Hairy Hands FM: An interview with Chronic Insanity’s Joe Strickland
Harry Hands FM is an innovative, fully immersive theatrical experience created by Hannah Parsons and Joe Strickland of theatre collective Chronic Insanity. Using binaural sound and multimedia elements, they recreated the early 20th century legend of the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor (concerning a stretch of road in Dartmoor, purported to have an unusually high number of motor vehicle accidents) with a modern twist for audiences to enjoy in the comfort of their homes.
We had a chat with Joe about the production, binaural sound and its role in the entertainment industry.
Why the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor? What connection do you have to the idea?
We knew that we wanted to use mythology native to the South West for the experience, and we wanted the experience to take place in the audience’s own home, so we had a look at which supernatural creature might fit these two categories. The Hairy Hands normally haunt a particular stretch of road over Dartmoor, but we imagined them branching out and hunting down the audience wherever they might be, after they overhear the Hands attacking some other people over the radio, as if to remove any witnesses. I was aware of the legend of the Hands before we started the project, but have learnt so much more about it as a result of researching the project, a lot of which is included in the radio show in the first half of the experience.
What aspect of the story was most difficult to capture for the experience?
The most difficult aspect is trying to make it feel real and immediate. We knew that to make the experience feel present, like a live theatre piece, it had to be able to meaningfully communicate back and forth with the audience. Hannah, our producer and sound designer, made the binaural sound for the experience brilliantly, so that the Hands really sound like they are moving around and interacting with the audience’s home. That meant it was down to me to build a system to allow the experience to listen and react to the audience. This was the most difficult part of the experience to create and fine tune, because we needed it to simulate a real conversation between the audience and the character on the other end of the phone. We’re really happy with how it’s turned out though!
In a world where VR and AR are rising in popularity, do you believe binaural sound has potential in digital theatre?
Absolutely – maybe more so than VR and AR. Binaural sound is more convenient, as it only requires stereo headphones to work, so most audiences will be able to experience it with ease. Technically speaking it is AR, it’s just augmenting the user’s reality with sound, rather than visual digital information. It can also be cheaper and easier to make than VR and AR experiences for theatremakers. I think we should use all these technologies moving forward, but you can’t deny the fact that binaural sound is convenient for artists and audiences.
Why did you choose a story in the horror genre for this project over something more tranquil, for example, considering the use of immersive sound? Do you plan to take on other genres?
There are a lot of tranquil and soothing sound experiences, guided meditations, relaxing noisescapes, which are all great for escaping, but we wanted to create a safe space for the confrontation of that which people might want to escape from – which horror is great for. Also, horror is one of the most popular genres in almost any media, but is nearly completely absent from theatre. Sure, you have Woman in Black and Ghost Stories, but there isn’t a huge amount of other horror theatre out there, in spite of audiences clearly enjoying it. We live in a world where there is a lot uncertainty, and wanting to have a break and escape it makes complete sense, but if people want to, or are able to confront those fears about the world, then horror allows us to do this and, with this experience we wanted to try and offer that to people too.
Did the pandemic play a role in any challenges or do you believe it may help to promote this type of digital experience?
People being stuck at home definitely helped promote this type of digital experience as people who would normally experience other cultures needed something else to do, and a sound experience is pretty easy to set up and take part in. Hopefully, some people have enjoyed these digital experiences and will continue to seek them out and take part in them in the future. Sure, there were challenges caused by the pandemic but we wouldn’t have made the same final experience had we not had to navigate those problems and come up with creative solutions for them.
What do you believe differentiates this project from other digital experiences, such as VR or games?
VR and games are great at immersion, at transporting you to the world of the story for the duration of its telling. Our experience is different in that it takes place in your world, creating a feeling of presence rather than immersion. You aren’t playing as a character in this experience, you are playing as yourself, with the events of the story happening in your world – not the faraway or fantasy world of an immersive piece of storytelling. Once you’ve experienced this you can see how significant a difference this can be.
How do you see binaural sound evolving in the art and entertainment industry?
A lot of people think you need incredibly expensive equipment and software to make binaural experiences, but there are much simpler ways to utilise the medium for storytelling. We didn’t have a huge budget for the technical side of this project and we still managed to create something that very convincingly places the sound in the space of the audience. Hopefully soon some higher profile artists or entertainers, like musicians, will use binaural prominently in their work, and then more people will make more experiences in an effective but lo-fi way to replicate this, and that knowledge of how to do it will spread so we can see more cool binaural work being made by more people.
Do you plan to expand this project – for instance, to create a standalone app – or do you prefer to keep it a limited time experience?
We have plans for another version of this experience, as well as several other binaural experiences, on the horizon. A standalone app would be a cool idea – who knows where the future will take us! We absolutely want the experience to be kept available for people. One of the benefits of digital theatre is that it can be available on demand, whenever an audience wants to experience it. Given that this experience has no upkeep costs, there’s no need to limit its availability.
Is there anything you would like to add to the experience to make it even more immersive?
Nothing that we’d add to the experience, but if there was a way for audiences to more easily understand that, as a new style of experience, they need to approach it in a different way, that would be lovely. Hairy Hands FM requires that audiences are active and play along with the characters in the story. We always say that making the experience is interesting because it isn’t complete until the audience casts themselves in the final role and takes part in it. It is only performed when an audience member decides to take part in the story and the more they give into it the more they get out of it.
What story would you like to take on next? Do you have set plans for other experiences?
Chronic Insanity is currently in the middle of a project to create and stage 12 shows in 12 months, with four shows down in three months at time of writing, and our fifth show, There’s Something Among Us, on the horizon. As a result of this, we have a lot of shows planned for the future, including more audio and binaural projects. Our future projects are going to address topics such as intellectual property theft in the tech industry, police accountability, conspiracy theories, hyperpop, and the amount of choice an individual has in the world that they live in. It’s going to be a busy year but we wouldn’t have it any other way!