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“On the threshold between life and death”

5 September 2018 | Emily May

We chatted to Mark Espiner from collaborative theatre company Sound&Fury about their immersive sound installation Charlie Ward, which places audiences in the heart of a makeshift wartime hospital.

Culture Calling: What inspired you to create Charlie Ward, Sound&Fury’s latest immersive sound installation?
Mark Espiner: We were making a show called Going Dark a few years ago. The story was about a planetarium narrator who was going blind, and a number of the scenes were set inside the planetarium. We wanted to project onto the ceiling of the theatre. We worked with a really brilliant projectionist called Dick Straker who worked for a company called Mesmer. He mentioned that during WW1 they projected films onto the ceilings of the hospitals to entertain the troops. I was really intrigued by that idea.
This idea came up again in something I was reading about Charlie Chaplin and the First World War. The beginning of Chaplin’s very speedy rise to international fame coincided with the outbreak of WW1. British soldiers on their way to the front are even said to have carried card board cut outs of Chaplin to hold above the trenches in the hope that they would get the Germans to “die laughing”. So the way that Charlie Chaplin had invaded popular culture and the absurdity of how he was part of life in the trenches, combined with the surreal thought that they would wheel the very first film projectors into makeshift hospitals in France and project them onto the ceiling, just felt like a wonderful theatrical setting to play with, recreate and explore.

Image Credit: 14-18 Now via their website
Underlying that, my great grandfather fought in WW1 and my great uncle sustained a brain injury. Their presence in the family folklore is quite interesting, and made me think about the experience of being wounded. So, what we – me, Tom my brother, and Dan Jones the sound designer, composer and co-director – wanted to do was really create a subjective experience where we took the audience as deep into that consciousness of a wounded soldier as possible, and put them on the threshold of life and death, and play with the idea of how Chaplin’s image might invade that, and trigger a whole range of thoughts and emotions.
CC: It sounds like quite a poignant experience. Do some audience members get emotional?
ME: It’s only 15 minutes long, and the very small intimate audience of 10 lie in beds. When we staged it for the first time I was really astounded by the audience reaction. Watching people come out of their beds at the end was like watching people come out of a coma. One person described it to me as an out of body experience, which was a really great compliment because that was what we were aiming for.
Theatre is an amazing form in that when you put an audience in front of a stage, they have a moment of total belief, and openness to being transported somewhere. Our novel auditorium of lying down on a bed takes that one step further and puts you into a different mental state, and allows you to embrace the experience you’re being invited to take a hold of. We really like to bring the audience into the authentic worlds of our pieces, without having to perform themselves.

Image Credit: Mark Espiner/Sound&Fury
CC: Does it feel particularly relevant to run this tour during the 100-year celebration of the end of WW1?
ME: So it was 100 years since the beginning of the war back in 2014 when we first presented Charlie Ward, and it was almost a simultaneous celebration of the beginning of cinema and Chaplin’s early films. It’s amazing that, 100 years later, we all – and my 9-year-old daughter in particular! - still watch his films and still find them funny. The film we use in Charlie Ward we use is called By the Sea and I think it has one of the first cinematic representations of someone slipping up on a banana skin, which is an archetypal joke. I hope the use of Charlie Chaplin almost works as a portal into the past, to transport modern audiences back.
And then, in terms of running it in 2018, it seems appropriate to show it again because the commission was originally from 14-18 Now. But we do feel it is quite a universal piece. While it has a First World War theme, we don’t think it has to coincide with a memorial event. It can hold its meaning.  
CC: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been inspired a lot by film. Can you explain how the installation is cross art form? Is it because of its interrelation between film and sound?
ME: Without giving too much away... it is cross disciplinary. We don’t have any live performers, and the ones we did work with we pre-recorded. And in those moments we tried to stage them as carefully as we could. We weren’t just sticking actors in front of microphones, we were very much trying to create scenes from the fragmented memory of the soldier’s life we are focusing on. So it’s definitely a time based piece, it’s not just a sound installation you can come and go from, it’s narrative and has storytelling and theatricality at its heart. The piece also gestures at art installation because of its unique context, and also there is, through the use and treatment of film, a sense of homage to the film screen and how it’s influenced us, as I’ve said before, the legacy of Chaplin’s comedy, the language of images and how it invades our memory, imagination and collective consciousness. All of these combine in a way that – I hope – is fulfilling for an audience.

Image Credit: Mark Espiner/Sound&Fury

CC: How does Charlie Ward differ from your previous work with Sound&Fury?
ME: Technically, in terms our craft, we’ve really been honing over the years the use of surround sound design, and integrating that with performance, voice and narrative, which is definitely present in Charlie Ward. A common thread in our work is also immersing the audience in an absolute black out, which happens in this piece, we have moments of complete darkness. So in terms of our theatrical language those elements are still to the fore. But in terms of projection, as I mentioned, we only started experimenting with that in Going Dark. Charlie Ward is a continuation of that and how we can play with it a bit more.
I’m really interested in the combination of high tech and low tech in a theatrical context, and very importantly on quite an intimate scale. Nearly all of our work has not gone large scale. The largest audience we’ve played to is around 250, but Charlie Ward only plays to an audience of 10! It is quite a departure to go that small, but it is a common element in our work, to explore intimacy.
CC: What are you hoping visitors will take away from the experience of Charlie Ward?
ME: I hope people will take away a connection to the world of a soldier in 1914-18, to feel something of that experience, and how that might apply to their life today. I wouldn’t say the piece is anti-war or pacifist, there is an element of that because there is a futility in war. But more than this, I think I want people to feel a connection to those that have come before and those that will come after, to consider what it is to be human and a sense of the vulnerability of those who were wounded. And also to think of the how an iconic figure (in this case Chaplin) can connect you to a different time period. It’s a bit like looking at the stars, when you know generations before you have looked at those very same constellations.
Charlie Ward runs from 11 – 22 September at Theatre Deli Sheffield, 25 September – 6 October at York Army Museum, 15 – 19 October at Perth Theatre and 30 October – 11 November at Leeds Town Hall.

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