Monday, 7 December 2009

Immersive theatre already over? Certainly not!

RE: Charlotte Higgins on the guardian blog -

James Wilkes here, one of the four directors of Belt Up

I think this article raises a lot of very interesting points.

Running an immersive theatre company may make me somewhat biased in disagreeing with the idea of immersive theatre ending. Bring back the fourth wall? It hasn’t gone anywhere. Though more and more theatregoers are regularly coming into contact with work that chooses to disregard it and this can only be a good thing. Artists are increasingly asking the question of what theatre is. Is it a bank of seats pointing towards a raised platform? The answer is no. The fourth wall isn’t the default form of theatre and it would disregard the majority of work to think so.

The Trial may not be a perfect show, some people leave it terrified, others leave it bored but it has been a vital part of the company’s development in terms of learning how audiences engage with some things and not others, creating atmospheres, that sort of thing. The company is moving on though and currently in R+D for a number of new projects for the new year. Immersive theatre tired and hackneyed? That’s a welcome challenge to show you otherwise. Personally I believe immersive theatre has a very long life span ahead of it and isn’t just an experimental trend. If it doesn’t offer you as much satisfaction as an audience member as ‘the fourth wall’ then the onus is on the artist to push the genre further so that it does. Belt Up is only just starting out but we are committed to questioning theatre and creating work that does challenge the role of the audience.

The second interesting debate introduced is the responsibility balance between cast and audience. Whilst down in London, we hosted an open forum at BAC to discuss the actor/audience contract (coverage of which can be found in Matt Boothman’s column here: This mainly focussed on the role of the audience and the stipulations this brings with it. To disregard the fourth wall throws all conventional rules of the actor/audience relationship up in the air. This can be hugely liberating but only when it is properly respected. We do a lot of work with improvisation to ensure we’re ready for any situation. This can make things incredibly exciting as long as there is control and the actors are prepared to take whatever offers are given by the audience. It may have seemed like the power relationship was unbalanced in The Trial but in reality the audience had as much agency as they would outside the theatre. We take the ethic that the audience can do what they like and at no point would we come out of character or break the fictional world to stop them. This is a hugely interesting area, one that we don’t profess to experts in by any means but something we intend to explore and again something that can be pushed a lot further.

To respond to the initial idea that immersive theatre could already be over - the very concept of theatre is being interrogated at the moment and there is a lot more of play to be had. Questions are being asked that can’t be answered behind a fourth wall and this is something that should be encouraged. If ‘immersive’ theatre feels predictable and hackneyed then this shouldn’t see people getting the nails out for its coffin, expecting and asking more of artists can fuel new and innovative work.

To reiterate, The Trial isn’t a perfect piece but it asks the questions that are interesting to ask – it may not answer them but certainly plays with them. Immersive theatre has a long way to go as does Theatre as a whole medium. Already over? It’s only just begun.

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