As trends in theatre go, the immersive genre just keeps expanding and redefining itself. This week, some of my own students staged a piece called The Ward which entailed masked audiences, elevators, stairs, four different spaces, touch, taste, smell, specially created video and a cast of 24. It was risky, edgy and played with the form very successfully. We were all delighted with piece and no more so than its creators, deservedly so.
It is seems hardly a week goes by now where I don’t read about a piece of immersive theatre playing somewhere in the world, and this week was no exception. The first I’d like to share is news of a UK company, Rift, who are planning to stage a version of Macbeth. The company have a reputation for staging immersive reinterpretations of classic pieces of theatre. Theatre Critic, Matt Trueman, wrote about this new work in progress in The Guardian. What caught my eye, however, was that their version comes with a twist – it will take place overnight and the audience will be invited, encouraged even, to go to sleep during the performance. You don’t just by a ticket, you buy a bed and meal and there are 3 levels of ‘package‘ available, depending on the amount of comfort you want to enjoy during the ‘show’. The company says of its plans:
Face-to-face with witches in an underground car park. Feasting with the Macbeths. Bedding down for the night on the 27th floor as a siege rages around you. Characters sleepwalking through the walls: confiding plots, summoning apparitions and conspiring murder. In the morning waking to find the battle lost or won.
This is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth seen from the inside out. This production like a fever-dream leaves you questioning ideas of space and status; dystopia and utopia; waking and sleeping.
This production scatters the story of Macbeth over one night. From Dusk till Dawn
Felix Mortimer, artistic director of Rift talks in this documentary about how they work – in this case on a production of Kafka’s The Trial.
Meanwhile in Australia, the Perth Festival International Arts Festival is in full swing and immersive is clearly the order of the day with Punchdrunk, Look Left Look Right and Rimini Protokoll are all presenting wildly different immersive work. Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives is for 3 to 6 year olds, Look Right Look Left are performing a reworking of their city-specific work, You Once Said Yes originally made for Edinburgh and Rimini Protokoll are staging Situation Rooms which requires its audience of 20 to wear headphones and carry iPads.
Australian writer and critic, Jane Howard, wrote about all three shows in her article for the Australia Culture Blog, The Guardian. In it she talks to the creatives behind the pieces.
Perth festival’s immersive theatre: ‘being confused is perfect’
While the headline shows of the Perth festival may be playing to hundreds at a time, in pockets all around the city this week performances are happening on a much smaller scale. These immersive theatre pieces are reliant on the actions of audience members to stage the work: from the solo audience of You Once Said Yes to the tightly choreographed interaction of audience members in Situation Rooms to the rambunctious collaboration of children in The House Where Winter Lives.
Kathryn McGarr, one of the performers with Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives, tells me that immersive theatre “inspires people a bit more”. And then there’s the practical consideration: even with the best will in the world, faced with a comfy chair in a warm, dark room it’s sometimes hard to stay awake. “People do fall asleep. Whereas there is no way you could fall asleep in a show like this.”
That much is certainly true. The adventure sees Mr and Mrs Winter take the audience of three to six-year-olds on a journey to discover the lost key to the larder. While Punchdrunk have created many immersive works for adults and even older children, this is the first time the company has pitched at such a young age group – and when you see their reactions it’s easy to think that this audience is perhaps the perfect age to be experiencing this work. Entirely without ideas of what “theatre” should be or how you should behave when watching it, they fully invest in the world.
Punchdrunk give the children a high degree of autonomy in their reactions. “We’ve got the script and we’ve got the structure and we’ve got certain things that we can do, and then we know when we can riff a bit and let them fill in the answers,” says performer and co-creator Matthew Blake.
Co-creator and performer Frances Moulds agrees. “There is a journey we need to go on,” she says, “but we can go with whatever they give us … That we’re open is actually a key thing: we’re open to anything they say and we want to hear what they’re saying.”
Allowing for audience response and choice is also central to You Once Said Yes, a show performed on the streets of Northbridge for an audience of one. That person has to be directed to a certain extent, concedes production manager Rosalyn Newbery, but “that has to be done sensitively and without dictating, because their responses and their reactions are very important, and they will change certain things”.
The title, she says, strongly suggests to the audience how to respond. Yet they can still say no, they can take an alternative route from that which is expected of them and the performers and production team must know how to be responsive to that.
James Rowland, one of the performers who travelled with the piece from the UK to join a local cast, says “no one show with one character will ever be the same, just because of the way people talk to them. The number of shows we’ve done is the number of shows there’s been.”
Many immersive theatre pieces rely on these interactions between the audience and performers and the self-direction and personality the audience invests into the work and the world. Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms is the exception to this rule.
The documentary theatre piece invites the audience to step into the shoes of 10 people each as they talk about their relationship with the weapons industry. Following instructions on an iPad mini, with the world on the screen mirroring the environment built by the company, the audience move and silently interact in the exact place of the person whose story they’re hearing.
One of the creators, Helgard Haug, says the precision of the work is integral. “I think everybody understands that it’s perfect if it works, if you’re following it precisely. If you are in a space and you’re sitting at a table and you’re in the story of a person, and in the film you see a door opening and a person entering the space, and if that repeats in the real environment, in the real space where you are that’s the fun of it.”
While they walk through the space Haug wants the audience to question how these people fit into our society and why we each exist in the reality we exist in. After seeing the show, she says “to be confused is very productive. After half an hour leaving this building and being confused is perfect. Being exhausted is perfect. Needing a cup of coffee and a deep breath to then find your own skin again is just a very good thing to do with that content.”
While Situation Rooms aims to highlight the realities of a wider world, You Once Said Yes is about highlighting the realities and personality of the participant. Being involved in the presentation of such immersive work holds “massive privilege” for an actor, says Rowland.
“It’s pretty much the only arena in one-on-one performance where you really get that opportunity [to really meet the audience]: without lights, without a stage, in a situation where you just say, ‘No, go do whatever you want to do. Do your thing within the parameters of the show,’ which is lovely.”
That is one of reasons that people have responded so well to the show, he argues.
“By the end they feel they are, and they have been, valued, and it is about them as much as it is about the stories they’re unwrapping.”