Interview: "It's a bit like being in an episode of The Thick of It... set in 1979" - Owen Kingston on his new immersive show.
Parabolic Theatre’s immersive theatre show Crisis? What Crisis? cracks open the government machine and gives the audience the chance to get hands-on with the levers of power.
I spoke to director Owen Kingston about the show, what immersive theatre adds to the audience experience, how the company prepare for the unexpected and advice for those who are shy about getting involved?
Crisis? What Crisis? Is an immersive experience - how does it work?
All the events of the show take place in a Government office building in 1979.
The country has just been through the “winter of discontent” where strikes brought the country to its knees, and now Jim Callaghan's government is facing a vote of no confidence.
In our shows, the audience is firmly in the driving seat narrative-wise.
We don't go as far as giving our audience specific roles, but we do give them a reason to be present in the world of the show.
In “Crisis? What Crisis?” our audience members are special advisors to government ministers, and they have been gathered together to try and solve some of the big problems facing the country while all the MPs are in parliament debating in advance on the no-confidence vote.
The audience as a whole has to actively engage with these problems and try and solve them.
This can involve negotiating with Union representatives over the phone or in person, persuading MPs to try and vote in a particular manner, or choosing financial policies to enact to try and stabilise the economy.
The whole thing feels like a cross between a theatre performance and a board game, where the decisions taken by the audience affect the direction of the story.
Tackling problems affecting one part of the country might worsen problems in another part, and it is down to the audience to prioritise what to fix and how, and to try and work out what will have the biggest influence on the no-confidence vote, which is the ultimate metric of success or failure.
Throughout all this, they are guided by a group of actors playing various roles from government representatives to journalists to union leaders to economists.
This is not a show you can just sit and watch, the audience's actions determine the flow of the narrative as well as the outcome.
It's a bit like being in an episode of “The Thick of It”... set in 1979.
Why tackle this particular topic in this way?
The 'Winter of Discontent' and its aftermath was the worst crisis this country had faced since the war, and now we are again in that same sort of territory with Brexit.
Conventional theatre has already admirably addressed this period of history with the excellent This House, so we were interested to see what we could achieve by approaching it using an immersive model.
One of the things that immersive theatre does best is to encourage empathy.
A good show will “immerse” you in the world of the story, partly through set design, partly through direct interaction with the characters, all of which enable and encourage you to make an imaginative leap into a different reality.
By making that leap, you inevitably end up living through a situation that might be alien to you but might be very familiar to someone else. You get to spend some time walking in their shoes.
Our country has been enveloped in a worsening political crisis for some years now, and many people blame the politicians.
A lot of people think they can see very simple answers to very complex problems.
Our hope is that by immersing our audience in a similar political crisis and challenging them to find a way out of it, that they might begin to understand more of the complexity of challenges facing modern politicians, and see that simplistic solutions rarely stand up to scrutiny and that fixing a country in crisis may not be as easy as they might at first think.
Have you directed anything like this before and how do you approach it given all the unknowns?
My company, Parabolic Theatre, exclusively makes immersive theatre, and most of our work follows this same highly interactive pattern.
A couple of years ago we created a show called “For King and Country” which modelled what might have happened if Britain had been invaded by the Nazis during the war, and we followed a similar approach to challenging the audience to fix the problems they were faced with.
A lot of people assume that at the core of our shows is a decision tree, a bit like a 'choose your own adventure' novel, where audiences are offered fixed options and have to decide between A or B, and then move on to another set of similar decisions.
However, we find this sort of structure far too limiting.
We prefer to create shows where the 'edges' of the world are blurred, and where the audience has a lot more freedom to make creative decisions – especially decisions that we might not have anticipated.
Our rule is that we never refuse a reasonable, in-world request and that whatever the audience gives us we roll with and bend the show around it.
For us, it's the unknowns that are the most fun bit.
We prepare as best we can – we make sure we know the world of the show inside out, and we create interesting characters for the audience to interact with.
We also come up with a satisfying story structure that will take whatever the audience gives us and turn it into a satisfying narrative. We rarely script things, however.
We find that it is pretty easy for an audience to spot the difference between an actor delivering lines and an actor conversing naturally.
Also, having lines puts another huge limitation on the actor.
In a show like this, when the audience stray from what is expected and you have no lines to cover it then the instinctive reaction is to panic and clam up.
If you have no lines at all, however, then there is nothing to be worried about. If you stay present in the world and in character then you can handle anything thrown at you.
How do you prepare for the unexpected?
In conventional theatre, when something unexpected happens then it is a problem that needs to be solved.
Stage management might have to step in to find a solution, and actors who are working from a script will naturally be thrown by anything extraordinary that they are not specifically prepared for.
In our sort of theatre, however, when something unexpected happens it is an opportunity to create something amazing.
Some of the best moments in our shows come when the audience does or says something that makes sense in-world but that we had not considered in rehearsal.
If our audiences offer us something cool, we will move heaven and earth to incorporate it into the narrative for that evening.
By looking at it that way, preparing for the unexpected stops being about anxiously anticipating our audience doing something that 'breaks' the show, and becomes more about watching for opportunities to do something that we've not done before and create something awesome that has originated with an audience member.
What are you hoping audiences get out of the experience?
Hopefully, they will find playing in the world we have created a whole lot of fun.
We believe that if you are going to spend premium prices on an evening’s entertainment, it should deliver on giving you a good and memorable time.
Beyond that, we also hope that our audiences will learn a bit about politics and how difficult it is to run a country.
We have put a lot of effort into accurately modelling the situation in the late '70s and making sure that what we have devised feels as realistic as possible.
Therefore, we hope that we have created an accurate simulator of a country in crisis that will deliver a believable experience of trying to fix that crisis.
Because of that, we also hope that this show will help our audiences recognise the complexity of the difficulties facing the country at the moment and perhaps feel a little more sympathetic to those on both sides of the fence.
Any advice for those who may be shy about getting involved?
While “Crisis? What Crisis?” is highly interactive there are plenty of places to hide.
We're not going to put you on the spot or expect you to address a whole room full of people or force you to interact if you really don't want to.
There are plenty of opportunities to make yourself the centre of attention, and there are many people who will be more than willing to do that, but if you prefer to fade into the background you should have no trouble doing that as well.
It can be just as fun to watch other people get stuck in with sorting out the political mess, but we believe the most fun is had by having a go yourself.
Thankfully, in a room full of people all busy with different tasks, you can get on and do that without feeling like everyone is watching you.
What are you working on next?
We always have several projects on the boil, some of which I can talk about and some of which I can't.
We have a much larger scale project in development that is waiting for the right building and the finances to fall into place.
We are also currently running another ongoing show called Bridge Command.
This is an experimental project where small groups of audience members get to fly an interactive starship and play out a narrative stretched over a series of “episodes” - a bit like a Sci-fi TV series where the audience are the stars of the show.
And Crisis? What Crisis is at CoLab Factory near Borough from 12 November to 3 December and click here for tickets and information.
And for tickets and information about Bridge Command click here.
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