Being There: Tuning Out with Radio Z

Feature in Issue 22-4 | Winter 2010

A three-way reflection on Tuning Out with Radio Z by Stan’s Cafe.

There’s a buzz in the air (among the arts community at least) as Stan’s Cafe come to town with their new improvised and interactive show. The local arts bulletin intriguingly asks for volunteers to sleep onstage for the duration of the performance. The audience is invited to bring their laptop and their phone, to text, email and contribute show content directly via the show’s online, ‘virtual newsroom’ forum.

It’s disappointing to see such a thin audience tonight, as a show which is improvised and based on audience contributions would presumably benefit from a full house. The radio station is already broadcasting to a wider, but invisible, audience when we enter the theatre, and the two DJs Amanda and Craig sit facing us behind laptops, purring into their microphones. Pictures, videos and occasional glimpses of the online ‘newsroom’ are projected onto a screen behind them.

The theme of tonight’s show is luck. Craig and Amanda discuss lucky escapes, setting a lighthearted tone, with moments of poignancy. They ignore the audience throughout the show, whilst inviting listeners to text and email in. This creates an odd barrier between them and us, and I think this is why it is a while before contributions start coming in. Also, it isn’t really clear what sort of contributions we should, or might, make. Are we pretending to be radio station ‘listeners’ or are we narrators of a show about a radio station? Should we offer up anecdotes or directions?

I couldn’t log on to the clunky newsroom forum until two hours in, so decided to text instead. The process of texting forces a lapse in concentration on the dialogue, and a space to rethink your own position in relation to Radio Z. Dipping in and out of the narrative flow evokes thoughts of sleep and dreaming, which is reinforced by the curiously effective onstage sleepers. There are vague thematic strands winding through this work, including complex ideas of communications and relationships, many of which will be the same in tomorrow’s show, but some of which are unique tonight. There is plenty to think about, but I can’t help feeling that tonight’s audience haven’t played their part well enough; we haven’t sent enough interesting messages in, and that seems rather unfair when the mechanisms of the show weren’t clearly explained at the beginning.

Maybe this conventional theatre space isn’t the best venue for Radio Z; we are not at ease enough, seated in rows in the dark, to confidently take control of the interactive opportunity offered to us.

I hope Stan’s Cafe continue to play around with the basic model of this fascinating show as there is clearly still work to be done.
Geraldine Harris

This show’s a monster, impossible to tame and if tamed, pointless. Tonight’s theme is ‘luck’ – and it’s against us. Front-of-house foul up: programmes – key instructions for audience collaboration – haven’t been distributed. SMS to Web translation apparatchik hits glitch, backstage phone support required. Now audience messages start to flow cue laughs of recognition. Amanda and Craig – Radio Presenters – are on good banter form. The show even turns French for a period, they can keep this fun up forever but it needs to escape and transcend and tonight we’re struggling with that.

I’m placing still images and video behind the improvisation, likely material ripped from YouTube. ‘Lucky people’ footage causes gasps but is perhaps too obvious, the ‘lighthouse beam’ feels better but nothing’s really meshing. I want to catalyse a transformation and so, via web and stage screen, solicit audience help. With honourable exceptions, what’s incoming is standard radio shtick – maybe tonight’s theme is badly chosen. In the rehearsal room you would stop, adjust, reset and re-launch, but here the train can’t stop until the end of the line. I’m growing desperate, pulling and pushing leavers – all feels futile. It’s Stan’s Cafe’s job to experiment, but right now it feels like it’s blowing up in our face.

Stage sleepers fail to find a place in the broader fiction, two didn’t show and now, maybe two hours in, an audience message arrives requesting to join their number. Why not? I get them backstage and brief them. Shocked but game, their arrival provides strong raw material and we get into some good stuff. The closing passages are moving – a quality familiar with epic long shows. It’s over.

Maybe this observation changed the observed; tomorrow night is bound to be a triumph. It is. A validation of the enterprise shared only with those who are present, such is the joy of the improvised.
James Yarker, artistic Director, Stan’s Cafe

We went into this Bristol run feeling more confident about the show, having honed how we ask for audience material and having become more adept at incorporating it. As it is improvised there remains, of course, an element of terror. The audience seem quite lively tonight, which we of course encourage by asking for their input. But as a paranoid performer you do ask yourself whether this is ‘we’re enjoying this!’ liveliness or ‘what on earth is this?’ discontent. Largely I think it was the former and the audience offered up some fun and interesting contributions.

A highlight of this performance was the entrance on stage of two audience members. It’s always worrying for a performer when you see the audience in your bit of the theatre and initially we thought they had stormed the stage to take over. Before they could say anything we cast them into a story and ushered them into beds. To our relief they did this without protest and on returning to the desk I spotted a message revealing that they had been sent on by director James [Yarker]. Their intervention did give the show a new lease of life at a time when it was flagging a little.

I came off stage after this one feeling a little disappointed. Perhaps because of our theme choice we found it difficult to generate material for the off-mic, on-stage world and in trying to get this going, we committed the sin of letting the radio station slip, leaving our online listeners with some dead air. We are always trying to pin down what makes the show work and when it does, it feels great. I think we will continue to learn each time and we hope the audience enjoys it along the way.
Craig Stephens, Performer

The showing of Tuning Out with Radio Z by Stan’s Cafe reflected on here took place at Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, 4 November 2010. www.tobaccofactory.com

For more on Stan’s Café, and future plans for this show, see: www.stanscafe.co.uk

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Issue 22-4
p. 29