Noises Off: Interactive Technology in Theatre

This project came as part of a joint partnership between Bristol Old Vic, the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives, and it was part of the wider ‘Protecting and Sharing the History of Britain’s Oldest Theatre Heritage Lottery Fund Project’.

The ‘Noises Off’ connects guests with the heritage of the newly redeveloped theatre building, via seamless, touch-sensitive technology integrated into graphics and objects. Guests are invited to touch, listen, watch animations and play with the hands-on interactive graphics surface.

The exhibition celebrates and illuminates the often overlooked history of sound effects. It takes visitors on a journey back in time, from current cutting edge practices to the Thunder Run, a surviving and still in use 18th Century sound effect device, which was previously hidden in the ceiling above the stage, but is now exposed for visitors to experience.

The team from 2feetbelow created a noisy, hands-on, experimental soundscape. AV hidden behind and built into the panels connects and engages visitors with the importance of the human voice, including a one-to-one voice coaching session with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a chance to try out warm-up techniques (with members of Made in Bristol) and demonstrations on how to improve and enhance your own speech.

The design and layout of the exhibition were created to look like the backstage areas of the theatre, complete with the black and white colour scheme, including the backstage white markings on the floor. It is designed to put you in the shoes of a sound designer working on a show and encourage young people to get into the creative field of sound design.

2feetbelow used the Bare Conductive suite of printed electronics components designed to allow hobbyists and professionals to create simple touch-sensitive interactive hardware with basic coding and technical knowledge.

This allowed them to work with Bristol Old Vic to create a cohesive graphic language which incorporated the interactivity and technology as part of the whole scheme rather than add-ons. Their innovation is customising an existing technology system and combining it with traditional interpretation techniques to create a space where the digital and hands-on interactivity are all part of the same consideration, seamless experience.

A great example of how the 2feetbelow innovatively integrated technology and physicality is The Cherry Orchard. They needed to create an interactive project, which engaged their audience with analogue technology in general, and tape splicing in particular.

They couldn’t make a hands-on interactive object where you physically cut and fix tape together and they didn’t want to move it onto a touchscreen. Thus, they created a graphic 2D tape splicing desk and sunk a reel-to-reel player into the tabletop. They used projection mapping, touch-sensitive pads and sound effects to give the impression of movement with spinning reels and tape section being snipped off and moving from the graphic onto the actual tape player.

Visitors record their master tape, which is then played back with the animation often with hilarious results. In this way a very tricky process was broken down into a simple, fun to use and instructive interactive experience that physically and mentally connects the user to the objects (reel-to-reel player) and the archive heritage (story of the master tape sent from the Netherlands for the Old Vic’s 1953 production of the Cherry Orchard).

The major outcome of this particular project is that, for the first time, the team was able to showcase the importance of sound design and designers in making a successful theatrical performance. But a subsequent outcome of this project is that Bristol Old Vic has become a heritage destination in its own right, reinventing its offering and creating new reasons for visitors to engage with our historic theatre.

Images & Video: 2feetbelow

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