Pervasive drama, memory and academic writing

Memory dealer app

This week a special edition of the Journal of Sonic Studies comes out, which I was lucky to be involved in along with other members of the Moving Experience research group. The journal itself focuses on auditory cultures, and covers everything from everyday aural experiences to the use of music in creative projects (on a side-note, based on his recent post about Interstellar Sam might be interested in their recent edition on sound in space!). Our special edition, however, explores one specific theme: The use of sound in pervasive drama projects, with a focus on a project that we were all involved in, called The Memory Dealer, which was performed (at least in its final form!) between 24th-26th May 2013, at the Mayfest arts festival in Bristol.

Pervasive drama is a relatively new art-form, which uses digital technologies to map fictional narrative onto ‘everyday’ locations; it’s a means of taking performance outside of conventional performance spaces and using the ‘real world’ as a stage. The Memory Dealer, for instance, used smart-phones, and a dedicated app (see above image), to overlay narrative over a busy urban location in Bristol. As a new medium, there’s no ‘set’ format for such projects (as of yet!) and they often have a ‘hybrid’ feel about them, in combining different modes of storytelling and audience engagement. This is crystallised by The Memory Dealer, as at certain moments in the drama you might just be listening to the narrative individually, but at other times you might engage with actors or have to follow instructions and sometimes even collaborate with fellow players. During one particularly memorable scene, for example, players have to locate a somewhat shady character in a café – an actual café that is, not a staged one – and run the risk of confusing people who were totally unrelated to the drama (and probably just having a nice cup of coffee)!

There were also site-specific set pieces that the application directed you towards – such as a hotel room, a car, and a dentist’s waiting room – where you had to pick up clues that, ultimately, helped you to make a plot-changing decision at the end of the narrative. One of the perks about researching the project was that we also had the chance to be audience members in the test run of the drama, and from my (admittedly biased) perspective, I found it to be a very immersive, enjoyable and distinctive experience.

As researchers we were interested in the creative potential of pervasive drama, as well as how audiences felt about the medium, so held focus groups after performances to hear people’s thoughts about different aspects of the performance and discover why they had made certain decisions. We also positioned ourselves at crucial points in the narrative, to see how players navigated key transition-points in the plot and observe the way they engaged with the technologies. Our findings form the basis of our journal articles, each of which explores the project from a different disciplinary perspective. The angles we take in our articles reflect the backgrounds of members of the research group, which includes academics from music, cultural and media studies; we were also lucky to have contributions from Rik Lander, the creator of the project, and Alex Kolassa, its composer, who reflect on their experiences developing the creative elements of The Memory Dealer.

What I really appreciated – in addition to working with such lovely people of course!! – was being involved with a project that did not just have a creative project as its subject matter, but tried to translate that creativity to an academic format. Since the performance itself ended, Liz Evans and Nanette Nielsen – editors of the special edition – have worked tirelessly with Rik and the Sonic Studies editorial board, to capture the experience of the drama. In addition to including sound clips, for instance, each article features an auditory opening scene that recreates the atmosphere of the performance. What the journal allowed us to do, in other words, was move beyond simply describing the drama to re-create the experience of participating in it.

Appropriately, seeing as the project’s theme was memory, when I listened to the sound recordings after receiving my article proofs this week, I conjured up some memories of my own. One of the things that came up in the focus groups (and I also enjoyed in my own walk-through of the drama), was an opening monologue, which players listened to whilst being allowed to wander freely along Bristol Harborside before being directed to a specific location by the phone app. Numerous people discussed how much they enjoyed this particular experience, as it enabled them to incorporate their own memories of the location into the narrative. Listening to the sound recordings this week added another layer to the process for me, as I reflected on my memories of that weekend. On a personal level it captured a particular moment in my life, and almost everything has changed since then, which makes it quite poignant. While I’d hope to feel emotional about art that I particularly engage with, it was odd to have a similar experience engaging with journal articles! It seemed, however, to be a fitting response to the performance and the project as a whole.

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