Although rooted to my chair, I felt as though I were floating in space. It was like being trapped in a nightmare – a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up, not even if I screamed.

This, it turned out, was a fairly extreme reaction – just a few notches down from leaving the show (which some people did, to ruinously disruptive effect). And I became curious: how many people experiencing Ring were once, or still, afraid of the dark? A good half of the people I spoke to, it turned out. Which was oddly reassuring.

I met only one other man, in Margate, who had as strong a physical reaction as me. He was so shaken I felt sorry for him – all the more so because I pounced on him as he walked out of the theatre to invite him to come and talk about it. Some experiences need a bit of digesting before they can be discussed: Ring is one of them.

7: It’s easier to contemplate the physical darkness that surrounds you during Ring, than the mental darkness it pours into you.
One of the most fascinating and thought-provoking conversations I had about Ring was in Belfast with a visually impaired man, his milky-blue irises opaque as china, who assured me he couldn’t talk with much authority about it because he hadn’t had time to think it through, yet dissected it with a philosophical acuity that had me struggling to keep up. My recollections of his torrential monologue are muddled, but one thing that has particularly stuck was his interrogation of what it means to be “in the dark”. For sighted people, that’s a physical experience within Ring: you are sitting in a dark black as oil, and the inability to see heightens the sensitivity of your other senses. This man, however, pointed out that to be “in the dark” can also mean to be in a state of ignorance – and Ring’s audiences are trapped within that state by a script that avoids explaining anything. How much do we need to know about a person to construct a personality for them? How much does anyone reveal the truth about themselves, and how much do they conceal? Ring made this man think about the public and private faces individuals present and hide from the world – and about the blurring that social media has effected between the two. We read a Facebook profile or a Twitter feed and think we know people intimately – but do we really know them? What are they keeping dark?

8: The question, “But is it theatre?” is much better answered face-to-face than online.
Across the four conversations, I encountered just one woman (Russian, as I recall, and not someone who often sees non-traditional work), who wanted to know: what makes this theatre? We’re not watching anything, there’s no one on stage: why isn’t it a radio play? And I was startled by the gentleness of the people – most of whom were studying or involved in theatre in some way – who responded to her. People who ask “but is it theatre?” in comment threads online generally get dismissed as trolls. Here we could patiently explain that being in the same room as lots of people you couldn’t see was integral to Ring’s illusion, to the experience of scrutinising each of our senses, to the mirroring of the situation within the narrative and the world around us, to Ring’s hold on our imagination, to the act of collective imagining that makes theatre great.

9: To some extent, Ring is about what we do when we go to the theatre.
We gather in a dark room to will a world, a story, several lives, into being. Why do we do this? For our own entertainment, sure. But also, to see how other people live, and develop our empathy for others and our understanding of what might influence the choices they make in their lives. And, just maybe, to imagine ways of living better, ourselves and as a society.

I’ve seen a fair bit of theatre over the past year that makes this argument, notably Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, and the A Smith/Tim Crouch collaboration what happens to the hope at the end of the evening. This is work that declares from the outset that it wants to think about the kind of society we create when we go to the theatre, and what we might be able to bring from that into the outside world. There is just one moment in Ring when it declares a similar intention: early on, when “Michael” asks, in a strident tone, why the group have gathered in the dark, and quickly answers his own question: to imagine something better.

How many people caught this? It’s mentioned in just one other review I’ve read, and I don’t recall talking about it much in theatre clubs, except with a group of theatre students at BAC. There is a craft, and a craftiness, to this piece that makes it stand up to repeat visits: I went four times in the end, and didn’t feel quite to grips with it until the third sitting.

10: A few Tunnocks tea cakes go a long way.

This has nothing to do with Ring and everything to do with after-show discussions. Usually they happen in the auditorium, with the theatre-makers on stage, right? Maybe the audience have had time to grab a drink, maybe they haven’t. This hardly creates a convivial atmosphere.

All of the discussions I’ve had about Ring have involved food and drink: wine and juice, crisps and bread sticks; at the MAC in Belfast, a tapas spread so generous and delicious it was almost distracting. But the snacks that proved most cheering were the two boxes of Tunnocks tea cakes distributed across the homely bar area of the Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. Talking about theatre doesn’t have to be a dry, intellectual activity, although that’s what it’s often deemed to be. Maybe a few Tunnocks tea cakes are all it takes to remind people that it’s fun, too.

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