Full disclosure: I’ve seen, and worked in, a lot of immersive and promenade theatre and its offshoots. Probably too much.*
With companies like Shunt, Carnesky's Ghost Train, You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk leading the scene there have been some pretty awesome feats of immersive/interactive theatre pulled off over the last 15 years, but it’s a tricky thing to get right, and often it fails to engage, let alone transport.
Sensibly-shod, I entered the secret FO[U]ND Corporation building in Cardiff on Friday, willing the combination of Punchdrunk’s deservedly excellent reputation and Hijinx’s expertise in working with learning disabled actors to bring out something to sock me right in the jaded eyeball. Given that their last collaboration bagged them Wales Theatre Awards’ Best Production in English, and the show promised themes of corporate skullduggery, memory and secrets my hopes were high.
The basic ingredients of an immersive show tend to be
- Use of derelict, unusual or secret location for staging.
- Themes of intrigue, mystery and unveiling.
- Medium to large cast of actors, often interacting with audience members to influence their experience.
- Promenade; audiences generally being free to roam the spaces as they choose to ‘drop in’ on the action around them. A ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book made 3D.
- Elaborate art direction and sets/installations, frequently with excessive knick-knacks and vintage miscellany. A filmic feel is common in the sound and lighting design.
- The grand reveal! Your hosts want you to stick around the buy from the bar afterwards so the final scene is usually a party.
- Fairly high ticket prices.
Lost and Found hits some, but not all, of these points, and unfortunately fails to progress or subvert what is a well-established trope. Alas, it falls a bit flat.
Once masked and inside the building you’ll be greeted by a hammy ‘sinister woman’ and directed into the guts of the building to explore detailed installations of vauguery, repetitious performances and as much Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Terry Gilliam aesthetic as you can stuff in your face holes.
Speaking of face holes, asthmatics beware; the hazers are on high and the building is a dusty bugger. Wheelchair access looks possible throughout but there was some loose flooring around Lost At Sea that could be tacked down. Access information was very good before and at the show though, and the production team were very attentive.
There is some nice interplay between the actors in the Lost departments, particularly the spies and the corporation officials, and the costuming is stylish although often a little mature for the ages of the performers. In exploring I tried to tail the likable post-master figure but appropriately he lost me pretty quickly, and I found myself at a rack of luggage tags asking for me to write down a memory. (What is it with luggage tags in theatre these days?)
The best bits were the genuinely creepy washing lines and witnessing a resurrection at sea, and one could have a good time playing hide-and-seek in the set with a mate. The actors mainly, but not consistently, pretend you’re not there so as long as you’re not deliberately disruptive (it’s got to be unnerving enough playing to a masked audience) I encourage you to make your own fun. If you get lucky you’ll be siphoned off for a one-to-one performance; the one I witnessed was genuinely clever and stylish.
Above ground, a plot reveals itself in printed materials, ironic artefacts and a confrontation scene which was well delivered but in which I felt some of the disabled actors were presented as props rather than characters.
Whilst I’m splitting hairs, I’m also not totally down with how acquired disability was used as a metaphor in a narrative about “who we used to be” either.
The meta-nerd in me really liked how the themes of augmented reality being sold to a jaded population were being explored through trendy immersive theatre, and I had a nice little flirt on the way out the building with one of the characters, following a patchy-but-sweet finale, so I guess I had overall an enjoyable but pedestrian experience.
If you’re in Cardiff and you’ve never seen a Punchdrunk or Hijinx show, or indeed attended a promenade show before, then go. For £10/6 it’s a fine price to take a punt on something new.
Overall, I feel the attention to detail in design and process was well-developed but the resultant message and characters were unclear, so perhaps go and view it as installation rather than performance. Or just rewatch Brazil.
Beneath The Streets: Lost & Found will be on until July 3rd as part of the Hijinx Unity Festival, Cardiff at a secret location revealed after booking. For tickets visit www.hijinxunity.org.uk
* In 2004 the first show I saw upon moving to London was Shunt’s Tropicana, I’ve performed in The Apocalypse Gameshow several times, worked (regrettably) for Secret Cinema, performed in spoof séances in Masonic temples and attended tons of performances from professional and amateur companies seeking to transport and bamboozle their audiences, as well as gigging at ‘immersive dining experiences’ attempting to cash in on the popularity of the trend. I also studied at Goldsmiths College 2004-7 and as such had site-specific and promenade work presented to me as my new religion, and for a short time worked as a Kalashnikov-weilding insurgent in crisis simulations for special U.N and Medcin Sans Frontieres envoys.
In the week dominated by coverage of Martin Sheen’s speech on the danger of middle-of-the-road politics whilst the NHS is eroded I found myself sporadically weeping into the pelt of a Golden Retriever called Archie and plotting to blow up Parliament. Welcome to arts administration.
In preparation for Liz Crow’s new sculpture performance ‘Figures’, I had the grisly-yet-illuminating task of copy-editing 650 stories of the human cost of austerity, each one to be represented by a clay figure made by Liz. At the office of CoQuo, the digital agency supporting Figures, I plugged in, caffeinated, and nearly dislocated my jaw from the number of times it dropped in disbelief.
As a borderline anarchist, the depths to which the authorities will stoop to do over the public in the name of budget cuts didn’t come as a total surprise to me, but my ignorance as to the situations of some people claiming Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments was a bit of a shock.
I knew when starting this training that my limited experiences of personal disability were going to be challenged, something I am grateful for, but the total outrage I felt at reading the unfair ways in which claimants have been treated was a baptism of fire into disability politics that has brought me, still smoking, to total belief in the relevance of Liz’s arts activism.
People are dying waiting for their PIP re-assessments, families are being put under terrible pressure, and press propaganda is turning neighbours against each other.
The metaphorical clay from which we are all fashioned will, I hope, be transformed into literal protest in Liz’s hands, and I will be there, along with CoQuo and Dao to support this performance as it happens. Archie, my respite hound friend, will unfortunately not be in attendance as he is enjoying a retirement most humans would be lucky to have.
Matthew Fessey of CoQuo made an interesting point about the power of digital media; in that whilst only a few hundred people were in attendance at Martin Sheen’s speech his message has now been spread to millions thanks to a couple of smartphone cameras. Whatever our stories we must document them; the status quo cannot be trusted to record an accurate history.
Make art, share stories, shout loudly.
As I finish writing this post I have just received the great news that Trish and I have been accepted as Joint Fellows of the CultureHive Digital Marketing Academy; we applied with the intention of upskilling ourselves in the promotion of disability arts projects to even wider audiences.
Watch this space artists, or better yet, fill it!
Please sign up to follow @WeAreFigures on Twitter, where the 650 stories will be shared.