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Features / Art

From derelict squats and left-of-centre live art to branded “experiences”: has immersive theatre sold out?

Words:

Emily Gosling

Illustration:

Alec Doherty

In the shell of central London’s old gargantuan Foyles building last year, hundreds of people experienced things they never had before; became people they had never been and would never be again. One by one, the passengers of You Me Bum Bum Train passed through a “play” of sorts, in the form of an utterly immersive, meticulously designed one-on-one interactive theatre performance of the kind where the user/viewer is as integral to the narrative as the hundreds of performers that people it.

While YMBBT, as it’s become known, is certainly a highly individual idea, it’s become one of many versions of theatre where the audience isn’t simply an audience, but a part of the performance that can’t be separated from the actors. Immersive, interactive theatre has boomed: but why? Are people looking for escape? Are we so tired of on-screen, online life that we want something visceral? Is it an elaborate form of therapy? It’s all of these things, and more.

For many, YMBBT sits alongside immersive theatre groups like Punchdrunk and Shunt. But its founders, Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd, refuse to term it as such. “Bum Bum Train was labelled as immersive theatre by critics and press but it’s not something that they’ve ever particularly related to,” their PR girl Kitty Lester tells me, when explaining why they won’t let me interview them. “They’re trying to steer away from the genre where possible, so they’re going to pass on this occasion.”

“Just finding a space today must be impossible… I’m bewildered about how people are making work in London today. It’s so hard.”

Lizzie Clachan

It feels odd to have such a curt response from a group that’s made its name from its inclusivity and democratic approach to making art. Anything that happens within the performance is a secret carefully guarded by its makers and its attendees, not to mention its performers – of which I was one of many hundreds over the summer.

But they’re on lock-down, it seems, and very keen to distance themselves for what seems to be a very obvious mushrooming of similarly intense, immersive and unusual theatre. YMBBT started life in 2004 as a bit of laugh in the back room of a pub for Kate and Morgan’s friend’s birthday. Things soon snowballed into something far bigger, with a huge show in central London’s Old Sorting office space in 2012 and the past year’s run of shows on Charing Cross Road.

What the likes of Shunt, YMBBT and Punchdrunk have in common is their roots in taking strange or abandoned spaces as their starting points. Shunt was formed in 1998 as a performance collective, initially working from a railway arch. Its eight founding members met at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in London on the Advanced Theatre Practice MA. “Most of us were in a final project together – we found each other over the course of the year and did a project and took it to Edinburgh. At the time we were called Stephanie’s Fridge – David who directs things came up with it, just because we needed a name for the programme very quickly,” says Lizzie Clachan, one of Shunt’s founding members.

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“When we came back to London it was clear we were still going to work together. Most of us weren’t from a theatre background, I’m from a fine art background, and we have studios to work in, so it seemed very natural that we should have our own space. That was quite a new way of thinking about it in a theatre context. We found this archway in Bethnal Green, and there were quite quickly ten of us so the arrangement was we all split the cost of renting an arch and that’s how we survived. We had a space to make work and a notion that the first shows we’d do were free – the idea of finding a loyal audience was a key starting point to the company and the context we worked in.”

It seems like a utopia to think that these spaces were so easily appropriated. In London today, it feels as though almost every inch of the city is being snapped up by developers. That sense of freedom is slipping away as landlords and developers become greedier. “There are people and companies doing interesting things in London and finding a way but just to rent our archway would probably be so much money now,” says Lizzie. “Just finding a space today must be impossible.When we started I had a part time job but I was also working as a visual artist, and doing that you could sign on and get housing benefit while you’re working very hard as an artist. Now people don’t have that – I’m bewildered about how people are making work in London today. It’s so hard.”

“People need more sensation. It’s not enough just to see stuff on screen, or in 2D. People want to enter a piece of art."

Kirsten Brandt

Outside of London, though, immersive theatre with this sort of DIY aesthetic is flourishing. In June last year, a huge space in Berlin’s Green House became the site of a Lynchian drama, in the form of The Shells, an immersive theatre piece that started life as a Twin Peaks-inspired, week-long narrative performance, and finished up as something so much more, for both performers and audience members. The show saw the vast space become the “town” of Neufriedenwalde. With a story that developed over the course of a week, Lynchian tropes of surrealism, sexuality, enigma and underlying tensions were brought to life by a huge cast of actors, dancers, extras and designers. Many lived in the “town,” too, sleeping and eating there with the others and making for a visceral, intense experience for performers and viewers alike.

The Shells was directed by Kirsten Brandt and Jos Porath. Neither have a background in theatre, with Kirsten a comparative literature and art history graduate. “I decided I had so much creative stuff I had to put out, I needed output, not input,” she says. Before The Shells, she performed in and directed short films.

“Immersive theatre has very physical and tactile dimensions, and it really opens up the possibilities of working with all the media you’re interested in. Jos and I were both very interested in working with new media and we’re both huge Twin Peaks fans, so it just came to us,” says Kirsten. “There were so many references: suburban horror pieces, obviously Lynch, and maybe Blue Velvet even more than Twin Peaks. We were very interested in looking at tableaux: people standing in a certain way that expresses the energy of the room, moving, and then returning to it.”

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While The Shells’ Twin Peaks reference points drew in many people to the sold-out show, its immersive nature and the intensity of interactions between cast and viewer created something that transcended the idea of Lynchian starting points or traditional performances. Many audience members revisited the space over the course of the week: “The performers were trying to push the narrative,” says Kirsten. “The people who tried to open themselves up to the fact it wasn’t just a Twin Peaks adaptation, but it was something else going on that was completely original, and that way they could have very personal interactions.”

So what is it about this sort of theatre that’s seen its proliferation? “People need more sensation. It’s not enough just to see stuff on screen, or in 2D. People want to enter a piece of art,” says Kirsten. “We’re living in a time where there’s so much information and the possibility to enhance things more and more, so that experiential quality is so important. There’s the possibility for visitors to influence, change and alter the plots, and become characters themselves. It’s a very spontaneous interaction platform, and it can be very challenging for some people. It takes art from being something for the spectator or the recipient, or a piece of art as something you look at and analyse, which makes it almost fragile in a way or a closed concept.

“There’s also a therapeutic thing, for example Harold [a doctor/therapist character] told us how many people were opening up and how much they were willing to share. That was the point of it all, to challenge people: they might be questioning their own behaviours, or seeing how they would react to things in their life. It’s not meant to be therapy, but it can be.”

Alice Colley, an artist who wrote her thesis on the role of immersive theatre in society, agrees. “I think it’s a need for closeness: with the audience, with the idea of participation,” she says. “We’re all quite far apart today and we look at art from a distance, or look at something as an audience in an auditorium so I think these sort of performance can be almost akin to a spiritual experience in theatre or art: the audience is directly having a catharsis in a way, by something they’re forced to do and don’t have control of.”

“The more we enter into the world of the digital, the more intensely people are craving a live experience.”

Lizzie Clachan

Back in the early late 90s and early 2000s, theatre groups like Shunt, YMBBT and Punchdrunk were making bonkers work mostly for a close coterie of friends and collaborators. Now though, you can’t move for “immersive” and “experiential” events popping up all over the shop, from Secret Cinema to immersive Alice in Wonderland. Naturally these media have been co-opted by brands for the opportunities they offer to reach large groups of people in an event that seems less explicitly “branded” than most live promos.

A case in point is Virtually Dead, an immersive theatre virtual reality experience in east London. Billed as “an hour long experience that will leave you terrified, amazed and wondering if the world is really about to end,” Virtually Dead is a very elaborate piece of brand marketing for tech giant HTC, which provides that Vive VR headset at the centre of the show. But for all the snobbery about re-appropriation of an art form; it has to be said that it’s done well. Aside from a few hitches in waiting times, and performers occasionally seeming slightly unsure of what they were doing (and their accents), it’s produced to a superbly high standard in regards to set design and costume. And the virtual reality section is so realistic that this writer at least was screaming her head off, nigh-on constantly. But something troubling about the whole thing is that although it’s clearly a HTC marketing tool, surely the idea of immersive theatre itself should negate the need to use tech to create another world? Surely that other place should be inherent to the performance itself?

This is perhaps where the waters get murkier. For HTC, immersive theatre is being leveraged as bait for the “millennial” audience it craves. To catch this elusive bunch, the brand brought in “millennial experience experts” (yes, that’s actually what they call themselves) Noma Labs, and experiential events producers Bearded Kitten. “We waned to create an experience that tech people and your average Joe Bloggs would enjoy,” says Jon Goddard, head of HTC Vive VR marketing, EMEA. Bearded Kitten producer and director Barney Sutton adds: “It’s hard to do this sort of thing in London, people here are immediately cynical. It was a big challenge to create something that hasn’t been done before and making it work. We looked at things like You Me Bum Bum Train, Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk, but we wanted to create our own thing. We’re not copying anyone.”

I ask how the arts community has responded to the project. “The reception’s been really amazing,” Barney insists. “It fits in really well with other things going on. Hopefully the actors picked people out, looked them in the eye, made them feel important. The best immersive theatre is where you feel special.”

Lizzie is less certain about experiential theatre’s move into the mainstream. “I feel its become a corporate tool – the corporate world has picked up on the fact it involves a lot of people it becomes an ‘event.’ We used to use that as a positive word, but now it’s ‘red carpet event’ or ‘corporate event’.

“We never wanted to do that, even though we could have made a lot of money like that. Things like Shunt’s London Bridge space started off as a place for artists, and had gone through a mutation where the artists had dispersed and the city clientele came in. This was seven years ago, and the wave has continued in a corporate way. I often get asked to do something ‘immersive’ by a brand or a theatre, but I don’t want to sully something that was a truly experimental thing trying to push against the traditions of boring theatre.

“But at the same time I can understand why it’s exploded like it has: the more we enter into the world of the digital, the more intensely people are craving a live experience.”