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The Artist and the power of sensory deprivation in film and theatre

The Artist and the power of sensory deprivation in film and theatre

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Powered by article titled “The Artist and the power of sensory deprivation in film and theatre” was written by Mark Espiner, for on Tuesday 28th February 2012 15.30 UTC

For the makers of The Artist, clutching five Oscars this week including best film, silence is quite literally golden.

Some have argued that it wooed the Academy by conjuring up the romance of Hollywood’s past. Regardless of its awards success, it has won the hearts of the public with a novel approach that trusted them to take an imaginative leap. Disposing with dialogue let the viewer engage in an unfamiliar way with the characters and invest in the story.

By depriving the actors of their voices, director Michel Hazanavicius focused attention on gesture, action and movement. Of course, all those things are present in a talkie, but without words a raised eyebrow takes on greater significance, and the look of love, when it does not have to speak, is invested with unfamiliar power.

There is potent richness in depriving audiences of its familiar senses – or messing with them a little – to create a new frame to look through. For some years now Sound & Fury, the theatre company I co-direct with Dan Jones and my brother Tom, has been plunging its audiences into a total blackout, providing aural stimulation to heighten the visual sense.

It has sometimes taken quite a lot to convince the more health-and-safety conscious theatres that bright green exit lights are not necessary throughout the show. But once past that hurdle, the pitch black can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face environment has been a liberating theatrical tool, which has had startling results. We found audiences rapt and excited about how their imagination was set free. That the sound world, with live actors but without a set, could transport them to the story’s heart in darkness. The shared experience and immersive quality, they said, set it well apart from radio. The dark let us take the audience to places you could not normally visit, in the case of Kursk, our most recent work, to witness the last moments of the doomed Russian submarine.

The eminent neuropsychologist Professor Richard Gregory, whose life’s work investigated how the brain sees, was curious about how sight deprivation combined with sound in one of our shows could almost stimulate the visual sense. The conversation ended up inspiring our latest work. Going Dark is the story of a man going blind and struggling with his changing perceptual experience. It uses periods of total darkness to let the audience into his new sightless world.

The appetite for sense deprivation experience is widening. The effect of artist Miroslaw Balka’s installation at Tate Modern resided in nothing you could actually see. And theatre playing to a different sense is a growing trend. David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s new play Ring gives the audience headphones for a play in total darkness.

Perhaps the willingness to be drawn away from the visual and the familiar taps in to a desire to switch off the visual sense and take a break from the battery of images we deal with every day from billboards to public transport TV. Or, in the case of The Artist, to have the imagination retuned to receive a story differently and enjoy a film experience that is a little more intimate.

The writer Saul Bellow argued that the accumulation of distraction – particularly the visual – was a destructive force. He suggested that “the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss”. In the case of his craft, the novel, he described the act of reading as entering a “state of intimacy with the writer”, turning to hear a voice as if “coming from a place beneath the breastbone”.

A state of intimacy lets us discover something about ourselves and our world. That is what we are all after, isn’t it? Sometimes you can find it in silence or without looking.

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