‘The Extra People’ breaks the 4th wall

Ordinarily when one enters a theater, it’s considered courteous to tuck away any distracting devices. For Ant Hampton’s latest production, technology is essential in imparting surrealism upon the audience.

Hampton is a Swiss-born British artist whose practice lies in the ironic craft of giving instruction for unrehearsed performances.

Hampton is returning to FringeArts after his showcase of “The Quiet Volu me” in 2013 with his production of “The Extra People.” The piece features the art of Autoteatro—an automated process by which instructions are given to audience members, most often through headphones, who perform the show themselves and experience it from the inside.

In “The Extra People,” which is world premiering at the Merriam Theater on Sept. 17, the conventional barrier between audiences and actors vanishes through the transparency of Autoteatro.

This transparency acts as an exploration of disconnect in theater.

“I am trying to paint this picture of an audience, which is not as we assume an audience to be,” Hampton said. “That comfortable assumption that theater is a place that brings people together.”

About 15 viewers/participants are given headphones and LED flashlights upon entering the Merriam Theater for Hampton’s performance.

For about 30 minutes, they remain seated, observing another group of fifteen individuals scattered amid shadows across the stage. With guidance from the synthesized voice, the seated people gradually make their own way towards the stage, unwittingly as another group of viewers settles in behind them.

In its entirety, the illusory spectacle lasts for about an hour as audience members are directed by the computerized voice in their headphones.

Computerized voicing is uncharted territory for Hampton and his production team, as this production is their first time working with this text-to-speech downloadable function.

“The whole thing you hear is not only prerecorded and automatic, but the voice itself is a non-existent object,” said Hampton. “And that, to me, is really interesting in terms of this whole world of absence of authority the piece is exploring.”

For audience members, anticipation not only lies in observing this complexity, but in actually living it.

“I am looking forward to experiencing this breakdown between audience and performer, to blur and transcend the fourth wall,” said Rachel Meirson, a junior film and media arts major at Temple who plans to see the show at FringeArts.

Meirson added that she’s more interested in the technical side of the piece than its content.

Coincidentally, the place where technicality meets spirituality is the very principle of the performance.

Despite hearing the same voice, each audience member receives different directions upon emerging from the seats. For participants, it seems as though the voice is coming from the house sound system, alluding to the idea of universal instruction, when in actuality everyone is enveloped in their own stream.

“We’ve gone so far down the line with the cult of individuality,” Hampton said. “Perhaps this is a more honest vision of the theater today—everyone plugged into their own streams and sitting with quite a lot of distance between themselves.”

Inspiration for theatrical isolation stems from various examinations of individual withdrawal from surroundings, such as contemporary globalized labor conditions.

In the past four to five years, warehouses across the world have adapted a digital method for commanding workers, using computerized voices to direct aisle placements and code readings.

According to Hampton, the movement of human bodies in the piece mirrors the replaceable and temporary conditions of the objects moved in warehouses, perhaps suggesting that people are just as expendable.

After its showcase in festivals in Philadelphia and New York, the production will venture to Belgium in January 2016 and Poland in July 2016. The synthesized voice will be translated to both Dutch and French.

Despite the evident unfolding of aloneness, the fact that everyone is experiencing solitude creates a communal perception throughout the theater, Hampton said.

“It’s not participation with actors who know what is supposed to happen … and certainly there is no one else looking at you who isn’t involved on the same level as you,” said Hampton. “To me, this means there’s an aura in the room of shared risk.”

Grace Maiorano can be reached at grace.maiorano@temple.edu.

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