In the progressive theatre world, away (usually!) from the bright lights of the West End musicals… ‘Interactive theatre’ is a term that is cropping up more and more. But precicely what is it? What defines it? Is it a genre? And if so, are there certain conventions that an ‘interactive’ show must follow to be deemed as such? Is it more of a sliding scale? A scale by which every show has a degree of ‘interactive’ elements? At the Oval House, the creative team behind fanSHEN theatre as well as some special guests from other fields, lead a discussion on the subject in conjunction with their latest production, ‘Invisible Treasure’.
Having had no previous experience of fanSHEN, Tipping Point or indeed even the Ovalhouse, I arrived completely in the dark, but with an acute sense of intrigue at what was to follow…
In order to root the discussion that followed, I will first explain a little about fanSHEN; who they are, what they do, and why it is their latest production that is kicking off the debate. Their goals, are truly everything I believe theatre and performance needs to be in the 21st century:
Their show, Invisible Treasure was not quite like anything I had ever experienced before. As a group of approximately 20, the ‘audience’ are invited to enter the ‘performance space’. As is increasingly common with interactive theatre, there are no seats, no ticket numbers and on entering the room, very little in the way of set. An all white room, unbroken except for some gauze ‘windows’, randomly spaced blue circles of carpet on the floor and strangely, a large white rabbit sat in the corner of the room. A small screen adorns the wall, a projector and a camera are placed in the centre of the ceiling. The lights dim. The show begins.
What follows, is a series of words, displayed across the small screen. Instructions, riddles, puzzling and not straightforward, this is the only ‘outside’ influence on the room, which responds to the 20 of us within. As a group, we attempt to follow the words. Some require us to make noise, other require us to move or interact with each other in certain ways, presumably observed by the camera above our heads. Each instruction/riddle is preceded by a ‘level’, a way of dividing up each action and suggesting we are progressing through the piece. We are also granted two ‘bonus rounds’ of ‘free play’ in which we collectively play a game above our heads, and also dance together. Mysteriously, the rabbit in the corner, communicates his approval or disapproval by changing color, moving his ears and even blowing bubbles. Ultimately, we cannot solve the final puzzle (Level 6). The stress caused by trying to solve what we are being asked to do, creates friction in the group and we find ourselves divide into three: those trying to lead the solving of the puzzle, those going along with the leaders and carrying out their theories and the third sub-group, who disengaged. The ‘performance’ ended when one of us shouted a profanity out load, directed at the screen, and whoever was controlling it. To our surprise, it was this that released us from the room. “System Failure”, the screen declared, the mysterious rabbit split apart down the middle and we filed out, one by one. Had we won? Had we lost? What was our reward? Instead, we found ourselves ‘backstage’, the mystery of the room and its controllers revealed as we were confronted by three men and a women sat calmly at computers, and a ply-board set we could walk all the way round the outside of, assembled in a small room. Previous ‘audience’ members had scribbled notes, questions and answers, which we could contribute to. And suddenly… it wasn’t a game anymore.
But why? What was the point? And is this really theatre, when there isn’t an actor in sight?
That’s where the discussion came in…
Notes to Follow.