Theatre / action hero

Action Hero and Deborah Pearson’s sci-fi show puts the human voice front and centre

By Sarski Anderson, Thursday Mar 16, 2023

Contemporary Bristol performance duo Action Hero (Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse) are collaborating with live artist and playwright Deborah Pearson and sound designer Yaseen Clarke in The Talent: a new surreal, sci-fi show coming to The Wardrobe Theatre on March 21 for a five night run.

Known for making award-winning and often site-specific work that investigates the interplay between the public and digital realms, art installation and sound, The Talent is their first show on stage since 2017.

The show centres on a woman in a sound booth, talking – to herself, to you, to everyone. “Her voice,” we are told, “is all that’s left.”

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Simultaneously exploring the intimacy and expansiveness of the disembodied voice, the audience is met with questions of where the voice actually lives, and whether it always takes on a life of its own.

What will be the legacy of the human voice, in a potentially non-human future? Paintin from Action Hero joined Bristol24/7 to share more of the ideas at play in the project.

Have the questions underpinning The Talent been percolating in your mind for some time? How did the work begin to emerge?

“Yes, I have always been obsessed with the voice, doing different voices, and trying to mimic people. Even as a kid I would do this to make my family laugh.

“In the past few years I started thinking more philosophically about the voice, and the idea of using your voice. What does it mean to be able to channel the voice of another? What if that voice wasn’t the voice of a person, but was the voice of a product? How do our voices live on after we’re gone?

“I guess a lot of people have had the experience of hearing a voice of somebody who isn’t with them anymore, and the funny feeling that provokes. That idea is super interesting to me.”

For you, is the notion of a disembodied voice comforting, alienating, or some combination of the two?

“I think it can be either, which is what is so cool. In many ways, our voices contain some kind of essence of our humanity, so they’re inherently comforting.

“But something weird happens when the voice is disconnected from a sense of a human body somehow. It’s uncanny, and a bit creepy. It makes me think about ghosts and hauntings, but also AI and non-human voices. I guess these are ghosts too in a way. Maybe ghosts from the future.”

Looking back over 15 years with Action Hero, how does The Talent fit in within your canon of work?

“There is quite a strong thematic link around the voice – to Oh Europa for example, where we recorded ordinary people singing love songs, and to older work like Frontman, where we worked a lot with sound.

“We havent made a ‘proper show’ for several years, so it’s really exciting to come back into a theatre space. It’s coming back to where we started.”

What does the medium of sci-fi afford you when wrestling with how to present and explore challenging ideas?

“It’s funny, because we didn’t set out to make a sci-fi show. If someone had told me that’s what we were making I would have been freaked out! But it sort of happened naturally, and when you’re exploring the voice and the future of the voice, that is just what emerges. The present day feels quite sci-fi to me – Chat GPT for example, or deep fake videos. Even everyone’s experience of suddenly living on Zoom during the pandemic is quite sci-fi.”

How have audiences reacted to the ideas explored within the show to date?

“They’ve found it funny and relatable. We’re all living inside this weird world where our voices are slowly disconnecting from our physical bodies. That’s been happening as long as we’ve had recorded voices. The sense that the voice might not be trusted is interesting, especially if we associate it so strongly with what it means to be human.”

The Talent is at The Wardrobe Theatre from March 21-25 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available at

All photos: Ana Viotti

Read more: Joyful, silly, interactive and celebratory: inside The Wardrobe Theatre

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