Heads Above Water

I make no apologies for a very ‘British’ post today. One of my favourite theatre companies, Punchdrunk (I’ve mentioned them here a few times before) are about to open a new show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.

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My friend and colleague Sara saw their production of Faust and still rates it as one of the best pieces of theatre she has ever seen. In The Observer today Liz Hoggart writes a profile of Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director.

Felix Barrett: the visionary who reinvented theatre

The founder of the Punchdrunk company has no time for stages or even seats. Their ‘immersive’ style has had huge influence in theatre and beyond. And their new show is their most ambitious yet

‘We’re trying to build a parallel universe,” explains Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. “For a few hours inside the walls, you forget that it’s London 2013 and slip into this other place.”

Felix Barrett Punchdrunk

An elfin 35-year-old, with long, straggly hair and beard, Barrett is the man who changed British theatre, when he set up Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering a form of “immersive” or “promenade” theatre. Their latest show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a walk-through tour of a seedy 1960s film studio, opens to the critics this month.

The three-hour performance will play out over four floors of a former sorting office next to Paddington station, west London. Co-directed by Barrett and long-time associate Maxine Doyle, and inspired by Georg Büchner’s anti-war fable, Woyzeck, it’s their first major London show for six years, and biggest to date. It has, Barrett admits, the budget of a small film.

Punchdrunk want to take immersive theatre to a whole new level. A night in their company doesn’t involve a stage, a programme, an ice cream at the interval – or even a seat. They find empty buildings, fill them with richly detailed sets and performers and then set the audience loose – wearing masks. The thrill comes from not knowing what’s round the corner or how you’ll react when you find it. “In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you’re comfortable,” says Barrett. “If you’re uncomfortable, then suddenly you’re eager to receive.”

Even if you’ve never seen one of their wildly inventive shows, you will have felt their influence through advertising, music videos and festivals. Everyone these days wants to copy the Punchdrunk magic. The Drowned Man has already sold 50,000 tickets. For the next five months, a cast of 34 dancers and actors will lead 600 people a night around 200,000 sq ft of warehouse.

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Arguably Punchdrunk attract people who would normally run a mile from high-concept theatre. Their influences come from B movies, computer gaming and gothic novels. “It’s theatre for people who like theatre but don’t particularly like theatres,” says Colin Robertson, TV editor of theSun, an early fan. “Punchdrunk is theatre for the warehouse party generation. It has that DIY, chaotic feel about it that is so far removed from traditional stuffy theatre.”

Punchdrunk’s promenade productions have included Faust (where audiences explored an east London tobacco warehouse filled with scenes from Goethe’s play), The Masque of the Red Death (based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, staged in Battersea Arts Centre), andThe Duchess of Malfi (a collaboration with English National Opera in old pharmaceutical premises in Docklands). But it was their off-Broadway hitSleep No More – a spin on Macbeth that’s still packing audiences into a former warehouse in New York – that brought them celebrity attention.

The New York Times called it “a voyeur’s delight. Messes with your head as thoroughly as any artificial stimulant. Spectacular!” About 200,000 people have attended, including Justin Timberlake and Matt Damon. In many ways, Punchdrunk became the Banksy of the theatre world.

They’ve spawned countless imitators – from Secret Cinema and Gideon Reeling (Punchdrunk’s sister company) to You Me Bum Bum Train. Also, Rupert Goold’s Headlong company (EnronThe Effect) emerged at the same time.

Barrett founded Punchdrunk after studying drama at Exeter University. Dissatisfied with conventional venues, he fell in love with site-specific theatre. He staged an immersive take on the proto-expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck in an old Territorial Army barracks in Exeter as part of his theatre degree finals. The police turned up – “with dogs and everything,” he recalls fondly.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Along with Shunt, Punchdrunk led the charge for a wave of immersive, experiential theatre that aims to erase the fourth wall as much as possible. From the start, Barrett and his team knew how to create interventions on an outrageously grand scale with minimal resources, recalls David Benedict, London theatre critic for Variety. “Fringey sounds like they were a bit silly and small and fiddled around on the fringes. From the start, they were a bunch of people with quite a big idea and they pursued it with a) great imagination and b) rigour. They weren’t the first people to do site-specific, far from it, but they were the first to be bold enough to think big. The fact that they didn’t have any money released them in a weird way.”

The National’s director, Nicholas Hytner, was an early supporter. In 2005, he attended The Firebird Ball, inspired by Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in a disused south London factory. “I was suspicious when I was made to put on my white mask,” he says. “Maybe I was right to be. It turned out to represent the polar opposite of everything I’ve ever been able to do in the theatre and I was totally exhilarated – high on every moment of it.”

Hytner’s decision to have the National endorse the company led to their breakthrough show, 2006’s Faust, occupying five floors of a Wapping warehouse, and, a year later, The Masque of the Red Death.

It was this talent for getting into bed with very smart co-producers that set Punchdrunk apart, says Benedict. “It gave them the clout and the heft and the publicity. They never did upstairs rooms. When they did The Masque of The Red Death in 2007, they had the whole of the Battersea Arts Centre. And that was a very fashionable producing house because they’d already created mega-hit Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

In 2009, the Old Vic and Punchdrunk collaborated on a show in Tunnel 228 with contemporary artists underneath Waterloo station. It became more than a hit show, it became one of the “must-see” experiences in the capital.

Punchdrunk’s rise has coincided with audiences becoming much more adventurous over the past decade. It’s tricky to define cause and effect. Punchdrunk have driven the wish for something bold, but they also emerged at a time when audiences were tiring of sitting down in front of a proscenium arch before slipping out for the interval drink. And Punchdrunk became a byword for all that was different from that tradition.

Barrett gives little away about his personal life. We know he’s married to Kate, a media producer at the Tate, with a child. Although, touchingly, he reveals his company organised his “prenuptial bachelor party” (also known as a stag do) as a theatrical event, a journey that started with a key in the post and ended with 30 men in masks kidnapping him and forcing him to unlock a trunk full of his most embarrassing possessions. “It was the best show I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” says Barrett.

The darlings of British theatre have their critics, of course. TheGuardian‘s Michael Billington queried the “fairground shock tactics” of It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), their collaboration with documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, and musician Damon Albarn for the Manchester international festival, calling it “a real dog’s dinner of a show”. And theDaily Telegraph said of their 2010 foray into experimental opera, The Duchess of Malfi, that “the bag of tricks [was] looking increasingly jejune”.

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

“The trouble with a lot of site-specific theatre is it’s posh haunted house, with people rushing at you in corridors,” says Benedict. “When it works, you forget that, but it needs to be done with theatrical rigour.”

There have also been accusations of selling out. They have done corporate pieces for Stella Artois and W Hotels, while, at Sleep No More,tickets sell for $100, with programmes at $20. In London, with the National Theatre as co-producer, tickets for The Drowned Man are £39.50 to £47.50. Barrett claims sponsorship funds the experimentation, stressing that, as a charity, the company ploughs the money back. But they have, he concedes, paid attention to the bad press.

There is a sense that The Drowned Man needs to be a critical hit to restore some flagging confidence. Says Benedict: “The first time you go to a Punchdrunk show, it blows your head off, but the trouble is it’s a bit of a cliche if you’re relying on no one having seen it before. ”

In wider terms, perhaps we may see a return to straight theatre after a decade of playful deconstruction. Even if this happens, Punchdrunk will have made a fundamental mark – shaking up theatre and routine practice like none of their peers.

In another interview last week in The Independent entitled All the disused building’s a stage: Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is their most ambitious show yet,  Barrett talks to Alice Jones about why they keep pushing the boundaries.

The show is currently in preview so there are no official reviews. However here is one unofficial written by a member of a preview audience. The twittersphere  likes it too!

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THE PUNCHDRUNK FILE (Courtesy of Liz Hoggart and The Observer)

Born Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett. His regular collaborator is choreographer Maxine Doyle. They have come to be seen as the leading lights of a form of “immersive theatre”, where the audience is not seated but is freer to roam the performance site.

Best of times Their Hitchockian take on MacbethSleep No More, staged off-Broadway in 2011, seduced Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake to join the masked revels.

Worst of times Punchdrunk’s involvement in the launch of a new lager and a Louis Vuitton shop in central London raised eyebrows. Directing the Colombian pop diva Shakira’s world tour was, Barrett admits, “a tough experience”.

What they say “We aim to provide the quality of the West End while avoiding packing the audiences in like sardines.”

What others say “Punchdrunk have provided some of my most exciting dramatic experiences over the past decade. We are delighted to be working with them again in London after a six-year gap while they wowed New York; I can’t wait to see their new theatrical adventure.” Nick Hytner

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Paper Cuts

There is a history of shadow theatre right across the globe, stretching back centuries, as I have talked about here before. However, recently it has reached a mass audience in a new incarnation through the work of companies like Pilobolus – although I have to say, for me, once you get over the initial ‘wow’ factor it all becomes a little samey – having said that Pilobolus do some excellent other work too (see my previous post).

What I want to share today is the truely amazing work of Davy and Kirstin McGuire. Take a look:

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Modern technology has just pushed the shadow play into a brand new era.

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Icebook is their most famous piece to date and you can read about it’s making by clicking the image below:

boatbeforeafter-670x376They are about to open a new show called The Paper Architect which introduces live actors to the mix.  Here is an interesting article/interview written by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian this week:

Pulp fiction: bringing pop-up paper theatre to life

Magical and exquisitely crafted, Kristin and Davy McGuire’s miniature model universe is full of visual wonders

The 'Paper Architect' theatrical project by Davy and Kristin McGuire

Davy McGuire grew up as an only child. He lived in his imagination, warding off loneliness by building tiny houses for tiny imaginary people. Several decades on, he is still at it – but now he makes them with his wife, Kristin. Together, the McGuires construct worlds made entirely out of paper, which are then given life with the aid of projections, optical illusions and the intervention of actors.

“We never set out to work with paper,” says Kristin. “It just grew out of curiosity. We weren’t model-makers. I didn’t even know how to cut paper. We’ve just had to acquire the skills as we’ve gone along.”

The McGuires…..are just two of a modest but intriguing wave of artists exploring the creative possibilities of paper. They include Paper Cinema, who create exquisite DIY films from cornflake-packet cutouts and an overhead projector, and the visual artist Yuken Teruya, whose take on paper carrier bags can currently be seen in an exhibition called – what else? – Paper at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Actor John Cording of the 'Paper Architect' theatrical project by Davy and Kristin McGuire

Walk into the McGuires’ studio in Bristol, where they work in the company of their dog – called Cat, but of course – and you enter a world that feels like a last outpost of a 19th-century realm of illusion and magic. Illuminated paper butterflies dance in jam jars, a row of intricately detailed Edwardian houses complete with iron railings and washing lines recall a doll’s house, and a rural scene featuring pools and weeping trees sits waiting to come alive. All of it is made, by hand, entirely from paper. An exquisite birdcage smaller than my little finger represents hours of painstaking work for the couple, who met at college in the Netherlands, where Kristin, who trained as a dancer, cast Dartington College graduate Davy in one of her pieces.

“I kept asking her: now we have developed a professional relationship, can we have a private one too?” he smiles.

Both were interested in exploring the boundaries of performance (Kristin is a former national rhythmic gymnast), but neither imagined their lives would become so intricately bound up with wood pulp. One day in 2009, Kristin shone a light behind a pop-up book, and they began speculating whether it would be possible to turn a book into a theatre show. Even the Maguires aren’t entirely sure quite how they should describe what they do, which embraces installation, dioramas, music videos, animation and performance.

“Maybe you wouldn’t describe a lot of what we do as theatre, but it’s always got strong theatrical elements,” says Kristin. Their first pop-up theatre venture, The Icebook, was certainly different – a delicate fairytale that mixed paper and animation to such cunning effect that the experience was like falling headfirst into a pop-up story from childhood. The whole thing was so fragile, it felt like a dream.

The McGuires saw The Icebook as a miniature calling card, and were surprised when it became an international hit. “We thought of it as a try-out for a bigger show,” says Davy, “but people enjoyed its intimacy.” Kristin agrees: “When you start playing with scale, it makes people look in a new way. Their focus is different. They start seeing the detail and all the small moments in the story. In a digital world, there is something appealing about something which is hand-crafted. With CGI, you can just conjure up something so quickly and easily, but when it’s made by hand you can see beauty in the tiny imperfections.”

Davy nods. “People always ask how it’s done, but we don’t want to tell them. It’s not just for commercial reasons, but because we want to keep the element of magic and surprise.”

The 'Paper Architect' theatrical project by Davy and Kristin McGuire

Nonetheless, despite the success of The Icebook, last Christmas the McGuires expanded their scale to create a stage version of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle at Southwark Playhouse. Undaunted by the worldwide success of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated film version, the McGuires set out to create their own take on the story of a young milliner called Sophie who must try to escape the curse put on her by a witch.

“It was a good experience, but a stressful one,” recalls Kristin of the show, which combined pre-recorded narration by Stephen Fry, live actors and a pop-up castle upon which was projected hundreds of images. The castle was acclaimed as a thing of visual wonder, but juggling all the different aspects of the production was a steep learning curve, and one that the McGuires were not keen to repeat too quickly.

As a result, The Paper Architect, supported by £37,000 from the prestigious Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award, which aims to support theatremakers working in unusual and innovative ways, combines live action with animation. Once again it employs a tiny scale, this time to tell the story of a lonely elderly man who is about to be evicted from his studio, and who is wondering how life might have turned out differently – a melancholic piece that, the McGuires hope, combines reality and imagination in powerful ways.

“Perhaps that man could have been me,” says Davy, “if the lonely child had grown into a lonely old man. I know that character.” For all sorts of reasons, we should be glad he didn’t.

Silent Listening

Following on from my post about mime a few days ago, I have found audio interviews with the some of the performers I mentioned, courtesy of Exeunt Magazine.

Firstly from UK-based theatre company Stan’s Cafe (pronounced ‘caff’) on their latest production The Cardinals, ‘a chaotic and jubilant romp through key Bible stories, the Crusades, and with a final gesture towards Israel/Palestine’s current turbulence’. Graeme Rose, Gerard Bell and Craig Stephens, and director James Yarker, discuss the show with host Dorothy Max Prior:

And secondly, Phil Soltanoff discusses the revival of his piece Plan B, a collaboration with Aurélien Bory’s  Compagne 111 (of Sans Objet in my previous post), celebrating its tenth anniversary as part of the London International Mime Festival. With Dick McCaw, he explores issues surrounding circus, authorship, visual dramaturgy and geometry onstage:

And finally one I didn’t mention, but would like to share is, Letter’s End, by theatre clown Wolfe Bowart of whom it is said
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combines the pensive humour of French physical theatre with the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, [and] with the aid of an array of marvellously inventive props and surprises
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In this discussion, hosted by Dick McCaw, Bowart discusses trade secrets, the nature of the clown, and his 99-year-old grandmother-in-law’s take on his work:
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Hands Up

Roll with me today……there is a bit of a preamble before I get to the heart of my post. One of the many joys of teaching in an international school is that you are not tied to any one national curriculum, which means you can create a programme of study that you know is right for your students. We are currently reviewing the curriculum for our younger students, which is always fun and generates a lot of discussion. We have just decided to include mime mimeagain and it got me thinking about the the form. In the past we used examples from Charlie Chaplin and amongst others, Mr Bean. Thankfully we have moved on from that after we realised the real purpose of teaching mime was to get our students to consider and understand, more generally, the power the actor has to create belief for the audience by simply using their bodies.

What fascinates me is when I first mention mime, students default to this (right) as their understanding!

Now whilst these basic skills are part of mime, they are just that and there is so much more. Yes of course there are a many famous mimes, Marcel Marceau (below) being one of the best known, painted white and doing their thing. But there is so much more to mime and I think this is what should be thinking about as we write our new curriculum.

1431271523_11eb419e08So I got researching and this is my post today – mime in the 21st Century.

There are mime festivals all over the world, for instance, in South Korea, and Poland. Similarly there are mime companies all of the world, E Movement Theater in Japan and Mime India to name but two. Now the reason I say this because mime is often viewed as a western theatrical tradition, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Consider Kathakali, Indian epics told with facial expressions, hand signals and body motions, and Noh with its use of mask work and highly physical performance style. In fact the latter was said to have influenced two of the greatest western mime practitioners, Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq. Even Butoh is considered by some to have its place in a (much) wider definition of mime, although I am not convinced myself.

One of the oldest and most famous mime festivals is the London International Mime Festival that began in 1977 and if you take a trawl through their recent programmes you can see that the definition of mime is far wider than we tend to think. Here are a few examples:

Yeung Fai’s Hand Stories from China

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Stan’s Cafe’s The Cardinals from the UK (and old friends of mine)

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and Hiroaki Umeda from Japan with two works, Haptic and Holistic Strata

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I’ve had the good fortune to see a couple of peices in the last year or so that I would absolutely consider to be from the genre:

LEO by Circle of 11

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and Aurélien Bory’s Sans Objet

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While I was researching this post I came across a couple of quotes from Nobuko and Terry Press that stuck a chord with me:

Mime is largely a misunderstood art form that needs a chance to redeem itself. This can only be accomplished …….by presenting Mime and Mimes that represent the Art of Mime and not the Tricks of Mime.

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The first time I saw the “Robot” I was very impressed myself but when there is a Robot on every corner the impact soon wears off.

I couldn’t agree more. Every time I see one of those street mimes, painted silver, I have an urge to run up and punch them!

There is a world of talented performers out there and most of them are not painted white or silver and they are most definitely not making walls!

Theatre Apps

Something a little different today.  I’ve been looking at what’s available in the iPad app store for theatre people (free and paid for), and there is a surprising mix so I thought I’d share a few of them with you.  First my favourite in terms of design:

Evernote Camera Roll 20130519 141459Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 plays, 1945-2010

This is a beautiful interactive book that looks at plays that have been performed in the UK from 1945 to 2010. It isn’t just about British plays either – any thing that was performed during that period.  Reviews, interviews, production photographs and so on. Suffice to say I bought it.

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Basically just an ebook, but beautifully illustrated, on the history of Chinese theatre.

Chinese Theater for iPad

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For you techies out there are a number of magazines you can get for free:

Lighting and Sound America

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Make-up Artist Magazine

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For all things techie Stage Directions Magazine

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Now this is a super organisational app for stage managers, ShowTool SM

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An app to write plays with called, not surprisingly, Playwriter

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Now there are a few line-learning apps out there. This is one of the free ones, My Lines Lite

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And finally a series of free little apps that bring various forms of Asian puppet theatre to the iPad, Shadow Play Wayang Kulit

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Classified

My musings on what consitutes theatre continue and it would seem I am not the only one.  My favourite theatre writer, Lyn Gardner, wrote this piece last week.  While it is about the performance scene in the UK, she makes her point clearly.

Don’t box me in: why label art forms?

Is it theatre? Dance? An installation, or a pop gig? Artists are smashing boundaries – and audiences are keen to explore

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Wales to see Tir Sir Gar, which was as much tea party and installation as theatre, and Praxis Makes Perfect, as much immersive pop gig as immersive theatre. I saw Hofesh Shechter’s brilliant early works Uprising and the Art of Not Looking Back – quite clearly dance pieces. Or were they? Much of the choreographic language would be both familiar and thrilling to anyone interested in contemporary experimental theatre.

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I also went on a self-guided walk (I self-guided into a bollard) around London’s Covent Garden, during one of Scary Little Girls’ and Naomi Paxton’s Living Literature Walks, which encompass live performance along the way. Was it a literary walk, or was it a theatre show that simply used the city and buildings as a vast stage-history soaked backdrop to explore the work of the Actresses Franchise League? Then there’s NoFitState’s circus show, Bianco which is currently touring across the country. Theatre, dance or neither? Oscar Mike’s the Situation Room. Game or theatre? Daniel Bye’s The Price of Everything.

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Performance or economics lecture? Does it even matter?

Boundaries are being swept away and so are the expectations of audiences who are much more likely to be cultural nomads than they were just few years ago. The internet means that we are all much more likely to know what is happening across the arts and not just in our chosen art form. Even the old allegiances to venues are dying away, particularly when the most exciting events are as likely to take place in a warehouse or old building as they are in an opera house or purpose-built theatre.

Punchdrunk’s co-production of The Duchess of Malfi with ENO [English National Opera] may have been called an “opera”, but I bet that most of the audience didn’t much care. As far as they were concerned it was Punchdrunk, and it was this that drew them to Great Eastern Quay, just as The Drowned Man will draw thousands to the formerly secret location just next to London’s Paddington station.

 

Capture2Many of those may not even think that it’s theatre.

For other audiences, Neon Neon was the obvious draw for National Theatre of Wales’s Praxis Makes Perfect, which is touring later this month again, but for others it could be the involvement of director Wils Wilson or playwright Tim Price. It is the artists that increasingly engender loyalty, not the institution that produces them. And whether it’s called dance or theatre or opera doesn’t really concern the audience, and may even get in the way of them giving it a try.

But many newspapers and websites – including the Guardian – still classify and review by art form; Arts Council England still mostly funds on that basis; and many companies and buildings still define themselves by a predominant art form and pigeonhole events by art category. In the 21st century much of the most interesting work being made completely defies categorisation. That’s exactly what makes it so thrilling. So why continue to try and box it in?

It’s worth checking out the posts that followed her article for a few other perspectives

 

In Too Deep?

In the interests of balance, I thought I would share an article today written by Alice Jones in The Independent in which she argues against the value and experience of immersive theatre. I don’t agree, however………..

Is theatre becoming too immersive?

Alice Jones has been put on the spot by actors time and again – and she’s sick of it

 

I had been in New York for less than 24 hours when my sister abandoned me in a warehouse. “I’ve got to find the naked rave,” she whispered, eyes crazed behind a white beaked mask. And off she went. I didn’t see her again for three hours.

It would be nice to say that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often but it does. These days, if you’re a keen theatre-goer, it’s almost unavoidable. That’s why we were in the warehouse – we were at the theatre. At Sleep No More, to be precise, Punchdrunk’s trippy take on Macbeth, which unfolds over five floors and across 100 rooms of a former lock-up/ nightclub on West 27th Street. Audience members are handed a carnival mask (to remove inhibitions) and shoved into the labyrinth where they are expected to poke around graveyards, bedrooms and apothecary shops, follow characters into darkened corners and spy on them as they enact ghostly banquets and sinister masques. My sister had already seen the show once, a fortnight earlier, when her friend had emerged at the end enthusing about a naked rave in a secret room. This time she was determined to find it for herself. Once again, she didn’t. Neither of us did.

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I wasn’t in the least surprised. The truth is, I am awful at site-specific theatre, promenade theatre, immersive theatre, any kind of theatre, really, which doesn’t involve sitting in a seat and watching without moving or talking. It’s not for want of trying. Since Punchdrunk kicked off the trend for “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style plays with their brilliant Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre in 2007, I have been to shows in every imaginable location, from beach huts to nightclubs, playgrounds to camper vans, and been cast in any number of roles. I’ve posed as the new girl at school, a hotel guest and have sat through countless faux job interviews. I’ve been illegally trafficked in the back of lorry and trapped in a basement brothel. I’ve shivered around too many railway tunnels to mention imagining them to be a damp Denmark/Hitchcock movie/dystopia. I’ve even had a play about an Avon Lady staged in my own sitting room.

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And yet, I still lack flair. My latest flop came at dreamthinkspeak’s new show, In the Beginning Was the End, which takes place in the back corridors of Somerset House in London. Before the show, a solemn usher hands out a laminated sheet warning of low lighting, a lack of toilets, nudity and possible claustrophobia. They might have added SSA, or Site Specific Angst, that woozy, stomach-clenching feeling you get when you embark on a show and have no idea what is going on, what your part in it is supposed to be, where you should put your coat and when it will end.

In fact, In the Beginning is one of the more guided experiences. There is a fairly clear route to follow and no secret rave (I don’t think). There is still, though, a fair amount of aimless wandering, of staring into empty rooms and gingerly opening cupboard doors in the vague hope there might be a performance lurking within. There is still the very real risk of watching an usher for ages in case he turns out to be a Main Character (he didn’t). Pace is another potential pitfall. “The average journey time takes approximately 70 minutes, but you may go at your own pace,” states the laminated sheet. And if you get round in 55 minutes? Does that make you a bad audience member?

It’s difficult to give yourself over to theatre when your over-riding emotion is anxiety. Anxiety that you’re not seeing the crucial key that will unlock the piece; that you’re looking too hard at something that means nothing; that you might have to get involved at any moment; or that you’re missing out on something more exciting happening in another room. Too many times I have left shows only to discover that the best bit was a secret room I never found or a whispered encounter in a hidden phone box to which I was never privy. The feeling is disappointment mingled, it has to be said, with relief.

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Theatre that busts boundaries can be thrilling. Dreamthinkspeak’s Cherry Orchard, set in a derelict department store, was a spine-shiveringly beautiful update. Roadkill which took Traverse audiences on a journey to a tenement alongside a trafficked girl was harrowing and powerful. An evening being chased around The Pleasance by zombies in The Institute was one of the most frightening Halloweens I’ve ever had. In these cases, being immersed enhanced the show.

Too often, though, the experience is disorientating and audiences are expected to work harder than the cast in order to grasp the play. Some may enjoy the challenge: in New York, I saw people trying to talk to mute characters and elbowing their way into dance routines. That’s the problem – audiences are far harder to direct than actors. Amateurs are unpredictable; they might go wild with solipsistic glee, thrusting themselves centre stage, or they might shrivel up with shyness.

I’m not a natural performer; some might say that’s why I’m a critic. Certainly if I had to review my own performance in these shows, I’d be a two-star at best. So I’ll keep trying, but in the meantime I’d rather leave it to the professionals to take me on a journey, preferably without me having to leave my seat.

 

Digital Theatre

One of things that has frustrated theatre teachers and students for years is a problem of visual resources. Plays are are rarely recorded in their original form – i.e. using the stage and the set on which they were performed.  If they were, it was a single camera shot that meant most of the subtly of performance and dramatic tension was lost. The alternative was to film a version using the same actors but in a host of different locations, in essence turning from a piece of theatre into a movie – again not much use for students of live performance.

CaptureHowever, in the last couple of years this has begun to change, thankfully. Digital Theatre is a resource that is growing rapidly, capturing British theatre in its original form. This company are building their range of productions and they can be accessed in a variety of ways at quite low cost – sadly not much in life is free.

This is a trailer for their recording of Abi Morgan & Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong, and you get a real sense of the theatricality they have managed to capture.

They also have a daily blog, THE JOURNAL – A Global Culture Mix which whilst not always having a theatre focus, does share some interesting bits and pieces. This week they have started to use guest editors on the journal, and their first is Michael Attenborough, a very well respected director. Take a look!

If anyone of you know of any other similar online services, I would really like to know and share. Please leave a comment if you do.

Dead Men Walking

Dead white men (DWM). This phrase is often heard in my department as we discuss the traditional theatre practitioners and playwrights that have had such a profound influence on what we teach and learn – Stanislavski, Brecht, Ibsen, Strindburg, Meyerhold – even Pinter – the list is long and very white, very male. Of course, I work in an international context, teach international students and teach truly international courses, but we find many of our reference points in the work of these people. Of course we teach theatre traditions and practices from right around the globe and the gender or race of the writer, director or practitioner is irrelevant.

Where am I going with this? Well I would like to share with you a re-imaging of one of my favorite DWM plays, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. If you don’t know the play, you should read it. Hattie Morahan, who recently played Nora in a  production of the play, stars in this short film imagining what a modern-day Nora might look like, 130 years on from the original tale about a woman taking control of her own destiny. Click on the image below to take a look:

I watched it and started to wonder at the longevity of meaning and resonance that the play has and questioned whether there would ever be a time where this classic became irrelevant to a global audience.

On a side note, the film is hosted on The Space which I have used often as source for this blog. It was meant to be a time-limited site, which was part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations in the UK this summer.  However, thankfully, it has proved so successful that it has secured funding for at least another 3 year. In these times of economic austerity, where the arts are usually the first to face cuts, this is great news.