Day 25. Over the years, I’ve been involved in a ridiculously diverse range of projects. I expect most actors can say that. I can say it double. I’m thinking about one aspect of the tapestry of weirdness tonight.
When I had just left Guildhall I made friends with a man called Tassos. At the time he was coming up with all sorts of harebrained schemes, making theatre in different contexts, asking “How do we give the audience some sort of agency.” For me this was an interesting and important question, given that theatre is a live experience. I love that it can change and breathe. But I was sure that there were ways to engage the audience more deeply than just as watchers. To get people to shape an experience together. I threw myself in with him and a motley crew. A playful secret agency. We all had code names, I gave myself the codename “mother” because my mother had died so recently. I wasn’t to know I’d have that code name for a decade. But code names appealed to me as I also liked the idea of removing actor’s ego from performance. If no one knows who you are you’re less inclined to show off. We made all sorts of things, on the streets of London, in theatres for one night, in arches and bars and community centres. Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t. We learnt, we adjusted, people we knew had similar thoughts, things grew out of the madness. Some of it touched on the work of old greats like Joan Littlewood. Some lost it’s heart. Some sank without trace. Some got very big: Everybody knows Punchdrunk.
After many years of making this stuff, it started to be given names. Experiential theatre. Immersive. Interactive. At first we had felt like pariahs. But suddenly there was an acceptance of this way of working and then an integration of it. And with an integration, inevitably, an assimilation and a loss of teeth. I’ve been to shows in the last few years that call themselves immersive because the space is dressed as a kitchen and you sit in it, that’s it. I’ve been to stuff called interactive where an actor has thrust something into my hand at the start and then it’s never been referred to for the rest of the staged performance. I’ve been to stuff called Site Specific where the same room has been used as two different notional rooms. I have no problem with any of this. But at some point this stuff started to get money attached to it, and become aspirational. I remember an internal shift where suddenly I was doing launches for branded whisky or I was at expensive parties doing treasure hunts. We were still making strange stuff in stranger places but in London we started to see regular players, people who wanted to have a two week email trail before leaving the house for something odd to happen in a public space. Technology made things more interesting but also more fallible. We experimented with it, but we did it broke so we couldn’t provide infallible tech. Sometimes the tech worked. Sometimes not. Sometimes what we did was great, sometimes what we did was woeful. But I will never stop wanting to experiment and to make things that respond to the people who are there. And to risk. Risk, genuine risk, is what makes a live experience live. There is wonderful telly, unbelievable film. Theatre is happening in the room with you RIGHT NOW. My most recent show, A Christmas Carol, always ended with audience members swapping numbers. At the climax of the show, I would run out into the crowded Christmas street at Leicester Place in a Victorian nightie, dancing and cartwheeling as they watched. There was never a night when I didn’t run out there with my heart in my mouth, worried I’d be stabbed. Some nights were scary. But at the heart of my craft is the desire to connect people through it. An audience is a load of strangers sitting next to each other. Get them fighting for a space at a window , then swapping numbers saying “I can’t believe he actually did that,” and long as it serves the story it’s perfect. Everybody who loves A Christmas Carol knows the moment when Scrooge runs into the street in his nightie.
I’m thinking about all of this because I just went to a “Room Escape“. They’re big business in LA. There were six of us, and it was a great big puzzle in a room. It opens with a disappointingly loose storyline. An alchemist with no name is doing something bad, we have to stop him. It turns out it’s the philosopher’s stone. Why do we have to stop him? Surely better to nick it? One actor facilitator is in there with you playing a half thought through alchemist’s assistant come grim reaper person, moving in slow motion and giving silent clues occasionally. He is great even if he has no logical context for his behaviour. But this isn’t a show, it’s a pure game. A puzzle game. Loads of puzzles. Loads of geeky people trying to solve the puzzles. The time flew by and we didn’t find the philosopher’s stone. It was pleasant though, to see everyone start talking through a shared problem. I ended up working on my own at the start as a big group were all busy dominating one half of the puzzle and neglecting the other half. One girl came over and joined me and we solved it together and then got halfway through the next one before time ran out. And the big group hadn’t solved anything yet. But me and Josslyn? We were highfiving each other, laughing, joking, completely unreserved. And it’s why room escapes are so popular. If I was on a first date with the right person it would be great. With the wrong person it would be atrocious. But shared problem solving for fun? It feeds the same hunger as yesterday’s pub quiz.
I left it thinking of ways in which the experience could have been improved, and the logic could have been shored up. It took me a while before I even noticed I was doing it. If I take nothing else from this trip and the fact that I can’t lose myself in my multiple day jobs, it’s that I am still a maker. I started making something out here within a week of landing, immediately on changing my context. I suspect I’ll be doing a lot more of that back in town, in lots of different mediums. And I look forward to collaborating with lots of you. I’m glad I made this trip. Learning a lot already about myself.