Mostly I’ve been a radio journalist, then a poet. I don’t know much about theatre apart from that I don’t like sitting watching actors pretending to be other people and ignoring the audience. That just feels like a dysfunctional family to me. Or some sadistic kids in the playground saying you can watch their game but not join in.
From what I read, it sounds like for many theatre practitioners, an antidote to that- immersive theatre -is so done to death already. (Even today in the Guardian, the director of Punch Drunk says that loads of people are bringing audiences into their shows, but they now want to take their shows into reality, confuse people about what’s real and what’s fiction and are researching a show in which they send people off on a three day adventure http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/jun/08/crash-of-the-elysium-punchdrunk)
What can I say, I’m a late adopter. But, in the past two weeks I’ve seen three theatre pieces with an immersive element and finally realised that it wasn’t theatre that I didn’t like, just the Western, character based, fourth wall stuff. I had begun to get an inkling of this anyway, when I went to see the writer/director Tim Crouch speak last year and nearly cheered when he said he didn’t like to see actors acting. Also, when writing my first one person spoken word show, I was determined to use stand up comedy conventions so that I wouldn’t have to suddenly erect the fourth wall that seems to be what many poets build when they start “doing” theatre.
However, now, having seen three (as it happens all Yorkshire based) practitioners immersive pieces, I am remembering something I knew all along but had forgotten. Sham’s Reykjavik-http://www.shams.org.uk/productions/new-work- (I caught it at ARC, Stockton which has become a hot bed of interesting theatre experiences) saw us dress up in boiler suits and goggles and head off to a gauzey white set, on a tour of the character J’s memories of a doomed relationship. We were guided through Reykjavik, Paris, a disco, a hot tub and his splintering emotions. I am ever so suggestible- and when something like this is done as well as it was, I felt like I really, fully had been on that poetic, ice coated journey. I loved it! Then, Northern Stage in Newcastle transformed itself into a “Theatre Brothel” where you could were directed to particular pieces depending on your answers to a questionnaire. I cheated because I knew I wanted to see “Tea is An Evening Meal” by Sheffield based creative Faye Draper (http://www.northernstages.co.uk/programme/tea-is-an-evening-meal) which I’d liked the sound of. Sure enough, we were treated to a sophisticated, sharp analysis of the power and status and regional differences conveyed by domestic set ups like meals and tea drinking- but all in the form of being guests having a cuppa at the house of a warm and chatty host. Then, last night I went to ARC Stockton’s Scratch Night and, there was another immersive piece. At a very early stage of development- but Ellie Harrison’s (http://ellieharrison.org/) exploration of grief by means of getting three audience members at a time to be trained in elephant grief assuaging techniques (site generic to hotels which will become the elephant therapy centres)- is going to be a light touch, but I think, really powerful way of looking at an emotion that society is still a bit crap at dealing with.
Crucially, in all these experiences, the performers really, actually see you the audience- you don’t have to disappear. Your body gets to take part in the experience too- and for me, that’s maybe the thing that means those pieces can really connect up the disparate parts of me. Brain, heart, body all get involved and make my feelings so much stronger.
I tend to still need a massive Invitation to go to things like this though. I went to the ARC things because I’m a member of their professional development programme- so they were free. And I was invited to Theatre Brothel as a press night person. If I’d seen an advert for “Immersive theatre piece in a disused ironworks” or something, I probably wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t have read it as an Invitation for me. Just as I don’t read a theatre company assuming that I’m familiar and happy with all the usual conventions of theatre as an invitation to suspend my belief. I’ve performed in theatre shows (and particularly enjoyed being involved in two promenade pieces- Changing Ways by Major Road Theatre Company way back in 1988 and Fuente Ovejuna which was directed at my University by the bloke who now produces the Electric Proms for the BBC) but there was always a very clear Invitation then to participate. I know I’m strange, but I bet there’s loads more potential theatre goers like me who just need a bigger Invite (Sort of “You- yes you who think theatre’s shit but quite like Laser Quest and Coronation Street- you might enjoy this as a visceral experience honest, and we don’t like pretending either.”)
In fact, the last time before that that I remember another clear invitation to participate was from the Leeds based Blast Theory in 1998. (http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_kidnap.html). You could enter into a lottery to be kidnapped. How cool! I thought. They wouldn’t tell you if you’d won, you’d just get taken off to a filmed room for 24 hours. Unfortunately the day of the potential kidnap co incided with the day of my driving test. I had to tell my instructor (but I didn’t mention it to the examiner), not to worry if I got taken off by some people in masks and bundled into a car. I was quite disappointed when they didn’t come for me. Though I did pass my test.
This has all set cogs whirring for me about how to use that particular element of theatre in performance poetry. Still keeping intimate with an audience, and getting their bodies and imaginations more actively involved. The theatre world might have been doing that for years (though it seems, only recently have these more experimental practices begun to enter mainstream venues), but for poets it would be an innovation. A respectful kidnap of an audience if you will.