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.
Ahead of his first Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Easy For You To Say’, I met up with punk poet Rowan James to welcome him to my neck of the woods and find out his ambitions and motives behind the piece.
Rowan has been based in Ipswich for many years but has come to the warm, cidery bosom of Bristol to develop his first feature show in a new context and to gain a bit of perspective on all that he has achieved so far, an impulsive decision his producer Luke Emery regards as typical of Rowan’s style.
From supporting Scroobius Pip and Attila the Stockbroker on tour to teaching at special education schools Rowan has broad experience as a creative practitioner; I was most struck by his considered and open identity as an artist and activist, and his ability to bring his artwork to many different arenas.
“There’s no hard or fast rule about what an artist should do; some people aren’t up for changing anything socially. Personally that’s not art that interests me, I’m always into things that surprise me, turn my head and challenge me,” says Rowan, “I started out on the music scene being the poet on between bands, and that’s the audience I prefer. I haven't always enjoyed the sit-down poetry gigs as much. I like captivating the audience be a challenge. I like having to work the mic and my physicality to bring people in, having to be in people’s faces in a way that finds balance.”
I can relate; as an emcee I always love the freefall, the risk, in daring to make an audience love me for being provocative, maybe even making them uncomfortable yet always included. A few beers from now Rowan and I will have bonded over the social construction of gender, classic 80s trainers, the importance of outrageous flirting and the scandals and gossip we know from the performance poetry scene; a bender is brewing, one that will leave me with disco whiplash in the morning, but for now all is professional…
The first time any artist offers their heart on a plate to the Edinburgh Fringe is an important moment, and I wanted to know what Rowan’s intentions were for his ‘big push’, performing a continuous poem in a rave setting accompanied by beatboxer Marv Radio to explore labels, self identity, perception and about the aspiration and lack of understanding within society around learning difficulties and disabilities. Well, shit, there goes the neighbourhood.
“One of the themes of the show is looking at diversity, how in the same way as globalisation and immigration, it makes us stronger. I’m looking at medical advances since the 1970s, that I’ve dubbed myself a first-generation survivor of, from being the first generation of congenital heart conditions that babies have survived and the knock-on effects of that.
I’m fascinated by Socrates’ distrust of writing; he thought that our brains would change if we weren’t holding information in the same way; I’m someone who finds the journey from brain to page really difficult and I want to look at how that has been under-represented in an unfair way and why that is.
I want to talk about my frustration about how, for example, when people talk about the Holocaust how it’s never mentioned that disabled people were the first people to disappear.
I don’t know if I can do all that in one show. It’s hard, quite heart-breaking, to research the sense of apathy around how far we should go to change our systems to include more people. What is the ideal? What is fair? What is reasonable?”
Conversation of this scope obviously requires more space than one blog post can contain, so, in the interests of developed discourse Rowan and I hit the backstreets of Bristol to wreak havoc, dance like twats and inflict ourselves on the general public in the name of critical dialogue. Nice work if you can get it, folks, and I'll be bringing you more on this dynamic artist as we sober up.
You can get your tickets to 'Easy For You To Say' at the Edinburgh Fringe HERE
Rowan will be performing and Alice will be giving a presentation on crowdfunding at 'Shaping a Diverse Future' on July 10th at The Point in Eastleigh. Tickets HERE
And you can donate to our crowd-funding campaign to support Rowan's show HERE if you'd like to chip in a few quid towards the poking of the status quo and the development of a young artist on the verge of kicking up a stink as part of the iF Platform at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Proving wildly successful for some and a total wet fart for others, crowdfunding is a formulaic process that requires planning, perseverance and, preferably, an existing strong fanbase or audience for whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.
It’s easy to focus on the funds, but without a crowd you ain’t gonna get ‘em.
Alright kids, this is going to be a long post as it's something I've been thinking on for weeks whilst I've been putting together a crowdfunding campaign for punk poet Rowan James. Stay tuned though, it could bag you some cash for your next project.
The practical tips are in bold if you're not as obsessed with funding streams as I am *ahem* and I'll give a case study of Rowan's campaign so you can see it in action.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to crowdfunding, just the ramblings of a producer on deadline day, which as we know is a rich source of strategic gold.
Crowdfunding, if somehow you've escaped being asked for money from your friends for their projects constantly since about 2008, is an alternative means of fundraising, utilising online platforms like Crowdfunder, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and myriad others, to draw donations or investments from fans, strangers and friends to complete a creative, start-up, or charitable project.
Social media sharing and short films about the project form the basis of almost all campaigns, and rewards are offered to supporters as thanks yous. This reward structure has also been successfully used as pre-sales for products and as company investment shares, but for arts projects generally you'll get tickets to shows, memorabilia and VIP experiences, thank yous on patron pages and shout-outs on Twitter depending on how much you cough up.
In theory, crowdfunding opens your ideas up to a world of generous benefactors, but realistically you’re more likely to get a tenner off your auntie by asking nicely than to be stumbled upon by a millionaire searching for that perfect niche project to drop a grand on. It does happen, it can happen, don’t stop believing, but get that cap firmly in your hand and be ready to ask everyone you’ve ever met to chip in if you want to do this.
In this regard, crowdfunding is somewhat problematic; why should our friends and family pay for our projects? Are we just passing the same fiver around between us in turn? Does a project have to be populist to be successful in this format? If you’ve previously been funded why should people help you now? If public funding is a question of worthiness, is crowdfunding a popularity contest?
Whilst I don't think crowdfunding is a sustainable way of producing art in the long term, I do like its DIY style, the high-stakes all-or-nothing factor, the instant cash and for the complete lack of application forms, and for the opportunity to promote ideas and get people engaged ahead of a project. If you’re digitally savvy and well-connected you can get great things done. Crowdfunding is both a fundraising and PR exercise. Even if you don’t meet your target you’re still making new audiences aware of your work.
If you’re a lone star, unattached to venues, funders or organisations, then fundraising can be a bit daunting, and I’ll give it to you straight; if you don’t have a mailing list, healthy Twitter following or other network then it’s going to be tough, but not impossible.
Even if you do have those things you’re going to have to put the time into contacting people personally, asking directly and clearly for what you need and keeping the energy of your campaign up with updates and news. If you can assemble a team of champions around you this will become a lot easier; consider sharing the load of tweeting and begging with a collaborator, a team of friends or an organisation.
Some basic considerations before launching your crowdfunding campaign:
You probably won’t get many shots at crowdfunding as it’s so reliant on people close to you, so don’t launch one until you’re sure you’re really making a step up, taking a risk, or offering something nobody has ever dreamed of.
Recording your first album after gigging for years to delighted audiences? YES. Crowdfund it.
Creating an eco-creche in an area with crappy public services? YES.
Hoping to go on retreat sometime to write your first novel? Probably not, unless you’re the King of Instagram or you recently saved an orphanage from burning down.
1. Build your team- share the load. Crowdfunding is an emotional process and it’s best to have folks around you to share the highs and lows and to expand your reach. If you’re an artist with a producer then great, get to it, but if not then asking friends, fellow artists or colleagues to give an hour of tweeting/emailing time per week will help enormously.
For this campaign I'm working with the four Catalyst organisations, plus Rowan's production team and Cambridge Junction. I've also listed all the influential people he's worked with before to be our cheerleaders.
2. Make the best video you can afford as this is what will engage most of your crowd. Have fun, be clear, include as many voices and perspectives to vouch for you as you can. It doesn’t need to be a feature-length spectacular; between 2 and 4 minutes of interesting footage is fine.
Working with The Point's resident film-maker Marina Moya and shooting fast during rehearsals we made the most use of the venue and time by organising ourselve ahead of time and planning as little disruption to Rowan's schedule as possible. With limited time available we wanted to get a flavor of the show through capturing rehearsals and interviewing key team members about their experiences of the project.
Our first draft was over 4 minutes long so Marina trimmed it down to the snappy 3 minutes and 4 seconds you see now, the shortest we could make it without losing vital information.
3. Identify your crowd. What networks do you have, and where else can you tap in to? Basically, who thinks you’re cool? Don’t do anything sleazy like buying mailing lists, but do get in touch with everyone who has ever said they like your work and ask them to fund/pimp your project.
I spoke to Rowan about his gigging history and fans, and with Luke about the venues and organisations that have been supportive of the project throughout, as well as rallying all the Catalyst partners to engage their audiences through newsletters and social media, for which a schedule sharing the load of coverage was created.
4. Get press coverage- editorial is best. Make your project relevant beyond the fact that it needs a cash injection by writing an article about the themes your project addresses, or the people involved. Local radio is a great way to get the word out to tons of people and show yourself off as a charming swine to the public.
Lyn Gardner just listed the show as one of her Edinburgh picks and Luke Emery will be writing a piece for Guardian Culture Professional. And you're reading this!
5. Transparency- be extremely clear about what you are spending money on. Include a budget breakdown if you’re asking for a large sum.
6. Make your rewards realistic to deliver. You don’t want to spend half of what you raise and all your rehearsal time hand-engraving silver plates, tattooing the names of all your supporters onto your thigh or whatever. If people give it’s generally because they like your idea, not because they desperately need a new hoody with your face on it. Can you find a company that would donate some nice merchandise as rewards?
We've put a limit on the larger rewards, and are offering rewards that can be delivered without costing the team excessive time and funds. The show's the thing!
7. Do the maths; how many people can you think of that will actually give you that shiny £500? How long will it take you to contact the £10 crowd? You cannot predict who will give what, and there will certainly be surprises, but making a few estimates can help you stay focussed during the countdown to funding day.
8. Watch as many crowdfunding videos as you can- the good and the bad- to decide what is best for you. Interviews, a music video, animation, a spoof advert? Consider it all before getting in front of the camera.
9. Time scale; Yes, the longer your campaign the longer you have to badger people to give, however most donations will come in right at the start and end, no matter how long it is. I’m not suggesting you try and raise £120k in three days through sheer hype and excitement, but if your other commitments allow then keep it snappy at around 4-6 weeks.
10. With or without a safety net? If this is your one shot at your project happening what will you do if you don’t meet your target? Some sites offer a keep-what-you-make option, taking a higher percentage commission to people happy to part-fund a project. Maybe you can use the sum you raise online as the root of an Arts Council application; being able to demonstrate a demand and investment from your audience will really help your case. You may have to reassess what you can achieve, and you may have to wait, but don’t forget to thank your donors heartily and keep them updated on your progress.
Case Study: Raising £1500 for Rowan James’ “Easy For You To Say”
Back in February, my first day on the job at Dao, pencil case and shiny apple metaphorically packed, I attended a meeting between Dao, Salisbury Arts Centre, The Point and Stopgap Dance Company, all working together as Catalyst, a partnership investigating the future of funding and development in disability arts.
Previously, I’ve raised a few grand for my own Edinburgh Fringe run through crowdfunding, successful due to the existing audience and mailing list from cabaret and smut events I’d produced, my connections in arts and sex journalism, the favours I could pull in from top-quality film crew from various projects I’d helped out with, and the fact that I was going to be offering the show free of charge at the Fringe to make it accessible to everyone. Offline I also talked a celebrity gynaecologist into donating a grand in exchange for their practice logo in the show credits and lifetime guestlist to my vintage porn salons. Whatever it takes.
In Rowan’s case I’ve got a few advantages to work with; he’s been gigging for a few years, supporting big name artists, as well as teaching and kicking about the party and circus scene. Catalyst is made up of four influential organisations, giving us a great network to draw from, and the show we’re raising money for is part of the iF Platform at the Edinburgh Fringe, making it shiny and new and a bit fashionable, and the show is rooted in social commentary and human connections. Ideal.
My first concern with this campaign was that it not get in the way of Rowan’s rehearsals and preparation for his shows; I know exactly how stressful and all-consuming it can be mounting a new production and if raising money takes over creative work then I consider it a waste of time. The show, and Rowan, has to come first.
Meeting initially with Luke Emery, Rowan’s producer, we discussed what the team needed financially; technical and production support (people hours essentially) and per diems so that the cast weren’t paying out of their own pockets to do the show. Easy enough, essential to the show and a relatively small amount to raise.
I really like campaign videos that are a bit fun, a bit clever, and really show off the goods, and so initially I wanted to ask Rowan to write a script in rhyme and deliver a performance piece as the ask. Obviously I’d be violating my own rule of not stressing the artist so had to let it go in favour of working around the team’s existing rehearsal and performance schedule and using a more traditional interview format to sell the project.
The shoot took place at Cambridge Junction, and went like a dream. Everyone was articulate and great in front of the camera. Marina and Henry, our film crew, were consummate professionals and totally respected my plan to be as unobtrusive on the rehearsals as possible, and we were treated to a one-off soundtrack improvised by Marv Radio for the film as well as performances from him and Rowan.
Whilst Marina has been editing the film I’ve been putting together packs for our team of champions, including a schedule for everyone’s social media and newsletter output, making sure everyone takes an equal and manageable share of the work, and gathering press quotes, reviews and photos to share and keep the campaign lively.
Wish us luck! Or better yet, chuck a couple of quid towards the campaign and help out a cool artist on the rise.