A VILLAGE red phone box near York will house probably Britain’s smallest performance on Halloween night.
Dr Christopher Newell, from the digital media department at the University of Hull, sent an intriguing email to CharlesHutchPress out of the blue on Tuesday morning.
“You may remember me as a very short-lived artistic director of the Grand Opera House. What a fiasco that was!” it started, triggering memories of Chris tempting fate by opening the Cumberland Street theatre after its £4 million renovation with a Balinese version of Macbeth, theatre’s most unlucky play, on September 28 1989.
Sure enough, within two years, the theatre gods had played their accursed Macbeth hand, and the Grand Opera House closed so suddenly, crippled by mounting debts, that staff arrived to find the doors locked.
“Anyway, here I am years later, bit of an academic, bit of a cancer patient, bit of a director – with a project to share,” the email continued.
“This Saturday, Halloween night, at 8:00 I will broadcast a 20-minute audio collage of very personal detritus, truth and lies from a telephone box outside my house near York, using a computer-generated version of my voice.
“The audience will probably be one, me.”
Explaining the audio collage content, Chris wrote: “I guess it’s something to do with ghosts, it’s certainly timed to be so. When I was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I thought I had had it.
“I wanted to make a show and as my academic specialism is computer-generated speech and how it relates to acting, I built myself a stage. I bought a phone box and set about equipping it with technology from 1937, the year it was built, and cutting-edge speech synthesis provide by colleagues in Edinburgh.
“An obsession was born that has kept me happy through several bouts of chemo and extended periods of lying in bed. I have been tinkering for five years and on Saturday it goes live. I think this is interesting, do you?”
CharlesHutchPress does indeed, and so a list of questions has been fired off to Chris – rather than taking a call in the aforementioned phone box – to discover more.
Where is the telephone box near York?
“Outside my house.” (Chris preferred not to reveal the location but here is a clue: think of a rosy autumn fruit and a deer).
On what medium will you broadcast…and how can people tune in?
“It’s on a web radio channel, GISS Global Internet Streaming Support: a platform for experimentation and research on free technologies in the era of internet media.”
Can people visit the phone box at other times?
“Yes, but not while Covid persists.”
Is this the smallest arts space you could ever perform in?
“I can’t think of a smaller one but there is bound to be someone who has performed in a barrel or something.”
After Halloween, what happens to the recording?
“I will make it available from my website and then continue to add new performances of new material at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer. I dislike rituals and festivals, so this is my attempt at a subversive counter culture. Yo Ho Ho.”
What does Halloween mean to you?
“Not being dead yet but I thought I was about to be – phew! I am obsessed with Thomas Edison’s paper on The Realms Beyond: he thought he could make a machine to communicate with the dead – I reckon I have.”
On a technical level, how do you computer-generate your voice? Does it change your voice?
“No. It uses parameters from your real voice to remap them to a computer-generated clone. It’s mega-clever, done by my colleagues at CereProc [a speech synthesis company based in Edinburgh], not by me.
“It means the voice can say all the things I can’t – of course, sometimes it can’t say the things I can – this is both a literal and metaphorical statement.”
What are you required to do to maintain the condition of the vintage phone box?
“Not let if freeze – it’s amazingly resistant to extreme weather. It’s got some electronics in it that I have to fix from time to time; paint it every three years; polish the woodwork; chuck out the spiders.”
Is it locked or permanently open?
“Currently I can’t let people in – hence the broadcast – but up until Covid people could pop in any time and did.”
Looking back, did you ever regret your bravura decision to open the Grand Opera House, after 33 years without a play there, with the ever ill-fated Macbeth?
“Not as much as I regretted taking the job at all – I was not the right person. It wasn’t Macbeth that did for it; it was combo of me and the people who owned it.”
For a taster of what lies ahead on Halloween night at Dr Christopher Newell’s phone box, head to: https://k6.gravityisahat.com/wp/live-feeds/