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Shakespeare, Remixed by Biosensors

A performance of the Bard's work will use the audience's biological signals to inform its narrative.

Alexis Kirke will "conduct" the performance. Image: Alexis Kirke

Tomorrow evening at London’s V&A museum will be a rather unusual performance of some of Shakespeare’s most loved scenes. A selection of the Bard’s most emotive passages will be performed under the direction of the audience—or more accurately, their biological signals.

In “Conducting Shakespeare,” Alexis Kirke and Peter Hinds of Plymouth University will kit out four audience members with biosensors that track their heart rate, brain waves, muscle tension, and perspiration in real time. As these physiological responses change according to emotion, the directors will use them to “remix” the scenes live, and create a narrative based on an emotional arc.

Kirke, who works at Plymouth’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, explained that he and Hinds selected a total of about 18 Shakespeare segments, split between female monologues, male monologues, and duologues. They selected these based mainly on their emotional impact, and they include some of the playwright’s more famous moments, such as part of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, one of Hamlet’s rages, and Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” speech.

“The idea is to conduct these to create a certain emotional arc,” said Kirke. He started by marking up the scenes using an emotional model called a valence/arousal model. “It’s almost like you can plot emotion on a graph, though of course you can’t do that,” he said. “Valence is the positivity of emotion and arousal is the physical activity of it.” So feelings like “happy” and “relaxed” would both have a positive valence, but “happy” would score higher on the arousal front.

The biosensors aren’t so great at capturing valence, but they give a good idea of arousal levels. Provided by I-CubeX, they include a heart rate monitor, frontal EEG sensor, a sensor that goes round the wrist to measure muscle tension, and one that uses conductivity to sense sweat levels. The readings from each sensor look like this:

Image: Alexis Kirke

Kirke said he hadn’t yet decided whether he wanted to order the scenes to go from relaxed to intense and back to relaxed again, or the inverse. In the performance, a screen at the side of the stage will show a combined reading from the biosensors and he’ll “conduct” from that. That will basically entail giving actors Melanie Heslop and James Mack a pre-arranged hand signal to indicate which scene they should do next. “I feel like I’m almost a performer, playing the actors as instruments,” he said.

Given the live nature of the performance, the result will be something of an experiment and Kirke’s initial ideas could easily be skewed by unexpected audience’s reactions. The idea reminds me of that biosensor-equipped gaming controller that changes the game according to your emotions, except for Kirke’s direction retains more of a human element in the mix. Rather than having the technology usurp the position of artistic director, he’s employing it as a tool to inform that role. 

While it might seem to risk cliché, Kirke said the choice to use Shakespeare was obvious after he watched a few scenes on Youtube. “I was shocked by the emotional intensity of watching these on a computer screen, in a room, on headphones—it just inspired me to make this work,” he said. But by combining that with tech, he’s attempting to update the traditional works from their well-trodden boards. “I want to bring a machine into the heart of this intensely human process, into something some people would say is the ultimate artistic expression of humanity,” he said.

Kirke has previously also used biosensors in a film—the movie changes according to the viewer’s signals. It looks like the future of entertainment could be performances that “watch us back” and show us what we want to see. As Kirke’s pieces combine responses from audience members, however, you might just have to put up with other people’s bio signals occasionally getting in the way of your own sweaty, heart-racing desires.