In November last year tickets went on sale for a theatrical event in London and sold out so fast that the website crashed. No surprise there, you might think. London shows with big stars are often hot tickets. But the extraordinary thing about this show was that there were no famous actors. Quite the reverse – everyone who booked had to play the lead part themselves, improvising as they went. The show opened in the West End, but in a disused office block rather than a theatre, and proved so popular the company had to extend the run.
That show was You Me Bum Bum Train and its creators are back this summer with a new version as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Again the tickets have sold out, despite promises of “a very physically challenging interactive experience”. And YMBBT is just one example of a growing trend in British theatre for using “found spaces” such as basements or warehouses, where audiences can be immersed in the drama, encouraged to wander at will or even participate with the cast. At its best such work can be thrilling, disorientating or profoundly moving.
Punchdrunk, one of the leading exponents of immersive theatre, has staged work in an old distillery, a disused factory, a former Victorian school and a five-storey abandoned warehouse in Wapping. In its shows, audience members wander alone through a series of rooms designed with an incredible level of detail. They can dig around in drawers, follow snippets of action, or track one particular character. Such work hands control over to audiences to construct their own experience – no two participants will see the same show.
This summer’s London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) showcases an array of companies that put the audience centre stage. One such, the hugely successful Dreamthinkspeak, is staging a new version of Hamlet called The Rest Is Silence in a series of glass-fronted boxes. Artistic director Tristan Sharps points out that this approach is not intended to reject more conventional staging.
“It’s not a conscious way of trying to make Shakespeare edgy,” he says. “It’s a process of trying to understand the play. Rather than coming in through the front door of the play and seeing all the furniture as it normally is, we’re coming in through the side door and shining a light into all the nooks and crannies behind the furniture.”
Sharps suggests that audiences can surprise themselves: “When you take them out of the rules demanded by theatre, I think audiences become very different and they do tend to become much more curious,” he says. “And sometimes a little bit cheeky as well – which can be nice.”
Sometimes an audience needs nerves more than cheek, however. BAC in south London has staged two One-on-One Festivals, in which every show was performed solo for just one audience member. The most daring participants could choose to be bathed or pushed halfway out of a window by the performer. Meanwhile, in Duckie’s Lullaby at the Barbican Theatre last summer, audience members had to present themselves late at night with their pyjamas, climb into bed (along with a room of similarly intrepid strangers) and submit to being lulled into a night’s sleep by the performers.
But perhaps the most extreme audience collaboration comes at the hands of You Me Bum Bum Train. Here each participant travels, fast and alone, through a series of vividly realised scenarios in each of which they are the star of the scene. It’s amazing what these shows can make you do. I’ve played a bank robber, a politician, a chat show host (complete with audience, autocue and band) and an American football coach. I’ve also bumped along a conveyor belt with the luggage, popped up in a fridge beside the dairy goods and been hurled down a chute with the rubbish sacks.
Such shows experiment with the boundaries between real life and performance; they’ve had an impact too on work in more conventional theatre buildings. It’s not unusual to enter London’s Royal Court or Young Vic, or even the National Theatre’s Cottesloe space, and find yourself in an all-embracing set that immerses you in the world of the play. Audiences for Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at the Young Vic last year had to make their way through the corridors of a psychiatric institution to find the show. And this summer a new staging of the Olympic story Chariots of Fire will transform first Hampstead Theatre and then the Gielgud Theatre into a 1920s stadium.
Of course, the idea of drama that escapes the confines of the theatre is not new: people were acting before footlights and fly towers were invented. But how do we account for the current upsurge in experimentation? Lucien Bourjeily, a Lebanese director whose new work 66 Minutes in Damascus will premiere for LIFT this summer, suggests such work responds to a culture in which people used to video gaming and online participation expect to contribute.
“People are so accustomed now to social networking,” he says. “Now everybody has custom-made news for him or her. So everybody is a content maker and a content reactor.”
Conversely, in a world of screen-based entertainment, these productions emphasise the strengths of live three-dimensional theatre. Last year the harrowing play Roadkill transported audiences to a small east London house where they were incarcerated with an actress playing a victim of child sex trafficking. And Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus will plunge audiences into the experience of being held in a Syrian detention centre. For him, it is an exercise in empathy.
“If you want to get into the shoes of someone, it’s not just about seeing and hearing,” he says. “It is also about what you touch and what you smell. Smell is so specific and so powerful. And this is the beauty of immersive theatre – it’s something you cannot get in any other art form. I think this is the real future for theatre.”
London International Festival of Theatre, June12 – July 15, www.liftfestival.com; You Me Bum Bum Train, June 21 – August 26, www.barbican.org.uk; Chariots of Fire, Hampstead Theatre to June 16, www.hampsteadtheatre.co.uk, Gielgud Theatre from June 22, www.chariotsoffireonstage.com