I’ve just spent a few days at Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) in Glasgow and it was a good opportunity to see work and chat with other theatre people from Europe and further afield.
From the work on show (which was all from Scotland) it was clear that so-called “immersive” theatre has become a big part of theatre making. Immersive theatre, like many names coined for particular performance styles, is a rather misleading title – like “physical theatre”, which seems to imply that nobody moves around in other plays – isn’t all good theatre immersive in the sense that it draws you right into its world? Anyway, whether you like the name or not, immersive theatre has become very big news in the last few years as companies like Grid Iron in Scotland and Punch Drunk in England have created work in non-theatre spaces that brings the audience into very close proximity with the performance, often blurring the lines between the two. “But haven’t people been doing that for years? Isn’t that audience interaction and site-specific theatre with a new name?” you may say, and you’d be pretty much correct. There is, of course, rarely anything genuinely new – someone, somewhere has always done it before and there is a very interesting new book about this which I shall write about at a later date.
The point is, though, that recent immersive theatre has tended to take this to more extreme ends than perhaps people had done previously (though read Charlotte Higgins’s article here about how quickly the shock of the new can fade). I went to several performances at IETM and only one of them took place in a theatre, and even that wasn’t originally built as a theatre but as a railway arch under Central Station.
Because immersive theatre has become rather voguish it means there is a variation in the skill with which it is executed (again, see Charlotte Higgins), but I saw (or rather took part in) a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking performance in a flat in Sauchiehall Street that exemplified the best of immersive theatre. The small audience (about 12 or 14) knocked on the door and were ushered into a living room in which enough sofas and armchairs had been crammed around the walls to seat us all. Our host, Adrienne, welcomed us warmly, asked our names and sat us down, offering teas and coffees. Adrienne is the alter-ego of Adrian Howells, a pioneer of “confessional theatre” and she chatted to us about what was going to happen over the next two hours (and I have never felt two hours pass so quickly). The structure of “An Audience with Adrienne” is deceptively simple and cleverly hides a good deal of thought about how the performance works – the audience is given a laminated café menu with the name of dishes substituted by alluring story titles like “Charles Bronson’s Weeping Wounds” and “Sad Songs”. All of the stories are episodes from Adrian’s life, and he invites the audience to share their own stories as well, though with no pressure to do so. At three points, Adrienne plays short films of interviews with Adrian’s parents and friends while she changes into new clothes. In the middle we all do some creative group work when we decorate paper plates in small groups.
Apart from the subtle skill with which the evening is constructed (subtle in the sense that the audience is not really aware of the structure), there is a wonderful sense of community created within the audience and a number of surprising and touching moments. After telling the Sad Songs story, Adrienne asks permission to sing a song for us, and with a can of hairspray as a microphone sings Seasons in the Sun. Now, this is one of the worst, most sentimental songs I can remember from my childhood, with its tawdry story and sing-along chorus, and it has never previously made me feel anything but the boke. Here, though, it suddenly became quite moving – not that the song was any better, but delivered with genuine feeling and a sense that this song was important, it created a moment of connection between everyone in the room.
So, is immersive theatre the thing that’s going to revitalise theatre? Not as whole, because like any form, there are good and bad examples of it around. What will keep theatre alive is a sense of adventure among theatre-makers and audiences and an understanding that finding the right medium for the story is the essential – Adrian Howells understand this, and the intimate setting he chose for An Audience was perfect, but there are other examples where a play has been shoehorned into an immersive setting because it is the current big thing rather than a necessity for the show. Plays in theatres and plays in unusual locations will continue alongside each other because theatre succeeds or fails by the quality of the performances and the ideas contained within rather than where it takes place.