First week of the Halloween Walk is done. In the daytimes I’ve been trying to pack boxes in my friend’s Hampstead flat. In the evenings I’ve been leading people through the dark paths of this ancient settlement, telling them tales. It’s great for somebody with the geekiness I carry. Every tour so far I’ve added another interesting thing that I’ve discovered about a bit of Hampstead that I would never have known if I hadn’t started actively seeking. There’s always gonna be more to add. There’s so much to be found, so many connections to draw. Frequent readers will have inferred how much I have learnt and loved this city since it adopted me some decades ago. The square mile will likely always be a centre for me, as I had my training there and saw and felt an ancient city heart in a concrete trap. Weekends in that area are remarkable. All the empty light in dead buildings built for ego on ancient ground. You can walk around on a Sunday night and feel the history, even if there are only flashes left. Bits of wall. Bits of preserved signage. Mostly it’s a hymn to Mammon. But it doesn’t matter how much concrete you pour, if the place is a beating heart it still sounds out from the ground.
Hampstead’s heart is closer to the surface. Pushed to the top of the hill, this land that is too alkaline and sandy for crops was never bought when the land was being bought. You can’t grow crops in your garden if you have one here. But the height! That made it attractive. It’s been settled since Neolithic times. There are springs. The water table is high. You see out over the whole of the valley below. At the top of the hill your feet are 16 foot and nine inches above the top of the cross on the dome of St Paul’s.
This evening was beautiful and strange for me. I was asked to do this job this year because the previous incumbent was unable. Kidney stones, I think I heard. Something along those lines. He came this evening with his girlfriend, and they both paid. I was worried. I’m making a lot of shit up here, and I’m responding live to the things that the public throw. I’m not a historian. I’m an actor who is yes also a massive geek. But mostly I’m just using my immersive theatre experience: Incorporate everything until it becomes literally impossible not to focus back on my stories. This evening a car alarm became the screaming of a ghost and it was joyful. People want to play and pride can get in the way of joy. If you’re not precious, you can play with humans and not break the story you’re trying to tell. I was worried, but bless him – he was delightful and encouraging and he bought me two drinks and congratulated me on how I dealt with the randoms.
I’ve known immersive theatre actors who are so set on how their “scene” ought to go and so incapable of solving their own problems that they’ve set security guards waiting for a codeword, in case some audience member is out of their own ability to control. I’ve been that security guard. I’ve known exactly how to deal with what they feared had I been playing their part. Ego though. “My scene must go in the way I have decided it must go.” No. It doesn’t. Your imagination is one among many. Listen to the imaginations you have around you. Make it work. If the control freaks hadn’t taken precedence, the skill of guiding and incorporating would have made many “immersive” shows I’ve witnessed recently considerably more satisfying. This evening I enjoyed involving whatever random shit happened, and making it part of things. I honestly think there’s a terrific joy in incorporating random shit.
The whole immersive theatre game is a constant balance between giving audience freedom and giving them a curated illusion of freedom. But in my lifetime it was borne out of mischief and the mischief seems to be getting lost. I guess it’s because there’s money in it. And often, the more money, the less imagination.
Right now I guess the curated illusion is winning.
There was a glorious moment with Shunt where more mischievous possibilities were in ascendance. Bring back Shunt, I say. They were the instigators. They were the heart of the whole “immersive” movement. I last saw them with the baby Jesus in a hotel in East London doing joyful things for shits and giggles. But yes! Not self satisfied. Making their own stuff rather than just glomming onto a big well known film or TV franchise. Shunt should be pushed to the front of any dialogue about making things where the audience can contribute.
Anyway. I’m geeking out. Come walk through Hampstead with me. And then employ me in your hugely well funded artistic endeavour, bearing in mind I might have opinions. Meantime I’m just gonna keep making shit up, connecting people, telling stories, doing what I do. Bite me.