Changing the rhythms of a city with Wiretapper app

On Friday I attended a performance of a new piece of site-specific theatre, but I wasn’t so much taken by the spectacle as I was by the sound design – and the technology used to deliver it.

‘Monument’ was created by David Rosenberg (one of the co-founders of Shunt, an experimental theatre collective) alongside long-time collaborators Ben and Max Ringham – sibling sound designers who’ve become stalwarts of the West End.

I received a brief email with instructions on how to prepare for the show, directing me to download an app called ‘Wiretapper’, to turn up with a fully charged phone and headphones, look inconspicuous and to “dress warm”.

We were told to meet on the main concourse of a major overground railway station in Central London, phones in hand and wearing our headphones. At exactly 6.30pm, my phone buzzed and spat up a notification from the ‘Wiretapper’ app. I tapped the play icon and the experience began.

Without dwelling too much on the specifics of the production, the Ringams’ sound design was absolutely phenomenal. They fully embraced the opportunity to play with an audience immersed in their own stereo bubbles, beginning the piece with the background noise of a station concourse – complete with slightly unhinged tannoy announcements.

The experience was disorienting; it became instantly impossible to distinguish between the audio of the production and the sounds of life outside my headphones. Due to the vagueness of the meeting point and the armies of commuters also plugged into their smartphones, it was nigh on impossible to identify fellow audience members elsewhere in the station. But once the show began this became slightly easier; smiles crept onto the faces of stationary strangers in headphones, reacting physically to noise sources around them that weren’t actually there.

The piece explored the idea of surveillance; we were merely operatives involved in some sort of covert operation. We moved around the city, guided only by directions from our recorded narrator – encountering shady characters from a distance that spoke to us discretely via our ‘earpieces’. Staged in public spaces, surrounded by tourists and commuters, the real world merged with the narrative. We watched an ordinary tourist (who turned out to be an operative) change his baseball cap by a fountain perfectly on the narrator’s cue, then tuned into the in-flight announcement of an aeroplane flying overhead – it was all timed to perfection.

Being one of the chosen few in busy locations who’d been granted access to this strange alternate reality was quite exhilarating. Members of the public were genuinely unaware that at least 30 of the people dotted around them with their headphones in were part of the same community, experiencing something altogether different.

This isn’t the first time Rosenberg and the Ringhams have staged headphone-based theatre performances, but it is the first time they’ve enabled audiences to tune in by using their own devices. ‘Wiretapper’ was developed by the team specifically for the show, described on the app store as “a project to facilitate audio-based performance or events in public spaces”. Rosenberg said of the new technology that it “may well lay the foundations for a digital revolution in audio theatre, and we’re excited that Monument is its first experiment.”

It wasn’t hard to see the potential in the platform, for theatre productions and beyond. It’s essentially a live-streaming audio tool, but even on my dodgy old iPhone 4s that finds it impossible to retain charge, it was faultless. I simply signed up with my name, email and my ticket’s unique voucher code, then the show started when promised, playing perfectly for 50 minutes. Not a buffering symbol in sight.

For marketers, ‘Wiretapper’ presents an invaluable opportunity to speak to audiences en masse, without needing to shoulder the cost or risk of providing expensive audio hardware. This could revolutionise the way users engage with events, add a whole new dimension to experiential marketing stunts and provide a more cost-efficient alternative for audio tours at museums and galleries.

As a piece of theatre, ‘Monument’ lacked a bit of depth, but it demonstrated very clearly the quality of the app, and the power of collectively harnessing audiences’ own mobile devices. Maybe one day this will be de rigueur, but as a new experience it was fresh and, at times, thrilling. Of course, like any new technology, it’s not enough to use the app as a token gesture. But if ‘Wiretapper’ can be incorporated into a fitting creative concept or idea, marketers could create something truly magical.

‘Wiretapper’ is available across iOS and Android for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.