Immersive theatre and the anxiety of choice

Yes, you might discover a secret orgy in a hidden room or go on a desperate quest for a missing ring, but at heart, immersive theatre is about turning the traditional power dynamics of actors and audience on their head.

An hour into Sleep No More, I was sure that I was about to die. Shortly after I checked into New York's McKittrick Hotel – the deceptively realistic setting of Punchdrunk's immersive Rebecca-Macbeth mashup – an eerily alluring woman in a floor-length red satin gown (Hecate, I later discovered), had singled me out as I wandered, unspoiled and suffering from Hitchcock-appropriate vertigo, into the dilapidated Deco bar where she was performing a smirking lip-sync of “Is that All There Is?” After staring me down – ensuring that I was suitably compliant – she led me into a private boudoir: removing my mask and feeding me a vial of tears.

Then things began to get strange. Hecate seized hold of my wrists, leading me into a pitch-black forest, forcing my hands against a series of branches, telling me the haunting story of a child lost in a wood. Her hair fell into my face; her hands were tight against my shoulders, her lips close enough for me to feel her breath against my cheek. I wondered – half-dazed – if I was being initiated, or perhaps murdered; was I expected to spend the rest of the performance wandering the space, unmasked, in collusion with Hecate's subservient witches? Instead she wept in my arms, her nails digging into my skin, and my fear gave way to a stronger impulse: to comfort her. Hecate entrusted me with a mission – to retrieve a stolen ring – a quest that sent me into the depths of the McKittrick as I dug up graveyards, rifled through hotel lockers, crawled through brambles, increasingly desperate to dry her tears.

"Is theatre becoming too immersive?” asks the Independent's Alice Jones in a recent review of dreamthinkspeak's new In the End Was the Beginning at Somerset House, declaring that she would “rather leave it to the professionals to take me on a journey” than experience the overwhelming anxiety of choice with which audience members in an immersive piece are presented. It is true, certainly, that the device can be overused, using audience members' natural disorientation as a substitute for real artistry.

But in a show like Sleep No More, the relationship between actor and audience takes on a thrilling, even erotic, dynamic. In traditional theatre, we as audience members are expected to be affected without affecting the action; we are objects, reactors, powerless to affect or alter what is happening onstage. Yet we are all too quick to forget that this powerlessness is itself an illusion. As anyone unfortunate enough to be seated next to an incessant chatterer knows, we can at any moment break the fourth wall: we can heckle, throw rotten vegetables, or simply walk out; we can speak the Deplorable Word that brings the whole world of the play crashing down.

Yet it wasn't until Hecate cornered me in that forest that I realised the extent of that power, or that responsibility. I wasn't only responsible for her lost ring; I was responsible for her – as a character and as a performer. Our emotional dynamic – me a nameless ghost of the McKittrick; she the witch-queen I was bound to serve – mirrored our theatrical one. I was both in thrall to her (not difficult; Elizabeth Romanski's performance remains among the most compelling I've seen on any stage) and painfully, powerfully aware of how vulnerable she was making herself to me.

It's hardly surprising that Sleep No More's dedicated fans – some of whom admit to seeing the show over fifty times – describe their encounters in terms that echo an erotic pas de deux. (A visit to super-fan tumblr ScorchedtheSnake, which reblogs a number of show recaps, casts up plenty of “racing hearts” and passionate declarations of fealty to the show's most popular characters.) Darla Gutierrez, who blogs about the show at the tumblr fearsdomakeustraitors, savours the “power rush” she gets from being present in the McKittrick. Yet such freedom, fan Meg Brophy notes, arises within the context of a relationship that feels – at least for those three hours – reciprocal. “Anytime things get personal, I do get very vulnerable...but the way the actors treat you in a one-on-one, regardless of which one-on-one it is, they do nothing but respect you and care for you.”

For me, as for so many of Sleep No More's dedicated admirers, the power of immersive theatre lies not in the discovery of a secret orgy in a hidden room (though, four visits in, I've seen more than my fair share of naked men gyrating while covered in blood) or racking up rare scenes, but in confronting the very “anxiety” Jones names – the responsibility of “working harder” – or, at least, as hard – as the cast to build and sustain the intoxicating world of the McKittrick. My encounters with Hecate, however illusory, take the traditional power dynamics inherent in “end on” theatre and turn them on their head. Without the safety net of distance – emotional or physical – the theatrical experience becomes one of inter-subjectivity rather than objectification. At the McKittrick, I have seduced and been seduced, comforted and been comforted by a pregnant Lady Macduff, fallen in love with an andrognyous witch only to dress him and dry his tears. And I have spent twelve panicked, urgent hours during which nothing in the world seemed as immediate – or as real – as my quest for Hecate's ring.

Four visits later, I'm planning a fifth, sixth, seventh. I keep my ticket – a cleverly designed playing-card – on my desk at home, to remind me that the story is not yet over. After all, I still haven't found that bloody ring.

 

The action at Sleep No More.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.