The man is a cog in the dystopian machine, his every movement monitored by the authorities.
A disembodied female voice follows him around, offering Orwellian announcements about when it’s time to shower or head to work in a city built on the only plot of land that survived a flood that subsumed the rest of Earth.
Our protagonist indicates his continued humanity, in a system that prefers he be an automaton, through a slight hesitation in his footfall, or a hitch in his breath.
It’s very cinematic. Except this motion picture lacks a picture.
Running March 19-21 at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, England’s EarFilms project presents a “film” consisting of a recorded soundscape and live narration.
Audience members wear blindfolds and experience a narrative through a 22-speaker “ambisonic” system.
The visual component is all in the listener’s head.
“It is about people kind of having an hour and a half to reconnect with, or enjoy, their imagination,” EarFilms creator Daniel Marcus Clark said. Clark, 34, spoke by phone from Los Angeles, where he and collaborators Dannii Evans, 32, and Chris Timpson, 34, mounted shows last week.
“We have perfume shops for our sense of smell, and beautiful restaurants, and high-definition screens for our eyes, and nature,” Clark continued. “(But) how do we honor people’s imaginations? As an adult, it’s hard to find time in the day when you get to check in with that part.”
Clark’s deep, mellifluous voice (like Alan Rickman’s, but even more inviting) helps one’s imagination spring to life as he narrates the EarFilms’ “To Sleep To Dream,” which is set in a world so restrictive that dreaming is forbidden.
Through live narration by Clark, who studied traditional storytelling in college, and an ingenious use of sound cues (example: tinny, arcadelike music that summons the idea of computer games before computers ever are mentioned), the listener “sees” what is happening.
EarFilms achieves this effect just with a 20-minute preview snippet of “To Sleep” emailed to a reporter for earphone listening. But it takes the theatrical experience to get the full effect, the EarFilms team said.
According to Timpson, who is the project’s sound specialist, the production’s half-dome-shaped speaker setup creates “giant sound sculptings” that help immerse the audience in the story.
Clark, Timpson and Evans, the show’s producer and audience-experience director, started working on EarFilms in 2011. At one point, audience members used headphones for part of the show. That became too “fussy,” Clark said.
The speaker approach better cultivates a “collective, shared experience,” Clark said. The filmgoing experience.
In researching their show, the EarFilms collaborators worked with England’s Royal National Institute of Blind People.
“We would bring blind and visually impaired groups in and see what sonic language people had,” Clark said. “Film is such a prominent force now, but what would the sonic equivalent be? … What do you understand of a character, through the way that they walk or the way that they breathe?
“Is there a sonic intelligence that we can draw upon?”
Visually impaired people, in turn, have been enthusiastic EarFilms audience members, Clark said.
“They feel like they are not being left out. There is nothing they are not getting from the experience.”
Given the recent popularity of podcasts, and the “This American Life” spinoff “Serial” in particular, EarFilms’ first appearance in Davis (and Northern California) comes at a fitting moment.
The podcast trend suggests a desire for relief from the current inundation of visual images via film, TV, computer and cellphone screens.
“I feel like we are moving back toward” less-cluttered storytelling, Clark said. “It feels nurturing to listen to a podcast, (and) ‘This American Life’ is beautifully put together. It is not necessarily different from watching a good documentary, but it feels better. It feels like I am doing something good for myself, like reading a good book.”
It might be easier to resume one’s regular life after listening to “Serial” on headphones, or “American Life” on the car radio, than it is to shake off the EarFilms show.
The show is such a “deeply internal, intense experience,” Evans said, that EarFilms organizers built in an adjustment period of a few minutes, after audience members remove their blindfolds, during which they can regain their bearings.
A post-show Q&A lets audience members process what they just experienced.
“People can share with each other and (find out) what’s unique and what’s common about their imaginations,” Evans said. “Because it is so new – this kind of format and way of experiencing a story – it isn’t until people start sharing their stories that some of the audience members start to realize how their (own) imagination works. How they process narrative and imagery.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
What: A narrative “film” presented through sound
When: 7 p.m. March 19-21
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center for the Arts, 1 Shields Ave., Davis
Cost: $32 general, $11 students and ages 17 and younger
Information: www.mondaviarts.org, (866) 754-2787