I walk through Broadmead – Bristol’s central shopping area – wearing a pair of headphones. Through the headphones I listen to someone else’s life, as they themselves wonder round the shops, and remember how they have reached this point in their lives. The headphones are for Of Home and Each Other, an audio journey developed by Rosie Poebright and Zodwa Nyoni through the Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, that takes us through the life of Kelechi and her experience of moving to the UK after falling in love at university.
The project sets itself a difficult challenge through the way it frames itself. By placing the audience inside someone else’s head, and inside the completely real world of the city centre, it seems to reach for an intense type of naturalism in a very unnatural situation. Kelechi’s words are woven with messages to her phone, which we have some interaction with, and we hear her thoughts, actions and memories as we wander. But this intrusion into her thoughts mean that they have to strongly narrativise, clarify and explain, and trying to keep the impression of her thinking to herself while retaining clarity for the listener can sometimes give the speech a forced edge.
This means that often the times that the experience tries to drag you most into the moment, to play the most with the concept, can occasionally feel a little jarring, whereas the extended moments of memory, while they use fewer of the interesting techniques of the project, can feel more engaging. One moment, though, where the storytelling and the inner thoughts and the immersive environment and the technological elements all work well together is a point where I am instructed to enter a shop and browse the displays as Kelechi narrates feelings and stories of the experience of shopping as a black person – accompanied by suspicious and intrusive shop assistants. It’s a point where the specificity of the environment helps layer the meaning of the moment.
But this brings us to an interesting assertion of the project, or at least many of its marketing materials. That this experience of being in someone’s head, of hearing their words while following their steps, increases your empathy for them. The creation of empathy is often linked to immersion – with VR companies especially often selling their works as being able to make people more empathetic. And Of Home and Ourselves certainly achieves total physical immersion. After all, no expensive immersive production, or carefully filmed VR will match being in the space inhabited by the character, surrounded by crowds of people who serve as swathes of unknowing extras.
But the project faces the same problems that VR does when claiming to increase empathy. While I certainly knew more about experiences like Kelechi’s by the end of the project, and felt more connected to her, I’m not sure walking in her footsteps gave me any greater link to her than listening to the audio as a podcast, or reading her story. After all, while I can hear about her experiences of discrimination while shopping, I will never truly understand the embodied experience of it, and hearing it in a shop doesn’t increase that likelihood any more than seeing it acted on a stage.
There’s something interestingly contrasting between Of Home and Each Other and most theatre in how they treat the connection between bodies and empathy. In Of Home and Each Other it comes through seemingly inhabiting Kelechi’s body, or her inhabiting yours, her words and thoughts filling your head, whereas one of the things that is often held as special about theatre, its own empathy machine, is the presence of physical bodies in the space. I’m not sure whether either of these things can truly make you understand and empathise with experiences you haven’t live – I’m not sure anything can – but they are interesting ways to explore it.
The project makes me think about the end of Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, in which two people take out each other’s eyeballs and swap, so they can see through each other’s eyes. I am seeing the same thing, but someone else is describing it. Whether or not that increases my empathy for them, it is an interesting and enjoyable experience. It feels like a secret gift, an extra element of the space that no one else around me gets. It makes me think about a previous time I was wearing headphones in Broadmead – Back to Back Theatre’s Small Metal Objects in 2009, where the audience sat in a seating bank facing nothing but the shopping crowds, trying to pick out the actors speaking into mics somewhere in the throng. Both pieces do create a strong impression – that of pointing out that each person around you is in the middle of their own story, one completely unknown to you, and it is interesting to contrast one where you search for the story like a Where’s Wally book to the other where you become the site of the story itself.
While I am unconvinced by claims of empathy building, and think the naturalistic framing of the narrative limits it, the piece has a lot of promise. The story told is compelling, and the technical form feels exciting and full of potential.
Of Home and Each Other runs until 16th December. More info here.