Sunday, 30 June 2013

'Immersive Theatre' or who were you when the lights went out?

This blog entry has been waiting in the back of my mind for ages, so to provide me with a little relief, it's time to write it.  Now, that has to be the worst opening I have ever written but all will be explained.

As an introductory digression, from memory I recall an absolutely wonderful quote from the film theorist Andre Bazin in his essay, 'What Is Cinema?':

Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins.  In short, cinema has not yet been invented!

                                                                                      (Andre Bazin - 'What Is Cinema?')

As a statement, this may seem paradoxical but if you consider that as a cultural form, the film experience has altered since it began.  For example, the introduction of sound in 1927 and the addition of 3D.  Soon, Huxley's vision of the 'Feelies' from 'Brave New World' could come into being.  Imagine feeling sensations through your chair in the cinema or at home.  So how can you offer definitive interpretations and conclusions of something that is in a perennial state of change?

Now the theatre is a similarly transient cultural form of expression.  The safe world of the audience member sitting in the auditorium watching actors performing within the proscenium arch punctured by an interval (or more or none) then off home has always been an inaccurate distillation of what is a two way interaction between the theatre group and the audience.  Admittedly, some performances involve less in the way of direct audience engagement with the cast.  So long as we cough, sigh, laugh or sigh at the appropriate moment, we have satisfied that production's needs.  Brecht, Artaud and the many other theatre practitioners who effectively came in and began to break down these preconceived notions of distance between the theatre group and audience were only perceived as 'different' and or 'extreme' because people fail to recall that Shakespeare's original audiences were far more rowdy and upfront than many later audiences.  There is a written etiquette of theatre attendance but this varies according to the venue and to be fair, given the chance I feel that the audience would prefer the chance to express how they feel about the production that they have paid to see or to become more involved in some way.

'Immersive theatre' just takes that very natural childish need to engage and to understand the world around us in a more proactive way.  But let's immediately discard the notion that 'immersive theatre' requires us to act.  Normally, just like any form of theatre, it is about observation.  I have seen and been part of productions that have broken down the perceived distance between the audience and performers but these have been in the minority.  Indeed, as a form I have objections with 'immersive theatre' precisely because the audience are not as involved as much as they could be.  As such, the productions have left me with this sense that something was missing.  Normally, I feel that the special something that is missing is a sense of plot or even structure.  Most 'immersive theatre' productions seem to be fairly free flowing and although, they do lead to an end point of types.  It is not always satisfying or fulfilling.  I go to the theatre to be stimulated on some level and if the performers are going through the clockwork motions of a wind up toy, how can I empathise with the performers and the production as a whole?

Now over the years, I have seen a variety of performances that could be defined as 'immersive theatre'.  I won't list them all here but I will list the ones that I can remember and offer my memories of them.  Trendy words that now appear on many tickets and websites associated with 'immersive theatre' are 'promenade performances' and 'site specific'.  Now, I will look at how the productions I have seen or experienced have matched those criteria and what the terms mean to me.  Also whether I felt satiated by the performances.

Office Party - Pleasance Theatre, London

This production ran for quite some time and was both a 'promenade performance' and 'site specific'.  I went with a group of people and significantly, the production used two buildings, one was the theatre and the other building was next door.  Effectively, the production was set around an office Christmas Party.  When we arrived, we were handed badges effectively dividing us into different groups including Cleaners, Accounts and Managers.  Some badges had stars on them.  I guessed what the star meant (star bearers were those members of staff who were being made redundant).  Initially, we were taken off in groups and given a little talk about the company and how it had not been that successful this year (well, that's the talk I got).  The news that I had been made redundant in the production horribly tied in with a restructuring at work, which resulted in me at risk of losing my job.  But for some reason, this did not bother me unduly within the context of this production, so I can't recall whether I had my new job at that point.  Then we played a really rubbish game of hide and seek before being led to the main theatre for the proper party.  This involved party games such as passing a balloon between your legs, short cabaret performances and moments of potential dramatic tension such as when the Manager came down thanking everyone for their services that year and those of us who had been made redundant felt inclined to retort with a well justified jeer.  Overall, my memory of the night is primarily associated with a beautiful moment towards the end of the evening when I had a dance with the fictitious Manager of the company, who had a drink problem and who stated that I had always been his favourite, I retorted, 'But you made me redundant?'

Personally, the production could have done with a little more in the way of character development.  As it was, it simply did what it said on the tin.  It was a party.  In fact, I have seen more dramatic tension at work Christmas dos than this production wished to portray.  It was fun but not essential.

The New World Order - Shoreditch Town Hall, London

From one extreme to another, whereas 'Office Party' was fun yet insubstantial, this was very well constructed.  Scarily so.  One of the few productions that has disturbed me.  It was based on a handful of Harold Pinter's short plays, the overtly political ones such as 'Mountain Language', 'One For The Road' and 'Press Conference'.  This was possibly one of the most satisfying 'site specific promenade' performances I have seen.

We entered the venue at a specific time and were groped by security.  Then divided into groups.  Bits of the plays were played out in different sections of the venue.  'Press Conference' took place in a conference room with members of the audience joined by photographers etc.  Then an interrogation took place in an official council room and members of the audience were invited to sit around the table where the authoritarian figure tore apart the poor guy sitting next to me.  As the evening progressed, we were taken all around the venue.  One play took place on a staircase between two cast members.  The nasty stuff occurred downstairs around the basement with its cold concrete walls and the audience were literally pushed around by scary police figures and various people were interrogated.  At the end of the evening, the door is opened and we are firmly directed out. 

I ended up outside the back of the venue unsure where I was and feeling very drained.  Owing to the nature of the performance, Amnesty International leaflets were handed to us before the performance started.  If Pinter had still been alive, I am sure that he would have approved of this production of his works.  Human rights violations being one of his key concerns during his life.  As an 'immersive experience', bar being tortured, it succeeded in engaging me.

Hotel Medea - Hayward Gallery, London   

The single most successful 'immersive performance' I have yet taken part in.  It started at 11.30 pm and ended at 6.40 am on the rooftop eating a breakfast with the cast members etc as the sun rose on a huge table.  I could write an essay on this production and the people who know me tire of my constant references to this.  It's structured around the Greek tragedy of Medea which you didn't and don't need to understand to appreciate this production.  Effectively, the evening broke down into three sections.  The audience were more actively involved during the first section for obvious reasons.  As the night went on, the audience involvement was less physically active.  You truly haven't lived until you have prepared a man and woman for their wedding by washing down their bodies and applying jewellery, seen another scene from three unique perspectives.  The most radical one being from a bunk bed wearing pyjamas, whilst a woman strokes your hair and reads you the story of Medea and Jason from a fairy tale.  Oh, you were also offered cocoa at this point.  Another memory involves dressing as a woman to infiltrate a special female cult and passing secret messages to other men dressed as women.  By the end of the evening, when the bodies of two dead young men are laid
out and we are invited to put teddy bears and flowers on and around the bodies and to offer our condolences to the grieving mother, Medea whilst Radiohead's 'Motion Picture Soundtrack' played in the background was one of the most emotional moments I have experienced.  This was simply brilliant and does continue to be put on in various venues internationally.

Bush Bazaar - The Bush Theatre, London

Basically, just a lot of fun...  You paid one amount to get in then paid small amounts for each of the performances you chose to watch.  Sometimes, the fees were fixed but mainly not.  The event was extremely 'site specific', in the sense that the theatre had just moved into its new location and every area was used for the production.  One event involved a woman who hoarded in one of the toilets and the audience members were spoken to as though members of the council team responsible for helping her to get rid of her possessions.  Having suffered from OCDs in the past and also aware of the emotional significance of objects, this was fascinating as she proceeded to explain the relevance of each random item.  There were many other small performance pieces too.  A group of fictional refugees performed a show about their lives in the garden area out the back and a friend and I still talk about the performance in the water tank room, which I really can't describe using the written word but it involved purifying by nymphs. 

The variety of performances on offer made this feel a truly satisfying experience, slightly tarnished by the realisation that you couldn't see everything on one visit.

The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable - 'Temple Studios' - Paddington, London

I attended this 'site specific promenade' performance with a friend last Sunday.  Basically, it's a converted fire station.  As the production is still running, I don't want to spoilt it too much for anyone who wants to see it.  It's alright.  Not life-changing.  It did demonstrate to me the possible flaws with 'immersive theatre' though.  Essentially, it felt like a cross between a series of Lynch films and 'Berbarian Sound Studios'.  The audience upon arrival were instructed to wear masks and to remain silent throughout the performance.  It last three hours and had staggered start times.  The cast performed several elaborate dance sequences and somewhere, there was a series of related plots that could loosely be seen as interpretations of films.  The sets were amazing.  A trailer park, Lynchian rooms with chequered floors and a woodland scene.  Outside of the performances, you could walk around.  Now my most satisfying moments came about when I simply wandered around the sets after the cast had gone.  The attention to detail was something else.  Sorry, Punchdrunk, your performance was more about style and less about content.  It was good but it good have been so much better.  I would love to have the basic concept of the performance explained to me as the climax was so anti-climatic that I left feeling, 'Is that it?'

To conclude, the enduring popularity of 'immersive theatre' seems to be connected to a childish need to play, which remains as we enter into adult life, although do not believe that 'immersive theatre' is always by its nature participatory.  Quite often, the audience is simply led by the cast through well constructed performances.  I long to see a performance where the audience determines the progression of the action.  The element of choice seems to be limited to where you want to walk around various buildings.  I guess I want to be the director of the dreams that someone else wishes me to experience.


Andre Bazin quote is half remembered from 'The Myth Of Total Cinema' which appears in 'What Is Cinema? (Volume 1) (Page 21) (University of Calfornia Press, 2005).

'Brave New World'- Aldous Huxley (Vintage Press).

The plays are copyright to their respective companies and playwrights.  Pinter's plays can be read in various editions published by Methuen.

'Motion Picture Soundtrack' is a Radiohead song and appears on their album, 'Kid A' (Parlophone).

Barry Watt - Sunday 30th June 2013

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