From all-night theatre experiences to five minute fixes, theatre shows now come in all shapes and sizes. London Calling's Charlie Kenber explores how theatre shows are adapting to the various challenges thrown up by these changes.
Global theatre is on a growing mission to challenge audiences in new and exciting ways. This should be its permanent role you may say, and you’d be right, but these challenges are increasingly coming in the form of site-specificity and unusual durations. Many theatre-makers are becoming frustrated with what they might see as suffocating theatrical norms which rule that a show must start at 7.30 (or thereabouts), have a 15-20 minute interval (including, of course, drinks and ice-cream), and end with plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep. These same customs keep the audience at bay with the fourth wall, allowing them to experience ‘passive entertainment’.
Now I’m not suggesting by any means that these norms dominate the art form, or that there’s necessarily anything fundamentally wrong with them. Indeed they’ve been torn up in innumerable ways, beautifully, for decades – that is what artistry is all about. But the recent trend is a firmer challenge to time constraints specifically. As Jorge Lopes Ramos, co-director of the six-hour overnight experience that is Hotel Medea put it, “the avant-garde can go back as far as you can trace. Long pieces aren’t new to this century and definitely not to this decade: in fact things used to happen a lot more radically than they do today.”
Hotel Medea then, a project which started six years ago and requires the audience to commit for an entire evening is built on a different relationship with the audience. “The contract is not just buying a ticket, but also giving up that night. You join us in defiance to stay awake no matter what. Therefore the audience member becomes a collaborator, and isn’t just experiencing passive entertainment.”
For Jorge, the show’s development was not based around any ideas of creating something ‘participatory’ or ‘immersive’ (trends which have only emerged more recently), but instead came from a simple, radical question: ‘How do we spend the night together with an audience?’, which emerged at the same time as the collaborators were interested in Medea’s myth. This question in turn led logically to the show’s use of audience participation.
These trends in experimental theatre have been widely varied, and audiences themselves are now less reluctant (and even keen) to attend an event labelling itself as ‘immersive’. The Battersea Arts Centre’s renowned One-on-One Festival has been expanding massively each year: it allows theatre-goers to pick a ‘menu’ of experiences, which vary from five to forty minutes, and take place in usual parts of the Clapham-based building.
Although pretty unique in its overnight nature, Hotel Medea itself is no longer alone in its scope – the recent transfer of Elevator Repair Service’s eight-hour Gatz to the West End as part of LIFT 2012 has drawn critical as well as popular acclaim. The company have become well known in New York for producing lengthy work, whilst skilfully retaining the audience’s focus and attention.
So as experimental companies increasingly stray away from traditional timings, we can expect further transformations in the way in which audiences are expected to attend, as theatre-makers continue to push at the boundaries of theatrical space. Although none of this means that we will lose the arguably great tradition of evening theatre, it will perhaps increasingly be augmented by more experimental work. And long may that great tradition continue as well.
Hotel Medea is on at the Hayward Gallery every Friday and Saturday Night at 11.30pm between July 20th and August 11th. Zero Hour Market (Part I of Hotel Medea) is additionally on as a standalone performance every Thursday at 8pm between July 19th and August 9th. Gatz is running until 15th July at Noël Coward Theatre.
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