This month saw the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy—and one of the events created to commemorate the occasion was a unique “immersive audio experience” based on a play by Owen Sheers about the life and work of World War Two poet, Keith Douglas.
Created by Hay-on-Wye-based social enterprise The Story of Books, Unicorns, Almost is a multi-sensory experience designed with input from a team of blind and visually impaired young people, with a specially designed soundscape, 3D objects sewn onto the set and tactile objects to touch. Story of Books founder Emma Balch describes it as “like stepping inside an audiobook”, and hopes that publishers will see the potential of the format for bringing evocative works to life and reinvigorating their backlist.
We sat down with Balch to explore how and why the experience was made and future opportunities for publishers looking to push boundaries in audio.
Where did the idea come from?
A crisis! Our production of Unicorns, Almost was very well received in Hay-on-Wye last year. On the back of this, we had an offer to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, Bristol Old Vic, and Normandy (for the 75th anniversary of D-Day). Just as all this fell into place, Dan Krikler, who played Keith Douglas, was offered a job at the Old Vic. The dates clashed with Normandy and the first week of Edinburgh. It’s a text-heavy, one-man play, and Dan’s performance was “wonderful” (tweeted by Margaret Atwood, who came to see the play in Hay!)—so losing him was a huge blow.
Not wanting to lose the upcoming opportunities and with too little time to work with another actor, I had the idea for an immersive audio experience. My vision was to lead people into Keith Douglas’s world. We used an audio recording of Dan reading the play and overlaid it with a soundscape created by composer and sound designer, Jon Nicholls. We then created an evocative set, furnished with objects and books related to the life of Keith Douglas, to bring the story further to life. In this way, what started out as a rescue plan, has actually resulted in something super unique and exciting.
What were the greatest challenges in pulling it off?
Time, for sure. We had just four weeks until the opening in Normandy. Dan was up for doing the audio, so I booked a recording studio and hired a technician. John Retallack, the plays’ director, then worked with Dan to help him prepare. The recorded audio files then went off to Jon Nicholls, who adapted the soundscape that he had designed for the live show and then mixed this with the raw audio of Dan’s voice. Jon also created a complementary soundscape that we could use in the exhibition space.
The next challenge was logistical. We had to transport the whole set, the exhibition objects, the speakers and so forth from Hay-on-Wye to Normandy, and then repurpose them for a new show. Working cross-culturally was challenge as well—especially as I am not a French-speaker. There were local politics to be negotiated and key relationships to be forged. But I loved every bit of it—I just treated it as a huge learning experience for me.
Each separate location also comes with challenges as none are traditional theatre settings, from a hotel in Hay to an Army Reserve Centre Hall in Edinburgh. The advantage in each case is exclusive use for the show—something that is very unusual. So, while our choice of location does present challenges, they also provide us with exciting opportunities. To maximise these, we have created distinct sets for each venue. For the Hay-on-Wye performance, Lucy Hall designed a wonderful desert ‘tent’ that helped transport the audience to the Western Front. In Normandy, we took inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry, especially for the audio experience. We worked with Q-Ateliers in Normandy to create a ‘tapestry’ panel that led the audience from the door through to an intimate chamber. In this case, the set was designed with communal listening in mind.
That said, the design also lent itself towards individuals going into their own heads. So, in that sense, it proved an optimal environment for listening to this audiobook/radio play style version of Unicorns, Almost. With no live actor, we found that many people wanted to close their eyes. Others enjoyed moving their gaze to the photos of Keith Douglas or to objects related to him—both of which felt as if they were almost coming to life during the play. Responses to the communal listening experience were interesting, with some enjoying sitting in a group while others clearly felt more comfortable finding a seat on their own. It was really important to us to remain adaptable so we could accommodate the audience’s varying responses and preferences.
What has been the reaction so far?
Very positive! ‘Emotional’, ‘very moving, ‘inspiring’, ‘surprising’, ‘unexpected treat’, ‘wonderful’, ‘extraordinary experience’—these are just some of the reactions that people wrote in our visitors’ book or posted on social media.
We had a very eclectic audience—from squaddies and local policemen through to fans of Keith Douglas’s poetry (including a former editor at Faber from Ted Hughes’ time!). Perhaps the biggest surprise was the support that the audio performance garnered from local residents in Normandy itself. French speakers really seemed to appreciate the set and the text, commenting on the clear diction and the acting performance through voice only. Some found it useful to follow the text in the play script (published by Faber Drama), while others closed their eyes and just listened. The photos of Keith Douglas had a big impact on people as well, as did the objects relating to the play and the poetry.
Is there anything that didn’t work as well as you would have hoped?
We would still like to have had the live show! We were thrilled with the immersive audio experience, which has great potential to grow and tour. However, there is no getting around the compelling live performance of Dan Krikler as Keith Douglas. In terms of marketing and audience development, it is certainly a bigger leap to get people through the door for audio versus live theatre. For this reason, we would like to find ready-made audiences rather than selling individual tickets. We will be offering it from the autumn as a complete package that can be hired for literary festivals, schools, bookshops, and cultural centres.
We hope to do a series of five plays/projects about the life and work of a single poet. Owen Sheers and John Retallack are currently drawing up a shortlist. Top of my list is Fernando Pessoa. He wrote in five languages and under more than 125 pseudonyms. It would be great to do a multilingual play that combines video, live theatre, and salon type events running simultaneously in different countries. Owen’s first choice is Elisabeth Bishop, while Sylvia Plath has John Retallack’s vote!
What should publishers learn from this?
Backlist titles can be revived in ways other than republishing. Make connections and create partnerships with others who can develop a story around an author or a book. Publish new editions to tie in with the partnership, and build new interest and audiences.
At The Story of Books, we are really interested in developing other creative projects that delve into publishing archives and backlists, and then bring to life the powerful stories that we find there. We want to take these stories out of a publishing bubble. In a celebrity driven book market, we love the idea of partnering with publishers to find little-known stories and tell them in surprising ways.