Noise, Memory, Gesture: The Theatre in a Minute of Silence

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Central Sch of Speech and Drama
Department Name: Faculty


In this one-year project I will examine the contemporary ritual of the memorial silence as sound-led theatre. I will explore a range of research themes relating to the function of sound and aurality in theatre by holding a series of 3 flashmob events, in which participants perform memorial silences. These performances will provide dramaturgical material for a second stage of practical studio-based scenographic experimentation with silent theatre. A third stage will involve the preparation of a podcast and DVD that will represent the research process and results. Outcomes will be informed by peer review in Prague and the USA as well as in the UK.

My project will examine the conventions and taboos of silence in theatre performance through scenographic experiment on the theme of memorial silence as theatre. Research questions include:

How does uncontrolled environmental noise relate to perception of meaning and sense of presence in performance?

To what extent is such noise 'materially anecdotal'/that is, reminiscent, as well as constitutive, of time, place, and culture?

How can abstract concepts such as the acts of honouring or memorialising be juxtaposed with noise as a performance text?

What are the possibilities for creating a scenography of remembrance?

How can noise in the theatre be made to operate as (Cageian) musical underscoring?

In theatre, the convention of silent listening is such that noise from 'outside the frame' (talking, coughing, sirens, traffic or telephones) remains anathema. Its effects are so disruptive and undesirable that they are not seen as a legitimate area of inquiry. Thus theatre sound design has focused on the composition and control of the soundscape and, in effect, the masking of native noise. This is despite the fact that musicologists since John Cage have recognised incidental noise (within demarcated periods of silence) as music.

The ritual of the memorial silence has a long history but has increasingly become part of the post-9/11 zeitgeist. The occasions for mourning silence have changed significantly: crowds at sporting events now often perform a preludinal 'minute's silence' for a variety of reasons. In some cases these events have evolved into 'a minute's applause' in order to mask dissent.

As a participative ritual, the memorial silence has all of the elements of theatrical event. There is underlying or commonly understood text (a given time, designated site, duration and shared subject of memorial) and there are genre-based expectations of bodily behaviour and gesture. Often there are also costumes and props appropriate to the event. Previous work on this cultural practice by musicologists and historians has neglected the theatricality of memorial silence. My own exploration will seek to fill this gap, investigate new approaches to aural dramaturgy and support the development of a new field of inquiry into theatre noise.


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