It is a brave playwright who insists that an audience wear headphones for an entire performance. But in the tense political thriller Anna, the headphones enabled playwright Ella Hickson to create a binaural experience that takes audience members inside the lead character’s head, and directs their attention during the overlapping scenes, writes Mel Lambert.
Aiding Hickson and director Natalie Abrahami in creating that conceit were sound designers and brothers Ben and Max Ringham, whose company, Wiretapper, specializes in creating sound-based performance in public spaces. Annaplayed recently to sell-out audiences at the Dorfman Theatre in London.
“My aim was to have the actors connect with the audience through sound,” Hickson explained during a talk at the National Theatre prior to a performance in early June. “But it had to be integral to the play,” stressed director Abrahami, “and [comprise] something beyond mere trickery.”
The play is set at a dinner party in East Berlin in 1968, the height of the Cold War and political unrest around the world. Lead characters Anna and Hans are married and moving up in the Communist apparatus, but East Berlin remains a city ruled by suspicion. Who can be trusted, the playwright asks, when everyone is listening?
Keying off ideas within Stasiland, the 2003 book by Anna Funder about individuals who resisted the East German regime and others who worked for its secret police, the Stasi, “we looked for sound techniques that could convey that oppressive world to the audience,” Hickson stated.
The play also pays homage to writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (2006), about an agent of the secret police who finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by his surveillance subjects.
To evaluate the efficacy of binaural playback, Max Ringham experimented with a Neumann KU100 Dummy Head array “set up in the middle of the stage area, with direct output to headphones. We had the actors move around the head, and in and out, according to the action. We discovered that the sound reversed left-to-right when the actors were not facing the array, and a lot of other trickery.”
In performance, hearing is a major key to understanding. “What goes into your ears affects what happens inside you,” Hickson said. “Having lived in Berlin, I developed a sense of political change and ideology failing, of coming and going.”
In a subsequent interview with Pro Sound News, Max Ringham clarified that all audio for the play was mixed live, with primary pickup from a pair of DPA 4061 capsules mounted on the lead actress, Phoebe Fox, and fed backstage via a Sennheiser G4 body-worn RF wireless system. “We needed to emphasize her perspective of the action as it unfolds on stage, and maintain her audio point of view,” the sound designer noted. “We wanted to share the intimate and veiled conversations she was having with her party guests.”
The actors had to modify their delivery to accommodate binaural playback. “The use of soft articulation suggested conversations that were taking place distant from Anna [within the set’s hallway, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and lounge areas], and which were not really meant to be heard by her,” the sound designer said. “Maintaining that integrity across the script was tricky for the actors, who needed to carefully modulate their voices” to sometimes produce a background walla that obviously was speech but remained mostly unintelligible.
“Yes, our greatest technical challenge during this show’s process was trying to communicate to the actors how they should work with the microphones in the room,” Ben Ringham confirmed. “For the actors, it was a completely new set of skills that they had to learn; quite often it was the complete opposite of what they would normally do. I spent a lot of time looking at their positions and fine-tuning their sound levels. It was far more akin to working with musicians, and within that came all the variations of possible levels.”
The co-sound designer recalled that he also had to assist the “Cocktail Party Effect,” which we use in normal conversation to filter out voices we are not focusing on. “Since microphones cannot do that, we had to have to have the actors reduce their sound levels” in key scenes, Ben Ringham said. “That is counterintuitive for actors. We might need to ask that they deliver a line at a minimal level so that it became just a texture,” his brother explained.
“We also had playback from loudspeakers strategically located close to the refrigerator, stereo system and other key props,” Max Ringham continued. “Since the audience was separated by a glass wall [across the stage apron], we needed to reinforce those key sounds for the audience via our binaural pickup.”
Backstage, the sound designers were assisted by live-mix operator Ela Wahlstrom and assistant Sarah Weltin. A 36-fader DiGiCo SD7 digital mixer handled inputs from the head-worn binaural array, together with playback for the on-stage and audience loudspeakers, plus routing to the primary left-right headphone feeds for the audience’s Sennheiser HD200 Pro headphones. On-stage playback was via JBL Control 1 loudspeakers powered by Cloud six-way amplifiers, while d&b audiotechnik E9 loudspeakers covered the auditorium.
“We had 30 sound destinations,” said Max Ringham. A 48-channel QLab 4 system handled sound-file storage and triggered playback of stage-source effects, “in addition to a small musical underscore that was fed to the audience headphones. We also had music cues for the on-stage stereo system, as well as distant traffic sounds that came from a period Berlin apartment.” These latter sound files were also fed to subwoofers mounted outside the stage area to provide a low-frequency enhancement for the headphone feed. “During the fireworks scene, we routed those key sounds to supplemental loudspeakers located in the auditorium above the audience,” and high-passed to provide additional LF augmentation.
Max Ringham stressed that the primary headphone balance for the audience comprised the lead character’s binaural microphone pickup, “with some gentle EQ and a little compression” to control transients. “There was no ambience processing inside the DiGiCo mixer. Any compression needed to be kept to a minimum because if we used too much, it upset the binaural effect.”
With so much sound technology in operation, the production developed an efficient Showstop Process. “We had triggered emergency sounds for the headphones to warn the audience that something had gone awry,” the sound designer said, “linked to the house and stage lights,” plus other alerts.
Summarising her experience on Anna, Hickson asserted, “Our brains can only do so much with an aural input. Ears are best used when you are not seeing everything.” The action that takes place inside the lead character’s apartment “makes you listen to everything more carefully.”