P&T v1.0: some prelimary reflections

Events, Rambles, Theatre

(some reflections from my current project from Open Source Theatre: PROPERTY&THEFT)

I: Intro

As part of Open Source Theatre’s process, we produce semi-serious “perfomance reports” (like this), describing what we did and how it went. Given that we’re doing two days of scratch performances, we thought it might be useful to provide some interim insight into what we’ve been up to — useful both for enticing next week’s audiences, and for us in making sure the project keeps developing.

II: Statistical report

Performers: 5 (1 market trader, 1 security guard, 1 debt counsellor, 1 automated gypsy confessional, 1 auctioneer/welcome desk)
Performance time: 80m, plus audience discussion
Audience figures: 43 audience members, 30 of whom we would rate as “deep” participants, 13 as “casual” participants
Number of laughs: 63 (approx.), of varying length and quality
Number of interesting conversations: 74 (approx.), of varying length and quality
Number of thoughts provoked: Indeterminate
Number of property/service exchanges: 24 (approx.)
Quantity of feedback: Two 30m post show discussions
Cash earned: £37.42 offset of show expenses.

III: How we got here

PROPERTY & THEFT began in March 2011, when Harry (director) and Emma (designer) conceived the basic idea of “STEAL THIS PLAY“, an interactive performance/installation exploring ideas of property. Some of the basic ideas were explored at Glue’s Scratch Interact event at the Soho Theatre. Harry has since been creating short interactive performances on other aspect of capitalistlife — theatrical doodles in preparation for some wider project.

This scratch version of the project began when Harry got in touch with Stefanie of This Collection, who was producing a series of community art collaborations with Tollcross’s Adult Learning Project, centring around a collection of 100 poems about Edinburgh. Harry became interested in what would happen if the ideas he and Emma had developed were installed in a context of poems about the city: a collision of the investigation of capitalism, the late capitalist urban landscape, and poetic collaboration.

Performers were recruited through an open callout and workshop: Harry was looking for people who were interested in the ideas of the project and had some facility with improvisation. The performances were developed through one or two rehearsals a week throughout February: these were very relaxed, focussed on developing improvisational skills and finding interesting interactions to share with the audiences. the idea was not to develop rigid ideas or a firm script, but to find a few characters who could react spontaneously to an audience situation with a few patterns of behaviour.

The design of the project is drawn from the image of Edinburgh drawn from the This Collection poems: shabby-genteel, occupied by an uncertain and aggressive capitalism, defined by class and cultural divisions, both tragic and absurd. While the performances aren’t drawn from characters in the poems, they’re occupying a space that’s defined by the poems (which are also present as a prominent installation, opposed to advertising slogans and images of the urban landscape).

Everything came together in a two-day sprint on 10th-11th March: Emma came up from London and, assisted by Luciana (another new recruit) and Harry, created more or less the entire material design from scratch. We built the performance space in a massively effective two hour get-in, installed the performers in their locations — and opened the door!

IV: Things that go auctioned

Lessons in:
crying (endlessly)
smiling (full-heartedly)
identifying weirdness
wobbling ones finger like it’s broken
rapidly raising ones eyebrows up and down
making piccalilli
lying professionally
brewing beer
seed-bombing
Welsh
the basics of the prostate

And also:
really big hugs
a personalised limerick (subject of choice, 5 custom words (max 22 custom syllables))

These came at such costs as:
50p
a big cake
a lesson in Excel spreadsheets
a breakfast of tea and porridge
stolen DVDs
&c.

V: What the audience was like

We were delighted with the audience — not just its ideal size, but its responsiveness. By now, Harry has a good sense of how people respond to open, improvised, interactive performance, but it is always stressful preparing for the unexpected. But, as hoped for, the majority of audience members relaxed into the show fairly quickly, and offered their own unique ideas and actions — the joy of interactive theatre is that it is led by the audience, and they provide the most interesting material. Olivia (a performer) said that in every interaction she enjoyed seeing that moment where, after being initially guarded, a participated decided to simply “go with it” and enjoy the interaction, performing themselves, offering of themselves, discovering what’s possible.

The second performance saw a change in audience demographic (due to the business of the community centre), with greater diversity of age and culture. There were also fewer students and theatre practitioners. This produced a qualitativelty different type of audience: their engagement was more natural and less performative, but also more guarded and uncertain (they didn’t “play along” as much, but when they did offer themselves it was really themselves). There was also more flow in and out of the performance, with less commitment to staying all the way through, which produced a different (and perhaps more productive) feel to the performance. This perfomance was more unexpected, more fruitful, more in line with our collaborative and diverse ambitions for the project.

We found that audiences were generally laid-back, easygoing, and full of laughhter and surprise. This is delightful: we are trying to experiment with form, to be genuinely innovative and strange, but also to be down-to-earth aand unpretentious. We think we’re getting there.

VI: How the performers felt

Very few of the team had had much experience in this type of theatre (it’s not widely available!) So there was understandably some nervousness about how they would be. Harry’s directorial approach to this issue was to encourage the performers to be relaxed, avoid rigid scripts, and enjoy whatever got thrown at them, while always having a few back-up things to do in tricky situations. Roleplaying difficult audience members with each other also helped, as did giving the audience membrs the encouragement to be relaxed and enjoy themselves on their entrance (audiences always want to know what the “interaction contract” is).

All of the performers were pleasantly surprised both by how responsive the audiences were and by how easy they themselves found it to improvise. The performers were able to enjoy themselves and what the audiences offered — they were able to experiment and explore within performance, and never got bored or trapped in a performance rut. Interactive theatre offered us a different and newly exciting experience of performance

VII: Some pictures

An audience member discovered Rita, the Automated Gypsy Confessional.

The welcome desk and auctioneer.

Macy hawks her gear.

Rita turns on for the audience.

The impromptu unqualified debt counsellor listens supportively.

Participants must perform for their products.

Show security conducts a search.

VIII: What we want to get better at

We learned that the piece needed more rhythm and cohesiveness: it is, currently, six separate performance interactions linked by theme and space. BUt purely by accident elements began to bind the performanes together, they cross-pollinated, events began to take place in and so define the performance space. We want to plan and develop these set-pieces: punctuate the interactions with moments of surprise, excitement, sadness, laughter that span the space. The trick will be developing this and manipulating the audience into these situations without making the piece too much of a “show”, and so undermining the interactivity.

The design and production team had to work very quickly and under pressure, and this means that elements of the design were cobbled together or settled for, rather than everything being consciously chosen and designed. There was in this a fruitful relationship with the space – we had to both aggressively occupy it and receptively adapt to it – but it was also more stressful and less artistically ideal. What we need here is more time and more defined roles — both of which can be improved by better funding.

We want to get better at adapting to the communication needs of different audience members. There was a moment of sheer delight when Spanish-speaking audience members, otherwise struggling with the interactvity of the piece, encountered the automated confessional, who also happened to speak Spanish. We were spontaneously able to cross linguistic boundaries! But how much of our show is culturally specific, or ghettoised, and how much are we able to give it broader reach and accessibility? How do we learn to be more responsive?

Of course there are also small things we can get better at: each performer is constantly getting feedback and revising what they do, and experimenting as well. For us, interactivity stretches beyond the performance space: it’s also in the way we invite discussion and feedback, and write about it all now.

Overall, we were genuinely, honestly surprised at how well things came together, and at how strong the performance was. And that’s just left us with an appetite to keep developing the project, to make it beter and better.

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