She wants you to kiss her : negotiating risk in the immersive theatre contract

Talbot, RJ ORCID: 2016, 'She wants you to kiss her : negotiating risk in the immersive theatre contract' , in: Reframing immersive theatre : the politics and pragmatics of participatory performance , Palgrave, London, pp. 171-191.

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The four performances discussed in this chapter were presented together as part of the InOnTheAct festival produced by The Lowry Theatre, Salford, in Autumn 2012. Advertised (in the festival flyer) as ‘intimate’ and ‘risk-taking’, they can be broadly identified as immersive theatre productions. The festival took place in and around Salford Quays, and the public ‘piazzas’ outside neon-lit, glass-fronted buildings at Media City leased to national broadcasters and the University of Salford. The festival performances were located in local shops, in an abandoned factory unit, and in a listed 14th century building abutting a residential area of Salford, all within a mile of the Lowry Theatre. In preparing this chapter I interviewed producers and participants and also used feedback from audience surveys (for a summary of interview see notes). According to Quays Arts and Cultural Development Manager at the time, Kathy McArdle, bringing a diffuse and diverse cultural activity into these sites was an opportunity to ‘inject life’ into the new Quays environment, if not to trouble the corporate interests so visibly represented by the new dominant architecture and attendant security presence. Different communities can encounter a theatre festival as an equal and open event-space whether or not they are aware of any publicity, and regardless of their awareness of the work of the companies involved (Bakhtin, 1993, pg.2). In this way, immersive theatre, as a porous theatrical environment, may temporarily reconfigure the regulation of the space by powerful developers, zealous security staff, and those with cultural capital. For in the immersive environment ‘reality’ and make-believe can co-exist in subtle, disorientating or playful ways that restore power to leisure users and everyday consumers. Immersive theatre can offer temporary, alternative worlds; this is one of its charms, for artists and ‘lay participants’ alike. This chapter examines the shifting power between programmers, participants and players around a performative contract. Programmers at the Lowry Theatre who commissioned the four productions were closely involved in the process of re-locating or re-configuring the work to situate it within the festival. However, when artists and programmers ‘behind the scenes’ in these environments ‘disappear’ in order to facilitate participant agency, and slip into the crowd in urban spaces for instance, participants can feel exposed, stranded and script-less. They risk losing face, being embarrassed, humiliated or singled out without consent. Given these personal costs, programmers have carefully nurtured the audience for this work. The potential pitfalls can be offset by the appeal of creative practices that allow participants a more democratic involvement in the experiences on offer. Participants may enter an active engagement with the process of performance making, into a more collaborative relation with trained performers and in some cases into a more intimate experience of co-presence with others. When participants feel alone and unobserved they may take uninvited liberties with performers, objects and other participants. However, as the contract of engagement and the degree of risk in the immersive environment are both necessarily in the process of being en-acted, boundaries between make-believe and real tend to be contingent on the previous ‘pedigree’ and knowledge a participant has about theatre processes, perhaps more so than in the traditional dramatic theatre, often criticised for cultural elitism. Despite, or perhaps because, immersive theatre practices espouse immediacy of experience, spontaneity and innovation, they seem inclined to draw on traditional, realist characterization paradigms, as a common performance language. The terms of the contract are most visibly initiated in the appearance and manner of the performer. If it is recognisable, the performers style and language may be adopted by participants hence the parameters of performance remain relatively narrow. This is further informed by existing and ‘accepted’ determinants of everyday ‘natural’ behaviour in public spaces. The ethical problem for the artists devising such work is how to draw ‘naïve’ participants into an augmented if crude range of expressions within a real-seeming immersive environment. Under such conditions a contractual framework is erected hastily and with limited tools. Immersive performance then may derive its dramatic tension predominantly from a shared awareness of insecurity and potential collapse.

Item Type: Book Section
Editors: Frieze, J
Schools: Schools > School of Arts & Media > Arts, Media and Communication Research Centre
Publisher: Palgrave
ISBN: 9781137366030 (print); 9781137366047 (online)
Related URLs:
Funders: Non funded research
Depositing User: RJ Talbot
Date Deposited: 11 Apr 2016 09:20
Last Modified: 15 Feb 2022 20:36

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