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Sound Stroll Offers Multisensory Immersion in Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Garden: An Immersive Sound Stroll is an exhibit at the Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center. The exhibit runs through May 26.

Alexandria, VA – The two young software engineers arrived on bicycles at Old Town’s Torpedo Factory Art Center on a recent weekend anticipating a walk among the visual arts studio. However, when they stepped into the center’s elevator, they saw a notice for a “Sound Stroll” at Target Gallery and headed to the main floor to check it out. What they discovered had them scratching their heads over words from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, at once familiar but distant, in the immersive artistic experience.

Shakespeare’s Garden Sound Stroll is billed as “an immersive sound stroll through his sonnets, soliloquies, and scenes, and is a small and techy presentation. Immediately, the two bicyclists said it prompted them to try to place the lines they viewed on illuminated screens to the correct Shakespeare sonnets, soliloquies, and scenes they each had studied during their high school years.  Evan Tung, 23, and Prashant Shankar, 22, listened intently as invisible actors recited short lines of text that floated across five scroll-like screens.

Printed in pastel shades, the text was accompanied by dramatic voiceovers but did not identify which of Shakespeare’s works was being performed (a brochure does identify the sources). Both Tung and Shankar, software engineers who work for Amazon in Arlington and Herndon, respectively, said they found the experience intriguing.

“I can see some word patterns,” said Tung, a recent graduate of Arizona State in Tempe who recently moved to Arlington to work for Amazon. He and Shankar biked from Pentagon City to see the peak of cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin before heading back across the Potomac River to Old Town on a warm and sunny spring-like afternoon. They hardly expected to be transported to 1600s England.

“We saw the sign in the elevators and thought this was a main event,” Tung added, noting with a smile the small, enclosed venue, which was unoccupied except for them and Dezi Ver, a Torpedo Factory gallery monitor who was seated silently behind a small desk, scrolling on his phone. An exhibit brochure said the Shakespeare Garden Sound Stroll is presented in partnership with the City of Alexandria Office of the Arts and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and lists five installation selections ranging from scenes from As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice to pairings of six sonnets, and the “spatial audio” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Hilton Alexandria Mark Center is listed as the sponsor.

Indeed, the garden sound stroll offers an interesting solo experience as well with its four ambient “Garden Soundscapes” created by processing field recordings of nature, including a babbling brook, wind creaking noises, a field of cicadas, a woodpecker pecking, and a robin singing. The exhibit is a mix of light and sound with musical harmonies and textures offered as the collaborative effort of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, School of Performing Arts, School of Visual Arts, and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (CAT) through a grant from the Voice and Speech Trainers Association and a group of recording, light, lighting design, and production managers. Originally, Shakespeare’s Garden was presented in The Cube at Virginia Tech in 2018.

“I think it’s fun to guess what plays they’re from—but I think I need to be reading more Shakespeare,” laughed Shankar, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan who attended Troy High School in Troy, Michigan for four years before heading to college. “When you start working on your degree courses, you tend to focus only on those things and you kind of have to seek these things out.”

Shankar said his high school teachers were “good” at teaching Shakespeare and smiled at the memory of once knowing a few of Shakespeare’s classics fairly well.

“It is kind of hard to read Shakespeare (in high school) but they helped us understand and helped us understand the language and analyze symbols. Without a good teacher, you would not even notice some of the symbols,” he added thoughtfully.

“This exhibit really reminded me of high school—the last time we read Shakespeare, studying one play each year of high school—Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and The Tempest,” Shankar explained, noting that after his Advanced Placement English classes “our school had a month after our AP tests and they let us relax a little bit with Shakespeare.”

As he listened to Shankar list the plays, Tung said he had also studied Romeo & Juliet as a freshman at his hometown high school in Seattle, followed by Macbeth, then Hamlet, and AP English classes as well. Noting the number of cultural opportunities in his new home in the D.C. area, Tung said he has discovered many opportunities like the Shakespeare Garden’s program, that made it easy to enjoy the fine arts here.

The Shakespeare’s Garden Sound Stroll at the Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union St.) is located near the spiral staircase. The exhibit runs from Feb. 5 to May 26, 2024, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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