Ant Hampton, together with Tim Etchells, created The Quiet Volume, which remains possibly one of my favourite ever pieces of audio theatre. Designed for two participants at any one time to experience in libraries, it really made me think about what occurs in the brain when we read and to be more mindful of the sound of my ‘reading voice.’ For various reasons the piece stuck with me, the intimacy of it, two people reading together.
Ant Hampton’s The Extra People, which is being presented as part of Poznan’s Malta Festival, chimes with this year’s theme: The Paradox of Spectator. It’s a piece in which the participants play both the watchers and the watched.
Designed for 15 people to experience at a time, The Extra People takes place in a lecture hall in one of Poznan’s university buildings, far from the bustle of the old town square and the beanbag-strewn festival hub. The walk there is quiet. The air is green with summer rain. On arrival we are all given Hi-Viz vests and an iPod. The voice we hear through our headphones is a synthetic child’s voice. It continually calls attention to this sense of disconnect, to the artificial quality of it, the fact that the voice is using the kind of vocabulary a child of that age would be unlikely to use. There are little glitches, little reminders that the voice we are hearing is a construction, a lie.
The voice gives us instructions. It tells us when to enter the space and where to sit within the lecture hall. A new batch of participants are ushered into space every half an hour. We are all on a conveyor belt. This means that we end up watching those ahead of us, and they in turn are aware of being watched by us. When we first enter the hall we take on the role of the spectator, sitting and watching those on stage (though the voice avoids using the word stage). Then, at the half way point, the people ahead of us depart, and we take to the stage to enact the scene we have just watched them perform.
The instructions received by each participant are clearly different. We stand at different times, we are assigned different tasks. I think we all obey the voice in our heads, I know I did.
The scene on stage resembles the aftermath of a disaster. Everyone is draped in blankets. Some wear surgical masks. They huddle together on the floor. Sometimes the people hug the walls, sometimes they approach the front of the stage, very slowly. The space, all the while, is lit by flashlights. It’s a bit unsettling at times, these people moving to music only they can hear.
The Extra People generates a lot of interesting ideas about being cogs in a bigger machine, about obedience, replication and the act of watching, but engaging as these ideas are, the piece itself is frustrating in some very basic and practical ways. The wearing of fiddly in-ear headphones isn’t compatible with being draped in a blanket – mine kept escaping. Some of the instructions the voice gives are complicated. There are, for example, a number of different lights to keep track of and move around the stage when asked, and when I failed to locate the right one I thought I might break the show, that my failure might undermine the experience for everyone else. I didn’t break it, At least I don’t think I did – but the worry became a source of anxiety, and an obstacle.
All that said, I did quite like the way the actions of the people on stage looked both uncanny and a bit daft when viewed from a distance, like a kind of post-apocalyptic party game. I liked what the piece was doing conceptually – the transition from observers to observed, making us mindful of the voices that guide us – but I kept wanting more from it, something more profound or intense, I’m not sure, and I found some elements a bit irritating (though this comes down in part to the fact I’m not super keen on being made to stick a blanket over my head).
The idea that you might not play along, that you might disobey the voice, didn’t seem to be built into the piece either. I also kept wondering about the people at the beginning and end of the cycle. Who watched them and who did they watch – were they the real extra people?
The Extra People was performed as part of Malta Festival. For more information, click here.