Exquisite sound design is at the heart of two immersive theatre shows, with the potential to expand and manipulate the imagination. Claire Trolio takes the plunge twice in one night.
- Reading time • 5 minutesFringe World Festival
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Flight and Coma, Realscape Productions in association with Darkfield
The Pleasure Garden (Flight), Perth Cultural Centre (Coma)
Friday, 14 January 2022
I’ve often wondered about what goes on inside those shipping container-shaped venues that appear each year at the Fringe World hubs. But with names like Seance, Eulogy, Flight and Coma, and the promise of a multi-sensory, communal experience in the dark, I’ve been too afraid to find out.
This time, feeling brave, I signed up for the latter two of Darkfield’s four theatrical experiences, which have returned to Perth this Fringe World season.
Darkfield, a UK production company under artistic directors David Rosenberg and Glen Neath, partners with Amy Johnson and Nathan Alexander of Melbourne’s Realscape Productions to present the shows in Australia. Their modus operandi is to invite a bundle of intrepid visitors into a custom-made shipping container and turn out the lights. Physically you’re safe and secure (although you might be in for a bumpy ride) but mentally… well that depends.
Upon entering one of the white shipping containers in the Pleasure Garden, you’re instantly transported into the economy class cabin of a commercial aircraft. This is Flight. It is, quite frankly, a perfect recreation of the aircraft cabin, not just because they have installed real airline seats, but it’s also the same poky aisle, being herded through in single file, the lights, screens, and the unmistakable ding of the “fasten seatbelt” sign.
Participants put on a set of binaural headphones and, literally and metaphorically, buckle up. When the lights go out, leaving the room in utter darkness, this sensory deprivation opens up the opportunity for your mind to be manipulated. What’s offered through the headphones and movement of the chairs are two different realities, and come to think of it, I’m not quite sure where I ended up. I love that. In Flight we are all Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive.
After skipping across Northbridge to the Perth Cultural Centre, I entered another shipping container for Coma, this time finding myself within the stark, clinical setting of a psychiatric ward. With bunk beds lining the walls from floor to ceiling, participants must choose a bed and lie down. Through the headphones this time was a steady voice guiding our imaginations, which combined with occasional olfactory stimulus.
Coma is an exploration in suggestibility and collective consciousness. On one hand you’re all alone – there’s no interaction whatsoever with other people – but you’re acutely aware of others around you sharing the experience. It’s largely a result of the audio, which invites you to recreate in your mind the room and the other bodies within it. The terrible effectiveness of the binaural sound gives the impression of a tangible presence right there with you.
Unfortunately, despite these clever devices and total immersion, my mind didn’t enter the narrative in Coma the way it did for Flight. I appreciated the performance for its technical mastery but not for its emotive content. On the other hand, my friend stumbled out of the space reeling from the psychological experience. “I can’t say I really enjoyed that,” she admitted. “My brain completely went for that terrifying scenario.” She got it, I didn’t.
In both Flight and Coma, the sound design is transcendent and the set design transportive. Attention to detail makes these experiences all encompassing.
I found it a treat to be immersed in a piece of theatre in a truly passive way. I’ll be handing my body over to the Darkfield crew again. After all, it wasn’t curiosity that killed Schrödinger’s cat.
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Pictured top: The Coma experience. Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic
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