Becoming part of the production: the rise of immersive theatre

Clare Wiley

Honesty, realism and intimacy: we look at what lies behind the popularity of site-specific, one-off and complete theatrical experiences.

The poet J Fergus Evans is telling the story of the time he kissed the homecoming queen, his eyes closed in bittersweet nostalgia. He says he remembers the taste of cherry cola on the girl’s breath – but also that he would rather have kissed her brother. This memory is one of a string of intimate and touchingly honest stories that are part of Evans’ one-man play, My Heart is Hitchhiking Down Peachtree Street. During the show Evans reflects on his difficult upbringing in Georgia’s Bible Belt. He speaks to an audience of just nine people in a room that is made to look and feel like an Atlanta dive bar – with bottles of dark whiskey resting in the hearth, origami cicadas adorning the wall and boxes full of forgotten treasures lining the mantelpiece. It’s like sitting in a friend’s living room, being let in on secrets. In fact, the whole experience is very much like being at a friend’s house, possibly because the play takes place far from the humid climes of Georgia. It is staged in a Manchester housing estate.

It is plays such as this – which had its premiere at Contact theatre in Manchester in February 2012 – that show how theatre has broken out of the carefully defined limits of the stage, where actors and audiences both have rigid roles to play. Adventurous companies like Punchdrunk have redefined performance and even narrative; the troupe’s most recent show, for example, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, invited audiences to wander around a disused sorting office that had been transformed into a film studio and engage in a series of interactions and conversations. So with an increasing number of productions taking the action right to the audience – even into their homes – are we witnessing a new wave of site-specific theatre? And what capacity does it have to bring new audiences to the “theatre”, wherever that might be?

It was like sitting in a friend’s living room, being let in on secrets

Evans’ show was also performed as part of Domestic, a series of theatrical encounters that took place in a block of flats in Hulme last autumn. The brainchild of art collective Word of Warning, the programme also included a kitchen sink drama that was actually set in a dilapidated kitchen and explored gender roles and female identity. Another performance was located in a teenage bedroom – and one even invited participants to strip off and take a shower.

Domestic was the result of a bit of opportunism. Cooper House in Hulme is currently undergoing a long and tricky renovation and the director of the event, Tamsin Drury (who also lives in the building), wanted to offer residents an alternative to the drilling and hammering they’ve endured for the past couple of years. While several flats were empty, she seized the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary. “I thought it would be really nice to do something creative for my neighbours who are living with the disruption of this refurbishment process,” she says. “I’m also really passionate about debunking the idea that this kind of art is inaccessible. By taking work out into real, day-to-day environments, it can reach people who might not go to an ‘art-space’. It was a case of telling real stories in real homes.”

So is realism at the heart of this new trend? Honesty was certainly crucial for Domestic; all the shows hinged on a reveal of some sort, which added to the intimacy of the experience. Realism was also the aim of Home Theatre, a recent production by Theatre Royal Stratford East, which turned thirty London homes into mini theatres: performance artists interviewed residents and turned their stories into plays. And, perhaps fittingly, several site-specific productions will mark the launch of Manchester’s future arts hub, HOME – the successor to Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre Company. Before the major new venue opens in Spring 2015, audiences will be invited to take part in shows throughout this year, including an unconventional tour through the Northern Quarter. The performances, which will be announced in April, are being billed as a journey home, a way of thinking about how people attach meaning to a setting. “What I love about the idea of site-specific theatre is that it’s not like cinema or straight theatre where you turn off the lights and escape into your own world,” says Walter Meierjohann, HOME’s Artistic Director of Theatre. “You’re very much aware of what is happening around you; they’re real surroundings and you can relate to them.”

This heightened awareness can result in people forming new associations between place and the experiences they have had there, something that is perhaps crucial to HOME’s aims – and to the focus of site-specific theatre more widely. “People love the idea of going to the theatre,” Meierjohann continues. “But there’s also a hunger for something else – I wouldn’t call it so much an ‘event’, but more of a thrill and to experience something.” Certainly, we have the occasional need for blockbuster escapism, but it seems that, more and more, audiences of all kinds are looking for a candid, realistic exchange – a theatrical encounter that speaks to them almost directly. And in Manchester at least, those audiences look set to get exactly what they want.

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