Hearing voices

15 April 2019

The sound of Things We Do Not Know brings up things unheard, says Emma Rogerson

Audio is a key part of Process Theatre's Things We Do Not Know, in the interest of giving voice to the unspoken stories of Bristol sex workers. The show recognises this, and sound is manipulated throughout the play, fluctuating between recognisable and distorted. This tension drives the play but it also drives me. My familiarity of being a woman living in Bristol, and the fact I've heard about the show's previous run, conflict with my complete lack of familiarity with the issue explored and the piece presented.

Walking in: I hear chatter between friends, actors, audiences, over a very deliberately curated playlist of some well known pop songs with feminist under (and over) tones, like ‘God is a woman’ and ‘When the sun goes down’. These sounds, refusing to remain background noise, fight to be heard in the play. The pop songs link the verbatim sections, sung by the six strong ensemble who perform gorgeous harmonies and poignant solos, to demonstrate the implicit, ingrained sexualisation of women that forms the media, paralleling the formation of the play.

Making the topic familiar in this way was when these fluctuations of familiarity and unfamiliarity worked best. When the actors contributed their own verbatim to the piece, as the phrase “I would only become a prostitute if…” was finished one by one, this created familiarity to the extreme and made the disturbing and dark become dull, comical and flat through its repetition. Aspects of sex work explored, like monotony, dismissal, abuse and lack of empathy, were echoed in some of the more subtle sounds on stage, like the fading spray of a nearly empty graffiti can, carelessly replaced so the sound was immediately fuller, and the cringe-inducing grind of chalk on paper paralleling the uncomfortable statistics concerning Bristol sex workers that were being prescribed.

Later, an actor places her chair in front of an audience member, hands him a piece of paper and asks him to read as the interviewer, asking personal questions about her life as a sex worker with the original interview played back over the top of this. It exemplified one thing that I noticed across all the individual monologues from sex worker’s perspectives: how easy it sounded to say. There was no hesitancy, no time given to articulate words, no stutters or stumbles. This was really apparent when original recording was played over the top, and featured this hesitancy, this difficulty to articulate, which conflicted with the really solid, confident performance. It didn’t sound very authentic – I wanted more realism, more emotion, more exploration. Providing some more information or context in how the verbatim pieces were sourced, across the play in general, might have helped with this, to contextualise the emotion.

While I think this is perhaps an oversight, the play achieves something quite important with this – it sparks a desire in the audience to make more familiar the material explored, to close the distance, to get closer to the issue, to understand. The sounds constantly shifting from familiarity to unfamiliarity meant that, as an audience member, I couldn’t consistently connect to the play emotionally, however I left the room wanting more. I started talking, starting asking.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney