Tag Archives: site specific

Secret Theatre – Secret Studio Lab

A secret location, a closely-guarded plot line and the need for sensible shoes – music to the ears of any immersive theatre fan. Secret Studio Lab have a few productions under their belt on both sides of the Atlantic, and the latest Secret Theatre promises a visit to a city island to immerse yourself in their summer tragedy of love. But the biggest tragedy of all is that this production massively under-delivers on several aspects vital to immersive theatre.

I’m not sure what came first: the choice of play, or the location – but neither really compliments the other. The key to successful site-specific work is to create something which nestles perfectly in its setting – to make it feel as if the piece were written just for that space. So a marketing suite for the swanky new blocks of flats being built on City Island, surrounded by a moat of gravel, and desolate concrete piles with steel girders protruding through the ground isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the text in question, even if the story is set in East London. If you are going to stage the work on an island, there are other more fitting texts in this playwright’s repertoire.

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My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre. To read the review in full, please click here.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Savill Garden, Windsor

“Immersive” is theatre’s buzzword of the moment. But it has come to mean various different things. On one hand, it can be the sensation of stepping through the fourth wall and being immersed in a world which feels completely real, leaving behind the humdrum of ordinary life.  On the other, there is the complex niche genre where you as an audience member have a bearing on your experience of the performance, be that through making active (or passive) choices which then have a tangible impact on how things play out, or wandering through spaces where there are several scenes running simultaneously and it would require repeat visits in order to see all of it. Just when you think you’ve understood how to pinpoint what is and isn’t immersive, another company comes along and throws that definition out of the window.

Watch Your Head’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very much the former: a site-specific promenade production. But in truth these are clunky words which risk alienating the general public before they’ve even bought their tickets –  and that would be a terrible shame as while it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of immersive theatre, this is a very strong, imaginative and accessible Shakespearean production filled with magic and mischief, set in the breathtakingly beautiful Savill Gardens near Windsor. We were well attended by families, with kids boisterously racing from one scene to the next, lapping up the novelty of multiple locations in the fresh air and fading daylight.

All of Shakespeare’s familiar story is here: bickering lovers, bumbling mechanicals and troublesome fairies – but with plenty more besides. This versatile cast double up as woodland creatures that trill, chirrup and squeak as they guide us deeper into the park.  There is the added bonus of live music, ranging from close harmony singing to bluesy jazz, perfectly complementing the 1920s-inspired costumes.  The passages of text delivered as song add an extra dimension and are pulled off with great finesse. There’s even a little bit of audience participation snuck in, to great comic effect.

My cast highlight was Joss Wyre as a very magnetic Puck – veering between remorseful child and wild-eyed sprite, there are times when you’re never quite sure if she’s made a genuine mistake or is reveling in the havoc she has created; but then an impish twinkle flashes across her face and we know exactly what she’s up to. There are some roles which demand that you crank the overacting up to 11 and Oliver Lavery is the quintessential Bottom, brashly steamrollering through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the horror of earnest director, Quince (George Jennings).

By far the stand-out performance of the lovers is Paige Round as Helena – bruised of heart by her unrequited love for Demetrius (Edward Firth), she cuts a very sympathetic character – partly because he comes across as so spiteful that it’s a wonder what she sees in him in the first place, apart from his unattainability. Sara Langridge is effortlessly elegant as Hermia – right up until she loses the affections of Lysander (Jared Garfield) to Helena in a slight ‘puck up’ as the flower juice takes effect and everyone falls in love with the wrong person. It is a joy to watch the two boys squabble over Hermia in a hilarious fight scene.

There’s a large amount of doubling up in the cast, e.g. Theseus/Oberon by the brooding and serious Jack Bannell, and Anneli Page who switches from the gentle, reserved Hippolyta into hippy-dippy Titania. While the mechanicals provide the obvious comedy, it’s really refreshing to see them bring contrast and personality to their secondary roles as the fairies. Joshua Considine as the almost Gollum-like Moth, Bruno Major as a very dopey Mustardseed, and Emma Jane Morton as ethereal fruitloop Peaseblossom.

The only thing that spoils it slightly is the inescapable noise from the Heathrow flight path. There are many beautifully subtle moments which are sadly drowned out by passing aeroplanes – but it is testament to the performers that they still manage to tell a very rich story, even if we do miss a few lines. While this is closer to a traditional Shakespeare than the more experimental end of the immersive theatre spectrum, it is still nonetheless a bewitching production filled with wit, depth and invention that is absolutely worth a trip outside the big smoke. Go and see it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until Sunday 19th July at The Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Englefield Green, Windsor, Surrey TW20 0UU. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. This is a promenade (walking) production through parkland. In the event of rain, an indoor version will be performed instead. For those travelling from London, the closest station is Egham and taxis are available outside; it takes around 10 minutes and costs about £9 each way. For tickets and more information, please go to http://watch-your-head.co.uk/

The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (Round 3)

I am usually dubious about going to see a show multiple times.  I know of people who proudly proclaim to have seen Les Miserables 8+ times.  In my experience, particularly with West End musicals, the first time always amazing, because everything is new; the jokes are fresh, the plot twists take you by surprise.  But with repeat visits (especially when there has been a change of cast), you know exactly what’s coming so you don’t get the same surprise and it’s not ‘quite’ the same as last time.  I’m no fan of James Corden, but he was Francis Henshall in my first visit to One Man, Two Guvnors and for me, no one could ever match that performance, let alone top it.  So I am usually slightly disappointed at the end and wish I’d seen something else.

So why see The Drowned Man for a third time?  And why have I booked another 3 visits for 2014?  Because providing you take a different route and make different choices each time, you will always come across different characters and different fragments of stories.  The world of Temple Studios becomes strangely familiar.  I now have a good grasp of the geography of the building and each floor.  On my first visit, I was unprepared and found the whole thing quite overwhelming, but still enjoyed it.  But I have now become far more relaxed about making spontaneous decisions and being distracted (or refusing to be distracted).

But friends had started mentioning 1:1 performances, where a character will select a member of the audience and take them off to be locked in a room for a private encounter.  (Yes I know exactly what you’re thinking – bear with me).  On visit #2 I was vaguely aware of them, but not sure of how to go about giving myself the best chance of being chosen.  My handbag is only small, but I decided to leave it with the cloakroom this time.  Bingo.  As I discovered, even the smallest bag would’ve made it difficult for the actors to physically manipulate you (yes, yes, bear with me…).

I racked up four 1:1s in one night; in most cases, the character wants to let you in on a secret or tell you their side of the story.  The door is locked not to stop you from getting out, but to stop anyone else from intruding on what is a very personal experience.  This is an extra detail to the story and it is just for you.  They will not harm you or touch you inappropriately (they’d have a lawsuit on their hands if they did), but they will invade your personal space and touch e.g. your hands, arms, shoulders, waist, back.  They might switch the lights out or blindfold you.  They might even give you a shot of whisky.  If you are not comfortable with this concept, I would suggest not putting yourself in a position where you’ll be selected.  If they offer their hand to you, you can always politely refuse.  If you take it, there is no going back!  Every time I took the hand, I had that knot in my stomach;  you are held on that knife-edge between terror and curiosity – a combination of “Oh my God!  Where are you taking me?!” and “Oooh, where are we going?”

I found myself following Romola, the receptionist; she was on the floor scribbling on a piece of paper, so I knelt down to see what she was writing.  She looked me square in the eyes, so I held her gaze.  Then she offered her hand.  I took it and followed her into a motel room, wondering what the hell I was letting myself in for.  She took off my mask and held me close as she told me about her dream and how she was desperately trying to remember something.  She then took me to sit with her in the front seats of the car, very much in view of the audience who’d been waiting for us to come out of the motel.  She was clinging onto my hand quite tightly, then she went still and her grip loosened.  Words poured out of the car radio that she’d been found dead at the canyon.  I felt compelled to stay with her for a minute or two.  It’s very easy to become emotionally involved with a character after a 1:1.

Romola’s list – she gave it to me to decipher.

It does seem however that the 1:1 is a fickle thing and elusive.  Not all characters do them and it’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time (including your proximity to them) and how engaged you are.  If you’re too stalkerish and pushy, they’ll just pick someone else. If you are the only person following them, this may coincide with one of their time slots to do a 1:1 and will increase your chances of getting one (my second one was a bit of an accident – I’d lost the person I was following so decided to just follow whichever actor I saw next and pick up their storyline.  One came running past, so I ran after him and I was the only one there – so within 10-15 seconds of latching onto him, a 1:1 was offered!  It did feel a little futile given that I had no idea of who his character was…).  If they offer their hand, be brave and take it – absorb yourself in their story.  After every single one, I walked out with a bit of an adrenaline buzz.

Sometimes you will find a character by themselves, no other audience about, quietly doing something.  Even though you haven’t been taken off and locked in a room with them, this can still be a deeply personal experience.  One of my favourite moments was watching the security guard sitting in his office doing a detailed sketch of a rose from a book.  When I went back later, by sheer coincidence, it was evidently the same part of his loop and he was working on the shading and colouring.  A ‘proper’ 1:1 is a nice perk, but it’s by no means an essential part of your visit.  But as with all these things, the old adage of “you’ll find it when you stop looking for it” is very true!

But a small part of me hopes I’ll get another one on a future visit – they are fascinating….

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (second helpings)

I won’t lie.  I have spent a good part of this morning going through the National Theatre’s ticket page to see when I’d be able to go again before the prices go up on 10th December.  I’ve identified a few windows of opportunity (I’m not addicted, I can quit any time I like – the fact that I’m going next Wednesday is irrelevant).  After last night’s show, I joined some fellow repeat offenders in a Paddington pub for dinner and a post-show analysis.  I felt like a complete novice with only 2 visits under my belt, especially given that some people were already into double figures and in a blatant display of Punchdrunk nerdism (reminiscient of the convention geeks from Galaxy Quest), someone had made a map of the whole building.  My kinda people!

This is a show which only gets richer and more rewarding with every visit, so it’s not hard to see why some people are going back over and over again.  My first trip was back in July, and as soon as I stood on the gantry, I was wondering why it had taken me 4 months to come back (in all fairness, a summer of rehearsing then performing Boeing Boeing, then a salsa weekend and a small bit part in After the Dance might be something to do with it).  But this time I knew exactly what I was in for and had a vague grasp of what was on each floor.  But even so, I was still in for plenty of surprises.

The most important thing to remember is that with 34 actors scattered across the whole building, all with their own things to do whether you are there or not, you will, by default, miss about 90% of what is going on.  So find yourself a performer and follow them.  If you find two and they split off in different directions, make a decision quickly and go with it (I still had trouble with this at times, especially when there were 8 characters in one room); there are no wrong choices, but if you watch a scene and the room empties and you don’t go with them, it may take you a while to find a character again.  Do explore, but following characters will give you more fragments of the story.

This time I thankfully managed to find a scene within a minute of getting out the lift – I also got to see more scenes with speech (last time was mostly movement), and by latching onto characters, I actually discovered rooms I never found last time – and I really thought I’d scoured every inch of the building from top to bottom!  I had also managed to get my head around the ‘loop’ concept; every character goes through 2 and a half loops of their action across the 3 hours before we all end up in the wilderness for the final murder.  So it does repeat itself, but it’ll probably be about an hour and 10 minutes before you see the same scene again.  What I find most amazing is how the action can be both cyclical AND sequential.  By following Lila (one of the peripheral characters) for one whole loop, I discovered Stanford’s office, a sound effects room and a cinema – but there was no obvious beginning or end to her story, it was absolutely seamless.

A word of advice – the cloakroom staff were quite keen for me to take my coat in, insisting that it was about as warm inside as it was standing in the loading bay in November.  I am prone to feeling cold, but remember that you will spend that 3 hours (or less, depending on your entry time) walking around, often at quite a pace, up and down flights of stairs.  I was wearing a long top, cardi, jeans and boots and I was quite comfortable like that, although the staircases are a bit nippy, but you’re rarely there for long.  This time it was considerably less humid – a big advantage when wearing a plastic mask for 3 hours.  But it’s still worth taking tissues to wipe your face intermittently!

I am already stupidly excited to be going back on Wednesday – I am going to be insufferable for the next 5 days.  I doubt Wednesday will be my last; if I am bankrupt by Christmas, you will know why.

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (Temple Studios)

Standing on a metal gantry waiting to enter, everyone is handed a small piece of paper:

“Inside the gates of a film studio, Wendy and Marshall struggle to make ends meet.  When Marshall meets Dolores, they strike up an affair.  Wendy confronts Marshall about the infidelity, but he denies everything.  As Wendy’s paranoia becomes uncontrollable, she goes to a party and witnesses the affair first hand.  Wendy’s state of panic accelerates until she leads Marshall into the wilderness and murders him.”

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On the other side is an inverse storyline with the genders switched, set outside the gates of the studio featuring William, Mary and Dwayne in the corresponding roles to their initials.  This is a nod to Büchner’s tragedy Woyzeck, but these are the only clues we are given to the story.

Forget everything you think you know about theatre or performance.  Immersive theatre gives you the rare opportunity to wander around fantasy world and discover the characters who inhabit it, to follow them through their story and their interactions, all providing extra peripheral details to the main storyline.  But with no map and no one telling you where to go, what to watch or how long to stay, it is entirely up to you to find them in this great sprawling 4-storey building and decide for yourself who the main characters are.   It’s a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole with added ‘press the red button now’ features.

We are sent down a very dark corridor into a small room and handed a mask each and asked to wear it for the duration of the performance – it seems an odd request at first but as we discover, with around 600 marauding audience members and only 32 actors, it really helps to distinguish between the two (so as to prevent audience following audience).   We are then ushered into a service lift and plunged into the dimly-lit world of Temple Studios in 1950s Hollywood and the trailer park that surrounds it.

The first things that hit you are the sheer scale of the place and the level of intricate detail in everything you can see – right down to the strands of hair in the hairbrush on the dressing table in one of the houses; it’s as though this whole world has been there for decades.  It doesn’t take long to find the performers – wandering into a hair salon/cafe on the main street, there are 2 men fighting over a girl – there’s not much in the way of speech, just contemporary dance (people are often put off by this, worried that they won’t understand it, but fear not – their facial expressions, body language and movement will tell you everything you need to know – and it’s pretty obvious from the off that one man is very angry with the other about fooling around with his girlfriend).

I spent a fair bit of time wandering around the various rooms, just seeing what was there and it took me a while to get my bearings.  It slowly becomes apparent that the actors all have their own things to do and places to be, and they will go about their business whether they have an audience or not – they will not wait for you to show up or repeat anything.  This is a great example of the modern phenomena of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), always thinking that something more interesting or important may be going on somewhere else – so do you stick with the character(s) you’ve found or do you wander off elsewhere?  What is that noise coming from down the corridor?  Where are they going in such a hurry?  Why are so many audience following them?  Where does that lead?  It probably took me a good hour to feel comfortable with choosing a character, following them, watching their next encounter and then either choosing to stick with them or follow someone else and having the courage to accept my own decisions rather than worrying about what else I might be missing.

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But be warned; if you plan to follow a character to wherever they’re going next, stick to them like glue.  Don’t stop to look in other rooms or look back, because in the sea of masked audience, you will almost certainly lose them (if you’re lucky, you’ll find them again later – probably soaking wet or covered in mud/blood or in a totally different costume).  Equally, once you’ve  found a storyline (either inside the studio or out in the trailer park), stick with that too.  Wandering off into the other world will only introduce you to a bunch of unrelated characters – I must’ve lost a good 15 minutes just finding out what was up on the top floor and then unable to find my way back to the staircase – time I wish I’d spent following the characters I was just starting to get to grips with.

It has taken me about 2 days to get my head around everything I’ve seen (and didn’t see).  Speaking to friends who’ve been, it’s almost impossible to compare notes as the chances of you having been in the same room at the equivilent time to them, watching the same scene are virtually nil (“Did you see this bit?”, “No… did you see the bit where….?”, “Nope.  We’re you in the room when they…?”, “Errrr…no.”) although 3 of us have managed to see the same dance sequence in the studio ballroom.  I can’t help but think that this is a ploy to get me to go back and see it again.  I’m already looking at tickets for November.

The Drowned Man is at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, Paddington, London, W2 1DJ and is currently booking until 30th December 2013.  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your journey.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.