I love ‘normal’ theatre. The security of sitting in a numbered seat, phones off, Act 1, curtain, ice cream, Act 2, curtain, home. The occasional dalliance with a one-act play. But there is more out there and I like to think that people would go and see it if only they knew it existed (and that it wasn’t going to be terrible, traumatising, beyond comprehension or any combination of the 3). The problem is that it’s a bit of a minefield and to the uninitiated, it can be hard to tell from a short blurb whether it’s going to be any good or, more importantly, enjoyable.
There is non-standard theatre out there that is inventive and fun, but it comes in many guises. I am by no means an expert, but having seen the utmost extremes of pretentious drivel at university, I know what I do and don’t like. I’ve come across a few great venues and theatre companies in the last couple of years and really enjoyed their performances because they were different for all the right reasons. If you are feeling brave enough to plunge yourself into a completely different approach to theatre performance, these are my recommendations of good places to start:
Battersea Arts Centre
Just 5 minutes walk from Clapham Junction is a former Victorian Town Hall built in 1893, saved from demolition to become the BAC in 1979. Since then, this haven of creativity has been playing host to all manner of performances. Artists are encouraged to use the building in new and interesting ways (most famously, Punchdrunk took over the whole building for a year for Masque of the Red Death, a piece of ‘immersive theatre’ based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe).
My first trip to the BAC was to see Vacaxion! Vacaxion! by Crazy Horse, a delightfully silly interactive performance which takes you on a summer holiday to that lesser known bit of Clapham, Ilo San Pacaya. Meeting place: Allders Cafe (which has been turned into Arrivals and Immigration). You’re given luggage, currency, a passport and phrasebook, put through Security and given a colour coded cap by the babbling customs officers which puts you into either Esclusivo, Regula or Economie and you are treated accordingly by the resort staff. Whilst waiting for our transfer, those of us in Esclusivo were guided to sit on the comfy sofas, Regula given hard wooden chairs and Economie were forced to sit on the floor and shouted at by a man with a stick. We were then walked in the 3 groups up Lavender Hill to the BAC which had been transformed into a holiday resort where we could stretch out on a sun lounger with hot food and ice cold drinks (if you were in Esclusivo – the poor people in Economie got hard wooden benches and our leftovers…), have tea with the Queen, watch the changing of the guard and visit the gift shop. Absolutely brilliant!
We very briefly touched on Frantic Assembly when I was at university and it’s a shame we never got to study them in more detail. Their seamless blend of scripted play with movement pieces makes for wonderful viewing. One of their most recent pieces is Lovesong written by Abi Morgan (screenwriter for The Iron Lady and The Hour) and it can be viewed for as little as £3.99 on Digital Theatre. “Lovesong intertwines a couple in their 20s with the same man and woman a lifetime later. Their past and present selves collide in this haunting and beautiful tale of togetherness. All relationships have their ups and downs; the optimism of youth becomes the wisdom of experience.” Here is a trailer to give you a feel for what they do:
I’ll be seeing their next piece ‘The Believers’ when they’re on tour around the country in early 2014.
Scene and Heard
This is not a theatre company, but a charity that runs free playwriting courses for children living in Somers Town, a small community sandwiched in between St Pancras and Euston stations. Theatre professionals work with children through a series of workshops, culminating in a writing weekend where they meet their volunteer professional actors, interview them and write a short play for 2 people. The kids are given carte blanche to let their imaginations run riot (and the stuff they come up with is pretty abstract!) and their scribe takes down the play exactly as the child would like it to be written – nothing is changed by adults to ‘make it make sense’. The actors then have 2 weeks of rehearsal before their performances to the children, their families and the general public. All tickets are free to allow as many friends and family to come along as possible, but they get booked up quickly. For the children, there is a chance to be creative, to grow their confidence, improve their communication skills and this is all topped off with a great sense of achievement. And for the actors? One of them said something along the lines of this:
“you cannot truly say you have stretched yourself as an actor until you have been a cockroach playing a love scene with a rowing machine.”
I will be getting myself along to the next available performance!
One of my favourite shows in recent years was Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe as performed by The Factory. Spearheaded by director Tim Carroll, The Factory Hamlet works on a simple principle; around 30 actors, each of whom has learnt 2 or 3 parts in Hamlet, ergo you have 2 or 3 actors who could play each part. In the spirit of fairness and spontaneity, two actors who can play e.g. Laertes are brought forward and 2 audience members hauled on stage to play rock-paper-scissors to decide who will play the role tonight. The whole play is cast as such and away we go! In addition to this, all audience members have been asked (when booking their tickets) to bring along random objects to be used as props. The actors are given a different rules for each act – e.g. musical statues, so you can speak when it’s your line, but only move when the music is playing, or you can only have one actor standing on the stage at any time (so one actor enlisted a member of the audience to give him a piggyback on the stage!).
The emphasis is very much on ‘playing with Shakespeare’, finding unlikely new connections, experimenting with how lines are delivered, movements etc. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was an inflatable shark, a duel was played out with a baguette and a mink stole, Polonius hid behind a full sized taxidermied stag only to be stabbed to death with a top hat and alas poor Yorick was a tin of baked beans. But the true talent of this bunch was best demonstrated in Act V – actors who lost the rock-paper-scissors were asked to stand in the gallery and speak the words of their character, and the actors who won would be on the stage lip-synching. Played with alarming pace, this incredible feat of teamwork and trust was a sight to behold, especially the burly Horatio with a newly acquired feminine voice! With their guerilla performances only being announced at short notice and popping up everywhere from Chinese restaurants to railway carriages, you could see it 3 nights on the trot and never see the same show twice. Amazing.
The Factory will be bringing their production of ‘The Odyssey’ to the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham and London Jam in January 2014. See their website for details.
In 2011 I came across an unusual-sounding play at Southwark Playhouse – Sunday Morning At The Centre of the World by Louis de Bernieres (author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). This was a 60-minute play that had originally been written for radio, but was about to be turned into a multi-sensory piece of theatre by Bad Physics. At the auditorium entrance, all audience were offered the choice to be blindfolded or sighted (you could remove the blindfold at any time during the performance). But in losing your sight, all of your other senses become heightened. I chose to be blindfolded – I was gently led by the hand to my seat, into a complex sound and scentscape of a Sunday morning – I could hear and smell bacon frying in the pan, someone stirring a mug of freshly brewed coffee, ‘Posh Katy’ singing in the bath, lavender soap, a horse walking down the road, the noise of a car stereo blasting out ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’.
Speaking to my friend who had seen the whole performance, they had the benefit of watching not only a fully formed performance, but how all the effects were created live (nothing pre-recorded). I was fascinated by this as with the power of suggestive narration, they all seemed very realistic – and it seemed unlikely that they’d brought a horse into the performance space! They also had the joy of watching the reactions of the oblivious blindfolded audience who had no idea of what was about to happen to them; the sensation of a cat rubbing past my shins (all I could hear was people laughing before it happened) and the disgusted sounds that accompanied the voices of 2 tramps sitting under a bridge musing about life, as a pile of chicken bones was brought out to be wafted under our noses. Lovely! To my mind, there were about 20 characters in the play. I was pleasantly surprised when I took off my blindfold at the end to see only 8 actors. One of the best plays I never actually saw!
Much as I love them, Punchdrunk shows are not for everyone; their immersive site-sympathetic style of performance exists at the absolute limits of what I’m prepared to submit myself to for an evening – but I find them one of the most inspiring groups I have ever come across. They were just getting going when I was at university, so sadly I never got to study their work. This is not so much theatre as an experience – it’s an innovative method of storytelling. A building is taken over and turned into a complex and detailed world inhabited by many characters; all of them have their own storyline (each slotting into a greater overarching narrative), but they are scattered all over the building and it is for you to wander around and find them. Everything you can see, you can touch. Wondering what’s in that filing cabinet? Go and open it – it’ll be full of folders containing documents, fully formed screenplays, personal details, minutes from meetings, stray rubber bands. For 3 hours straight, the actors will be carrying out their scenes, whether you are there or not. You might be in a room with 50+ audience, there might only be 5 or 6 of you; if you walk away from the crowds, you may well find an actor all by themselves. There’s a lot to explain, so here are a few posts from my visits so far (I’d suggest reading them in order):
Visit 1 Visit 2 Visit 3 Visits 4, 5 and 6