And The Birds Fell From The Sky
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And The Birds Fell From The Sky

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Director Silvia Mercuriali is keen to avoid giving too much away about the plot. “The real thing about the show is the way that we use technology,” she says. She and filmmaker Simon Wilkinson have brought their different interests together. “I’ve been working a lot with the idea of instructing people to create an experience where they would feel involved as the central character. And Simon, in his own research, has been looking into the way to make film that is somehow interactive.”

The result is a show that’s unlike a traditional play or a film and is known as an ‘autoteatro’ style production. The show lasts 20 minutes and there are only two audience members present for most of that time. It’s performed repeatedly for around six hours a day. But because of its interactive nature, the audience members actually do some of the performing.

Participants are given a set of video goggles that play the film right in front of their eyes. They also receive a set of headphones that provide audio instructions for simple actions at different points.

The actions are synchronised with the film, which is shot in first person. For example, you might be directed to stretch out your arm. As you do so, you can’t see your arm, because the video goggles are in the way. But you can see an actor in the film stretching out their arm right where yours would be.

“Your brain is automatically drawing a parallel between the two and telling you the hand on the screen is your hand,” Wilkinson explains. “It’s been explored by psychologists with an experiment called the ‘rubber hand illusion’. Its effect is where your brain starts telling you this fake hand, in this case the video hand, is your own hand. And so you become immersed. It’s a process called ‘body transfer’. So you get the sense that your body is transferred to the video image.”

Participants are immersed in the fictional world in other ways. They are moved through the space, losing their sense of location. Odours are also released at appropriate moments in the film. Mercuriali tries not to give anything away but uses the example of the smell of alcohol, which could appear in reality when a bottle is opened in the film.

“It’s about real people becoming characters which are completely fictional,” she says. “And it gives the audience an opportunity to become immersed in a world that doesn’t exist, that you can only create with film, especially for the extreme journey we take them on. What I’m interested in is not just watching somebody else performing, it’s about creating an experience for an audience member.”

Part of the immersive, fictional world is the Faruk clowns. “They are a tribe of people that used to live alongside humans about 10,000 years ago before the discovery of agriculture,” Mercuriali explains in all seriousness. “They remained much more in touch with the instinct part of our nature. So they don’t know rules. They don’t know right and wrong.”

The Faruk clowns appear on film to accompany the participants on their journey, but other elements of the experience need real-life ushers. “There are some people looking after the participants who are literally running the show for them,” Mercuriali says. “Simon and I will be in Melbourne for the first two days and then we’re leaving it. It’s like creating this creature that gains some sort of freedom to live a life of its own.”

It’s no accident that she talks about the production living its own life. Wilkinson is interested in linking film with something live. “When film was first invented in the 1890s it was following in the footsteps of magic lanterns,” he says. “The moving was quite extraordinary and held their attention very strongly. But these days it’s become quite a tired medium.”

“So I wanted to do something that linked something live, that was there with you in the room, with something that was pre-recorded and explore what potential that had.”

It sounds like shooting the film would have been a challenge as movies are usually filmed from a third person perspective, rather than in first person. Wilkinson explains that he’s in the process of making a new film where the camera is attached to the front of his helmet, which makes the process easier.

Mercuriali says audiences are loving the show. “In general people are just really happy to be given the opportunity of being part of something that is extremely wild, where the fictional world is really wild. It’s a world that you wouldn’t want to be part of in real life.”

“It’s just a surprising feeling of being part of something that, even though they know it’s absolutely fictional, feels really real. Mostly they really love it.”

BY ELIZABETH REDMAN