The amazing 'sensorium suite' of Dr. Houston

The amazing 'sensorium suite' of Dr. Houston

A Waterloo researcher turns everyday sound into a unique theatrical experience
April 28, 2010
A set (ABOVE) from *Crossfiring / Mama Wetotan*
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A set (ABOVE) from *Crossfiring / Mama Wetotan* sits in the prairie in Claybank, Sask. The a 12-hour performance tells the story of Claybank brick factory workers who had been laid off.
Andrew Houston, University of Waterloo

“All the world’s a stage,” William Shakespeare famously wrote. And while Shakespeare’s plays are still performed in premier concert halls and on festival stages, Andrew Houston, an associate professor of drama at the University of Waterloo, is taking his theatre of sound out into the world.

“Often, theatre audiences are kept at a distance from something that is lit and designed with a certain perspective in mind, and this just throws all that out,” says Houston. “You can produce great work in those staged environments all the time, but I think it also feels like a field that gets tilled over too many times and loses its fertility.”

The audience takes in a scene from *Crossfiring /
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The audience takes in a scene from *Crossfiring / Mama Wetotan* in the old Claybank brickworks.
Andrew Houston, University of Waterloo

Instead, Houston uses a high-tech amalgam of recording equipment called the “sensorium suite” to record and play back ambient sounds and interviewed recordings, adding layers of meaning and stories to unique locations, such as abandoned legion halls, old brick factories and even a mental hospital in Weyburn, Sask.

One of Houston’s most recent works used the sensorium suite to blend memories and rumours on the life of Edna Bear, a stage performer and semi-celebrity during the Second World War. Based on a box of files discovered in a hospital dumpster that contained pictures and extensive documentation of her life, Edna’s Archive took its audience on a “sound walk” along several city blocks in downtown Kitchener, Ont., including an old public utilities building.

Melanie Bennett (LEFT) and Trenna Keating (FRONT)
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Melanie Bennett (LEFT) and Trenna Keating (FRONT) perform a scene from *Crossfiring / Mama Wetotan* called "Keepers," and is devoted to the women of Claybank, who preserved the stories and memorabilia of the town's factory after it closed in 1989.
Andrew Houston, University of Waterloo

“We made a connection between the value of a woman as represented in her archive and the value of a downtown as represented in the buildings that are forever shifting and lost in history,” says Houston. “There’s this conflicted notion of how we mark history, whether it’s treated as heritage or the old building just becomes a convenience store or pawnshop.”

Moreover, Houston believes site-specific sound exhibits are an ideal vehicle to question the value of hearing in a world dominated by the sense of sight. His work has shown how sound ignites strong memories and visceral reactions even in audiences unfamiliar with experimental theatre.

Ednas archive, included a display of
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"Edna's archive," included a display of more than 1,000 photos from Bear's personal archive. Bear (RIGHT) poses with two W-Debs, performers recruited by the Canadian military to entertain Canadian troops in Europe during the war.
Andrew Houston, University of Waterloo

Earlier in his career, Houston did groundbreaking work at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, evaluating, critiquing and celebrating the hospital building’s lingering value in the community.

“There are lots of difficulties for an artist or a producer working your way into a community in a way that legitimizes your work to the people living in that community,” says Kathleen Irwin, a collaborator on the project and associate professor in the theatre department at the University of Regina. ”You have to move gently to build trust, particularly around sounds, because it involves recording people and their stories.”

Actress Elysia Cloet performs a scene from
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Actress Elysia Cloet performs a scene from "Edna's archive."
Andrew Houston, University of Waterloo

When The Weyburn Project opened, it hosted dozens of artists and even included retired nurses from the hospital as tour guides. It had a popular run for several weeks, which is no small feat considering the challenges for an audience member as compared with a normal theatre presentation.

“In Weyburn, there were no elevators and many staircases,” says Houston. “A lot of our audience were elderly people, yet they walked the whole route along all four hallways, each 150 metres long, for almost three hours. But they were energized by this walk back through a historical place. I think it’s really important to demand things from audiences, and this work really does that.”