Monthly Archives: September 2017

In defence of immersive theatre

I’m back. That was a much-longer-than-intended-unplanned hiatus. Apologies. (I’ll bore you with the reasons if you so wish, but let’s be succinct and say “life” happened, and I was a bit busy. Mostly with theatre-related stuff, but not enough intervening time to write about any of it).

The big theatre news of last week was the announcement of a new Punchdrunk show! And yes of course I’m excited at that prospect. But the internet saw this, and lots of people in the know were very unhappy, and other people saw the kerfuffle and decided that they too should be outraged by what little they knew about the show, even though tickets haven’t gone on sale yet and no one has actually seen it. A bit like when Jerry Springer: The Opera found its way into the Daily Mail, and lots of people who never knew about it before were MORTALLY OFFENDED at the FOUR THOUSAND SWEAR WORDS in the score, and some of them may have died from the ensuing aneurysm from so much blood-boiling FURY.

So, why has this made some people so grumpy? It mostly comes down to Punchdrunk being victims of their own success. Having been amongst the early pioneers of immersive theatre, they certainly lead the field in their particular variety. They’ve had generous grants from the Arts Council (sometimes at the expense of other companies) which have helped enable them to stage shows on an epic scale with beyond-your-wildest-dreams production values, select some of the finest performers from across the globe, and present it in such a way that it develops a cult following, and keeps audiences coming back for more. Any morsel from them is surrounded by immense hype and speculation… but also the accusation of being too exclusive.

They have the perfect storm on their hands:

  • Tickets only available to those who enter a ballot
  • Only two audience per show slot
  • The limited number of performances
  • The necessity to buy tickets in pairs
  • A fixed £55 price point
  • An estimated 6 hour running time
  • The requirement to be physically able to stand/walk/(run?) for the duration of the show
  • The means (by contactless card or Oyster) to travel by London public transport
  • The preclusion of anyone pregnant, or who has issues with confined spaces or stressful situations

Quite understandably, some are annoyed by this – both individual elements, and the combinations thereof. That it reserves the Punchdrunk experience for those who are able-bodied and financially comfortable, rather than working to make the arts more accessible. For those who are interested in this kind of theatre, this will be THE hot ticket of 2017. But for another fiercely-debated immersive experience, You Me Bum Bum Train (which sends audience one at a time through a labyrinth of rooms and situations they may never encounter in their ordinary life) internet queues for the £49 tickets reached into quintuple figures within minutes of going on sale, and it wasn’t long before some were appearing on ticket re-sale sites for more than 10 times their face value. I can only presume a ticket ballot is to limit this as much as possible.

As for the rest on the list, Punchdrunk make an art out of combining cinematic spectacle with powerful intimacy, and serve it up with a generous helping of unsettling tension about what might lurk down the end of that gloomy corridor, and the lingering eye contact which says “follow me, I want to show you something“. In order to achieve this, sometimes they need big spaces for audiences to explore, and sometimes small numbers of people (at times it’s just you, a single member of the audience and one actor. In a small room. Or a cupboard). It’s not for everyone – by which I mean that many people have said “oh God, I can’t think of anything worse!“, but equally, that level of close-proximity intensity is hard to come by in row D of the upper circle.

The Drowned Man

Punchdrunk – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Photo by Julian Abrams

The crux of many arguments seems to be: “these things combined make it very difficult for most people to experience this kind of work, and that isn’t fair.” Be it access to tickets, physical/mental well-being, finance, stamina, or any other reason, creativity comes at a price: particularly when you take performance out of a traditional theatre building, and audience out of a numbered seat. But Punchdrunk are not the only ones to employ any of these techniques – there’s a huge number of companies producing work which makes varying demands of its audience. I don’t believe any artistic work begins with the foundation of “how can we make it really difficult for people to experience this?” More likely, quite the opposite.

Traditional theatre (proscenium arch, numbered seats) is guilty of many of these perceived crimes too: it’s not uncommon for top price tickets in the stalls/dress circle to command prices in triple figures, particularly with a big name in the cast. Shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton are massively in demand, with entire batches of tickets selling out over a year in advance. Angels In America (albeit with a seated audience) had a total running time of over 7 hours. The most affordable seats are typically in the Upper Circle or Balcony, which can necessitate climbing a few flights of stairs, and some tiers are raked so steeply that they can induce nausea and dizziness in anyone with a fear of heights. Many theatres sell “restricted view” and “limited legroom” seats, which pose problem for people with back, hip and knee issues, so standing may be preferable. Theatres from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Donmar to the Royal Court offer standing tickets. Ghost Stories came with a necessary content warning – at one point I was sat wondering who was screaming (until I realised it was me).

Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’m an able-bodied adult, with a bit of disposable income, in commuting distance of London. Many aren’t, and it’s vital that as much of the arts as possible is made accessible to these people as well. We’ve seen an increase in recent years in accessible performances, featuring audio-description, StageText, BSL interpreters, relaxed performances with adjusted lighting/sound etc. Step-free access is improving (although still an issue in many older theatres), and new-build venues can meet far more of these requirements while still offering versatility in terms of staging. But how the hell do you offer these choices in an unconventional setting without compromising the content of a show? (A rhetorical question, since I don’t know – but many companies do offer accessible performances, and have clearly thought about ways to accommodate different requirements).

So yes, there are shows which require an audience to follow/keep up with roaming performers. Mostly this will be at a walking pace, but I have raced up 5 flights of stairs in Sleep No More in hot pursuit of Macduff. I’ve crawled through tunnels in The Good Neighbour. I’ve dived into tiny cupboards and curled up under tables during Heist, hoping that the marauding guards can’t hear my heart thundering in my chest. I’ve tottered around Covent Garden’s cobbles with various panto characters in Once Upon A Christmas (while wearing hi-vis and looking like a lipstick-Braveheart). I’ve climbed up onto the roof of Theatre Delicatessen to watch stunning aerial acrobats in the fading daylight during Shelter Me. I’ve traipsed around on gravel for 3 hours for a mediocre promenade version of Romeo & Juliet (not all “immersive” shows are good). Some require excellent mobility and some can only take small numbers of audience at a time. Do we tell these companies too that they are excluding too many people?

shelter me

Circumference Shelter Me at Theatre Delicatessen

But for each of these, there are still shows which fit under the immersive umbrella, but don’t require an Olympic level of fitness. Several companies are creating exceptional multi-sensory work with cutting edge technology and live effects. Yet those too present their own access challenges. Ring, a binaural piece by Fuel takes place in complete darkness wearing headphones (and I mean complete darkness – your eyes never adjust to the blackout). On one hand you’re seated and have no need for vision… but it’s no good if you’re deaf/hard of hearing, and the psychological effects of the sound combined with the hour-long blackout are very intense (they brief you beforehand on what to do if you can’t handle it and need to get out: hand in the air, say “help” repeatedly, and someone with night vision goggles will come and find you). In a sold out performance of 100, I counted 5 seats that were empty at the end when the lights came up. Yet as an experience, I was completely transported into that narrative – the essence of really good theatre.

Every Punchdrunk fan is waiting for their next large-scale show, where they take up residence in a building (usually for a year or so), with exploration opportunities aplenty. Meanwhile they’ve been working on smaller scale projects, including their 2015 collaboration with Absolut, Silverpoint – but not having an iPhone meant I missed out on this. But in addition to their site-specific performance work, Punchdrunk have a well-established enrichment programme, sharing their magical worlds with everyone from primary school children to adults with dementia. The Lost Lending Library has been journeying around London schools for a number of years, arriving without warning (for the kids at least), nourishing imaginations and nurturing reading and writing skills for a few weeks, then disappearing without a trace. Given that I’m not at primary school, I’ve missed out on this too. Do I resent that? Not in the slightest.

So: do we fight to make everything accessible for everyone? Accessibility is improving, but still has a long way to go. Or do we accept that part of what makes theatre so special is its diversity and spectacle, which as a consequence, might not be suited to everyone? Do we tell lighting designers they can’t use strobes, or advise people at the ticket-purchase stage that they’ll feature in the production? Do we tell actors they’ll just have to do more performances to accommodate everyone who wants to see a small-but-in-demand show? Do we tell producers to scrimp on the quality to make the tickets a bit more affordable? Do we tell writers to make a show that’s a bit nicer or easier, because we find it all just a bit too offensive, scary, weird, unpleasant, difficult, controversial? Or do we celebrate the smorgasbord of creativity in all its messy, impractical, thought-provoking, magnificent glory and accept that we’re lucky that any of it gets made at all?

Let theatre be theatre, however it may manifest itself, for its own sake.