When technology gets in the way of performance – a review of Close to the Bone

This past year I realized that one of the things I would really love to do is use technology to bridge the gap between film and theatre. This is also driven by my desire to turn an audience member into a spect-actor. So when I heard about Colomboscope’s immersive theatre show titled Close to the Bone, I thought: wait a second, immersive theatre in Sri Lanka when I happen to be here?

To give you some background, Colomboscope is a multidisciplinary arts festival which has been around since 2013. I was super excited though because a) half of the festival coincided with the time I’d spend back in Colombo and b) it was a digital arts festival, so much excitement indeed.

This particular post though isn’t about the festival, but specifically about their immersive theatre show. Close to the Bone was held at the presidential suite of Cinnamon Lakeside (such a good location). The performance involved using your own smartphone (and earphones they’d provide) to access a link whereby during the course of the performance you’d be able to hear the thoughts of the characters in the play. The show would loop and start again, and you’d have the chance to follow another character and listen to their thoughts. Sounds neat, but did it work? Not quite. And there are several reasons for this, but I shall control my ranting by presenting them in list format:

  1. So what’s the show about?
    Like many theatre goers, I didn’t know what the show was going to be about before going to see it. But after reading the description, I don’t think it would have changed my experience in any way. As far as I could tell, it was basically the story of how one man deals with the wrong crowd of people, likely in borrowing money, and now he fears for his life and puts his family in danger as a consequence. But, here’s the actual log-line of the show:

    “Paranoia grabs hold of a bourgeois Colombo couple when a series of strange encounters interrupt their lives. From the outside, Kusal and Tania are the golden young urban couple living in their brand new apartment in the newly gentrified Slave Island, but when Tania begins to notice an older woman stalking her and Kusal starts receiving a series of mysterious phone calls, they each begin to suspect their own indiscretions have come back to haunt them. Visited upon by Kusal’s sister, Yasodha, and her girlfriend, Sanchia, the interruptions begin to bleed into the events of the night and the relationships of the couples present begins to fray, as the line between victim and predator becomes increasingly blurred.”

    And after reading this, it seems like it was written with a completely different script in mind. Firstly, what ‘older woman’? There was no older woman stalking Tania, Kusal’s wife, nor was one ever mentioned (why is this important it to the story even it was mentioned?). Secondly, ‘a series’ should really be three or more calls, and I believe there was only one call. Also in the show, there was a man who knocked at the door of the apartment and said his name was Kusal (insert last name that apparently is the same name as the male character). My reaction to this is simple: what?? To the script, it makes absolutely no sense that someone would show up at the door and claim the identity of one of the characters. This moment only aided in making Kusal’s wife even more worried and anxious.

  2. The script was flat 
    Everyone’s pretty much worried and fed up with Kusal for about 90% of the show. The remaining 10% goes towards the beginning when everyone is chilling on the couch, and to moments of intimacy like when Yasodha convinces Tania to have a little fun, just jump on the bed and play a game. But for the most part, there is no real sense of an arc. In this hour long show (which loops, so it’s two hours long), there’s just a consistent sense of tension and spite towards Kusal. This is broken up though with moments when the characters are on their own, which presents moments of quietness which is broken by the fact that you can hear their thoughts.
  3. You can hear their thoughts
    This goes hand in hand with my earlier point. Though I was excited about going to an immersive show, as soon as I heard that it would involve hearing the character’s thoughts, I sighed in exasperation. My biggest fear was that using technology in this way, would eliminate all subtext within the script. And if this is the aim of the writer/director, then that’s fair. However, listening to the audio did not enhance my experience in any way. Having said that, I didn’t engage with the audio for most of the show because it didn’t work with my device, but my mom was able to listen to most of the show.
    When Tania steps out into the balcony (amazing view by the way), I thought rather exasperatingly: oh God, she’s contemplating suicide. My mom, who was able to listen to Tania’s thoughts at this moment, confirmed that she was.
    When Kusal is alone in his bedroom breathing heavily and clearly worried and fearful, I was hoping that the audio would have some insight into what he’s thinking about. I borrowed my mother’s device momentarily, and heard that really all he was saying to himself was “breathe…. breathe….” Great. That was informative.
  4. Don’t produce a show that relies on internet in Sri Lanka
    This is a big one. We have serious internet issues, no matter how close you are to the WiFi router. Whereas likely anywhere else the idea of creating a private link accessible only by connecting to a specific WiFi signal and then being able to choose a character and press ‘play’ would work, it doesn’t quite work in Sri Lanka. The buffer time was excruciating, and even when I’d finally hear something, it would just keep buffering. This also meant that I couldn’t alternate between different characters because it would take majorly long for their audio to load up. I’d have loved to listen to the thoughts of Sanchia whom I thought was a relatively tranquil character, but sadly the audio would not load.

    This reminded me though, of a silent disco I had gone to in Queens, NY. Everyone would have a set of wireless headphones which were connected via Bluetooth to three DJ booths. The headphones would also light up in different colours according to which DJ you were listening to. So if you were listening to the DJ in Blue and your friend, whose headphones are red ,starts grooving, with a flick of a switch you’d be able to change your DJ from blue to red. You can imagine this is insanely fun, especially when everyone listening to channel blue starts forming a conga line.
    In the same way, a long term and definitely more expensive (because you’d’ have to import these devices) version of the show could be that they use wireless headsets that are connected via bluetooth to the system playing the recordings. Participants would be able to easily alternate between different characters and because we’re not relying on anything to load up but rather a kind of connection, there should be a minimal lag time. Just an idea.

  5. The sound design was distracting and below par
    When the internet keeps buffering, it doesn’t really work to have an audio recording with silences between thoughts. The audio would literally just stop, rather than fade out. As sound designers for film will tell you, even in a scene of absolute stillness and quiet, you need sound. Every room and space has its own ‘air’.
    Additionally the sound design incorporated this strange noise which sounded similar to Logic’s ‘marble in a glass’ sound. I liked the idea of this eerie, rolling-in-a-wine-glass sense to the sound, but it prevented me from hearing the actual dialogue spoken between the characters. And whenever a thought could be heard, it was spoken excruciatingly slowly. The sound design distracting, and didn’t contribute to my understanding of the show. It seemed as though it was completely separate to the performance.

I’ve discussed the cons in depth,  but there was some pros as well. Immersive theatre is uncommon in Sri Lanka, and they really made an effort to instruct the audience of how a show like that works. They made it a point that the audience could move around anywhere and ideally, they should pick a character to follow. Though given how flat the script was, I would have cut the show down to 20 minutes so that within just over an hour, the play loops four times so that everyone in the audience has the chance to follow every character. I make this comment not to judge the show for what it is, but to make a suggestion that could be applied given that there is no progressional arc to the show for a story like this. Unlike The Grand Paradise in Bushwick, they made it a point that the show was about “interaction not interruption”. This was an interesting use of Brecht’s alienation effect. In the Grand Paradise, one would dance with the characters or be lured into secret rooms by them. Here, Close to the Bone relied on the audience being an observant spectator, silently intrusive with the ability to hear their thoughts. What I find interesting about the show is the choice to present an elite family and also a homosexual couple (homosexuality is still illegal in Sri Lanka, the choice thereby showing how the elite can do whatever they want). The elite are there own peculiar class of people in Sri Lanka, and I felt the use of Brecht’s alienation effect to have the audience ignored by the characters contributed to emphasizing how distant the elite are from ‘the others’.

It was wonderful to see the audience really invested in the show, moving with the characters to separate rooms. But the use of technology, if it doesn’t enhance the show, might have been a bit too much for some of the audience members to handle.