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A Brief Intro to… Experimental Theatre

It was church services at Easter in the tenth century that popularised theatrical entertainment in Britain, and by the fourteenth century, it was standard practice to perform Bible stories. From the mid-fifteenth century hundreds of indoor and outdoor theatres were emerging in London, the most famous being the Globe, well-known for staging Shakespeare’s works.

Experimental theatre (also known as avant-garde theatre) began in Western theatre in the late 19th century with Alfred Jarry and his Ubu plays as a rejection of both the age in particular and, in general, the dominant ways of writing and producing plays. The term has shifted over time as the mainstream theatre world has adopted many forms that were once considered radical.

Like other forms of the avant-garde, it was created as a response to a perceived general cultural crisis. Despite different political and formal approaches, all avant-garde theatre opposes bourgeois theatre. It tries to introduce a different use of language and the body to change the mode of perception and to create a new, more active relation with the audience.

Traditionally, there is a highly hierarchical method of creating theatre – a writer identifies a problem, a writer writes a script, a director interprets it for the stage together with the actors, the performers perform the director and writers collective vision. Various practitioners started challenging this and started seeing the performers more and more as creative artists in their own right. This started with giving them more and more interpretive freedom and devised theatre eventually emerged. This direction was aided by the advent of ensemble improvisational theater, as part of the experimental theatre movement, which did not need a writer to develop the material for a show or “theatre piece.” In this form the lines were devised by the actors or performers.

Within this many different structures and possibilities exist for performance makers, and a large variety of different models are used by performers today. The primacy of the director and writer has been challenged directly, and the director’s role can exist as an outside eye or a facilitator rather than the supreme authority figure they once would have been able to assume.

As well as hierarchies being challenged, performers have been challenging their individual roles. An inter-disciplinary approach becomes more and more common as performers have become less willing to be shoe-horned into specialist technical roles. Simultaneous to this, other disciplines have started breaking down their barriers. Dance, music, visual art and writing become blurred in many cases, and artists with completely separate trainings and backgrounds collaborate very comfortably.

Here in the UK, it was companies such Shunt and Punchdrunk as well as performances like ‘You Me Bum Bum Train’ that helped introduce experimental and immersive theatre to the masses.

Shunt, a London-based performance collective, was founded in 1998. Most of the co-founders of Shunt met at Central School of Speech and Drama in London on the Advanced Theatre Practice MA in 1997/1998, which specialises in collaborative practice. Shunt’s work is centered on immersive, site-specific performance, usually in a grand scale, and has been supported by Britain’s Royal National Theatre, NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and Arts Council England. It has been the subject of much critical and academic discussion over the last decade. Some believe the idea of Shunt is to “challenge the model of the single author” but the founding idea was simply to “explore the live event”. The group agrees on a theme or subject and as individual artists they all contribute proposals for scenes. Though they strive for minimal hierarchy, there are normal roles that the artists fulfill later in the process, such as lighting designer, sound designer, director, performers etc.

Punchdrunk was formed in 2000, by Artistic Director Felix Barrett MBE. Since its inception, Punchdrunk has pioneered a form of “immersive” theatre in which the audience is free to choose what to watch and where to go. This format is related to “promenade theatre” but Felix Barrett prefers the term “site-sympathetic” when describing their work. In a typical Punchdrunk production, audience members are free to roam the performance site, which can be as large as a five-story industrial warehouse. They can either follow the performers and themes (there are usually multiple threads at any instant), or simply explore the world of the performance, treating the production as a large art installation. Masks are another signature element of Punchdrunk’s work. Barret says when the company “…introduced masks, suddenly inhibition fell away and people found a sense of freedom in their anonymity, allowing them to fully explore their surroundings and become totally absorbed in the world around them.”

You Me Bum Bum Train is an Interactive theatre performance devised by Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd in 2004. The pair met as art students in Brighton, where they were studying illustration and film. The show gained critical acclaim in the United Kingdom when it was awarded the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust prize while showing in a disused office in London. In 2010 it won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for outstanding newcomer.

Visitors to the performance pass through a series of scenes of which they have no foreknowledge, in which they are either passive or where they must improvise a part without any preparation.

Nowadays we have a vast array of theatres and venues enjoy experimental shows and festivals and in London we are especially spoilt for choice. One of the most atmospheric locations to see a performance is undoubtedly The Vaults, home to immersive theatre and alternative arts (and located right here on Leake Street!).

We chatted with Ami Stidolph, Head of Theatre at The Vaults, to get a better idea of the immersive theatre world today.

How did you get into theatre? I grew up in Chichester, which has a fantastic theatre and a fantastic youth theatre which I loved being a part of. I never really set out to pursue it as a carrer, but I had so much fun doing those shows that I couldn’t keep away.

What’s the best theatre show you’ve seen? Tonnes spring to mind – His Dark Materials at the National, Taking Sides at Chichester, a fringe production of Henry IV I saw in some tiny place one.

What are your favourite types of theatre production? I’m a huge Shakespeare lover, but I work in immersive theatre so I always enjoy seeing something very unusual. I’m a big puppetry fan as well.

Which theatre companies are really pushing the boundaries of theatre? Oof tough as that question could mean so many things, but I’ll always book to see the work of Kill the Beast, Complicite, and DryWrite.

What is the concept behind Vaults theatre? The Vaults theatre is built upon our beautiful space. Stepping in here is an experience and an atmosphere in itself so we bounce off that as a start. We’re neighbours with some fantastic theatres which we don’t want to (and frankly can’t) compete with, so it’s our job to try to offer something genuinely different. Immersive and experiential theatre is really growing and we want to be a huge part of that force.

What’s the best show you’ve seen at Vaults? Oh gosh there’s so many – recently Trainspotting and Red Wolf, which was part of VAULT Festival.

What type of person does immersive theatre appeal to? Interesting question! We try to come at each production individually in terms of who we’re appealing to, as immersive theatre is a broad spectrum. But I suppose our core audience base is often adventurous young adults (20 – 35).

What’s the most insane thing you’ve seen/heard of in the immersive theatre world? Every time I do a show people come up with these ideas and technologies that seem so close to actual magic to me – our next show (Sounds and Sorcery) uses binaural sound technology on wireless headphones so I’m now learning about that. But the madness of it really is you’re asking people to literally step in to a new world, meaning you just can’t work out what the audience will do. They might punch an actor, or drop their trousers and wee in the middle of the show (really) or get so involved they point-blank refuse to leave the set. But those are, weirdly, the great bits, because every show is genuinely different from the last because it is responsive.

What’s the future of theatre? Crikey.  Sadly I don’t have a Charlie-Brooker-esque insight in to what the new trend, or technology, or fad will be, but I hope we can keep being responsive to what people both want and need in their lives and create work around that.  The future of theatre always has been, and always will be, about reflecting what is going on the world, and people, and what people are like and why they’re like that. It’s cheesy but it’s true.


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