Talkaoke! The nights of the round table

Thanks to Sarah Morrison of the Independent on Sunday for writing a very nice news feature about Talkaoke.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Talkaoke! The nights of the round table 

A Slice of Britain: It’s a simple formula – just 10 people round the ‘flying saucer of chat’, debating whatever issues they choose. And it is taking the world by storm.

photo by Justin Sutcliffe 

Pensioner Maureen Ukairo, 72, is finding it hard to hold her tongue. As she listens to a man almost 50 years her junior debate the ethics of atheism, she whispers: “Sometimes you haveto be very patient here.” A quick glimpse around the doughnut-shaped table she is sitting at tells you why. Ten expectant faces all look back, each bursting to speak up. The host,  swivelling in the middle, does his best to share the microphone around. Faces are projected on to a giant screen behind us and jazz plays smoothly in the background. This is the world of Talkaoke and these are the “talkaokeyists” – an eclectic group of men and women, who have come to a studio in east London to debate anything and everything with people they either know or have never met before. The pink-lit table with speakers and voice control fitted on the side might be more Nineties than Noughties, but the home-grown Kilroy-inspired “mobile talk show”, the baby of a London art student, is in global demand.

The number of Talkaoke events has more than doubled in the past year, while takings have gone up by 30 per cent. The “flying saucer of chat”, will be visiting half a dozen countries this year, including a trip to Brazil – at the request of a professional female footballer keen to debate gender equality in the sport – and an appearance at the Arab Thought Foundation in Lebanon. New projects are lined up in Italy, France, Denmark, Poland and Norway, with interest from the US, Ireland and Saudi Arabia.

Its founder, Mikey Weinkove, 37, who set up Talkaoke 15 years ago, is building 10 new tables – at £10,000 a pop – and training additional people in more languages, to ensure his new contracts can be met. “I think the increased interest is down to a user-led web culture throughout the world and a social shift we’re seeing – people want to participate more. This is almost live social media: it is about creating a space where no one person controls.” He adds that the main focus of Talkaoke has never changed. “It’s about engaging you, getting you interested and getting you talking about all sorts of ideas.” In the past year, Talkaoke has moved into major commercial locations, including the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and the Science Museum. It now includes a “heckle” system, where words and phrases from the conversation are typed live on to the screen behind the table and Google images are selected to visualise the discussion. It is a far cry from where it started: Weinkove and a table made out of two pieces of MDF board nailed together.

Founded on one rule – the participants set the agenda – the 30 or so people who fill this training session seem intent on lightening the tone. As people take turns to sit at the table, conversations flow from garden gnomes to bad Christmas gifts, to the Ten Commandments and then back to romance in the workplace. Saul Albert, a 24-year-old PhD student and Talkaoke volunteer, says most people are “aware that they’re performing”. Regulars mix with newcomers, while potential participants nervously approach the circle, designed to look like a campfire, aware that they are being filmed for an online archive. While posited as social media “in action”, the attraction for many lies in its presence in the offline world. Ross Pepper, 28, a part-time special needs tutor from Clapham, south London, attending for the first time, says it is “cathartic” to meet people and share views. “People don’t really live in communities any more. Here, you find people with similar beliefs; it’s a bit like going to church on a Sunday.”

The host, Steven Eastwood, a 41-year-old film-maker, says the gatherings are a “deliberate play on pop culture” designed to “make decisions more democratic”. He adds: “It can be hard to facilitate opinions; culturally, we struggle for a format to do that – we have Question Time with a panel of professionals, but here there is no hierarchy and people are on a level playing field.”

While Weinkove insists his idea is “simple”, Ukairo says it is “not like anything you could do in your living room”. Encountering the round-table talk four years ago when she attended a Southwark council meeting where a table was being used, she insists that its “uniqueness” comes not from the table, but the added extras – the trained host, the lights, the microphones, and the digital screen. Rarely missing a monthly session, she adds: “I’m hooked” and hurries back to the table.

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