I’m so happy I found Found111: a shout-out for pop-up theatres

 

111 Charing Cross Road
111 Charing Cross Road in its pre-theatre days. https://schauwerte.wordpress.com/

A dingy motel room you reach by climbing winding stairs, mismatched wooden chairs, bare concrete walls and a hard-to-spot entrance don’t sound desirable but in the theatre space Found111 they add up to a very special kind of magic. Found111 has to be one of the most atmospheric venues of 2016. Once home to Saint Martin’s School of Art, the place feels saturated with past creativity and it’s the perfect location for the intense, claustrophobic plays seen here, including latest dark offering Fool for Love. It’s been a great chance to see some big names performing in a really intimate space. (Bug was my particular skin-crawling highlight). Sadly, the life of Found 111 will come to an end on 17th December, but producer Emily Dobbs who brought us this exciting pop-up theatre is currently searching for a new venue.

The only additional benefit I’d hope for in the next Found incarnation is a space accessible to more theatregoers. I did find climbing those winding steps to the performance space high in the building very  magical, but it’s a magic I’m willing to lose if it means more people can see the shows. A fully accessible venue would be a great aim for the next one. And I really, really hope there is a next one…

St Martin's School of Art
Before the theatre… St Martin’s School of Art, 2006. By Tarquin Binary (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

But just what makes found spaces so special?

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk work on a grand scale, turning former warehouses and old post office buildings into vast, rambling, detailed worlds. Pop-up bars are springing up everywhere from roof gardens to garages. You can go back in time, play games, get mysterious invites to secret locations. Pop-up theatre feels very now. There’s something electric yet comforting about taking an abandoned, no-longer-loved space and filling it with people and energy. In today’s wasteful world it seems right to recycle a derelict building and bring it back to life again.

The history printed in the bones of the space make it special too. If you borrow a costume from the National Theatre costume hire, inside you’ll find a tag with the name of the play it first came from, the name of the actor who wore it and the name of the character they played. History, stitched right inside, always a part of it. Found spaces are a bit like that. Sometimes the story is macabre. The Vaults, a thrilling space under Waterloo station was once part of the London Necropolis Railway, which carried the dead to cemeteries outside the city.

I’ve even experimented a bit with found spaces myself back in my drama student days where along with my trusty companions, we turned the concrete pergola at Brunel University into a house, complete with bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. We begged abandoned furniture, baths, carpets and even an old toilet from the maintenance team and local businesses and intended to spend an entire day living there. Unfortunately, staging an outdoor performance in November is rarely advisable and after several hours of shivering in an icy rain we were advised to abandon the performance a little earlier than planned but I’d like to think the pergola still remembers the day it became outdoor accommodation.

Performance art at Brunel University
‘Plethora’ moving into the Brunel University pergola and almost freezing to death in the process.

 

Performance art at Brunel University
Doing a jigsaw in the rain at the outdoor house
The Pergola, Brunel University
The Brunel University Pergola. Does it remember being a performance space? Image © Copyright Basher Eyre and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Immersive and pop-up theatre covers so many different experiences from the sublime to the ridiculous but there really is something for everyone. If you’re shy about getting too involved, pick a quirky venue which stages plays rather than devised or participatory work. Large scale productions like Punchdrunk’s work do give you an incredible experience, but there are lots of smaller venues and pieces out there too where you can get really up close and personal.

Design my Night and Time Out  list immersive theatre, games and dining. For lots of different pop-up experiences including bars, cinema and circus check out The Nudge.

For something a little more experimental, the annual VAULT festival returns in 2017 with six weeks of adventure and exploration underground.  Also Brighton Fringe is a great way to try out all kinds of different work.

And of course don’t forget to visit Found111 if you haven’t already for a bittersweet goodbye…I can’t wait to see where I will find Found next!

Backstage Theatre Tours: Why do they exist and what is the audience experience? Some initial questions.

Many theatres now offer tours, from large organisations such as the National Theatre and Barbican to smaller venues like Wilton’s Music Hall. Tours can provide a useful revenue stream but are often part of a wider programme of a widening participation or audience engagement, aiming to increase and diversify audiences and strengthen their connection to the theatre, or to build links with festivals such as Open House or community events. Their perceived value in this area is pointed to by increasing investment from arts organisations which employ strategies from targeted marketing to extensive programmes of workshops, talks and tours, and campaigns such as the European Union’s ‘European Route of Historic Theatres’ in collaboration with the Theatres Trust, which aims to increase participation in theatre tours across Europe. Increasing diversity and engagement of audiences also features on political and social agendas. The Scottish Government uses increase of cultural engagement as a National Indicator, claiming it ‘impacts positively on general wellbeing’ and the DCMS Taking Part Survey collects cultural engagement data and socio-demographic information on respondents.

But to do the experiences and perceived value of accessing backstage ascribed by the institutions and creators coincide with the actual audience experience? And exactly how does allowing audience ‘behind-the-scenes’ affect the relationships between theatres and their and audiences?

Why do people choose to take backstage theatre tours? It’s interesting to look at immersive theatre as an example. Immersive theatre – albeit with a range of interpretations – is becoming a familiar term to more and more theatre-goers. Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s New York based production Sleep No More has been playing continuously to audiences since 2011 and smaller scale immersive productions abound in arenas such as Brighton Fringe Festival and venues like the Waterloo Vaults. Gareth White suggests that one attraction of immersive theatre is the audience’s competitive thirst for ‘being able to see what is otherwise hidden’ (White, 2002, p229) and Keren Zaiontz, in reference to Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, identifies how audiences used social media after the event to ‘maximize their spectatorship’, competitively comparing and sharing their experiences.(Zaiontz 2014 p405)

Perhaps there is a similarity worth exploring here. Backstage tours can also offer a chance to plunge behind, beneath and below; to ascribe personal narratives on to mundane spaces and things ‘elevated by the extraordinary place in which they are set’ (Fear & Gammon 2005 p247). Backstage tours are regularly advertised as unique or unseen as producers exploit the desire for a secret or priority experience and accounts of the tour journey and en-route ‘selfies’ are posted by audiences on social media and digital platforms. Is this engagement merely superficial and symptomatic of a spectator’s competitive desire to consume as much of an experience as possible? Or does this afterlife have value in contributing to the audience experience and in relationship-building between audiences and organizations?

I’m interested in exploring all of these questions further to try and understand how and why audiences access, consume and value backstage theatre experiences. I also want to investigate how the audience’s desire for the experience provided by backstage theatre tours (and subsequent sharing via social media) is pragmatically applied by organizations to increase cultural engagement in theatre and build closer relationships with their audiences. Finally, I’d like to develop a critical framework for analyzing backstage theatre tours within the fields of theatre and performance studies.

For more information visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

Bibliography / suggested reading:

Bennett, Theatre Audiences, London and New York: Routledge, (1990)

Donovan, Claire, ‘A holistic approach to valuing our culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport’, 10 May 2013 www.gov.uk/government/collections/taking-part/a-holistic-approach-to-valuing-our-culture ret. 24/01/15

Gammon, Sean and Fear, Victoria ‘Stadia tours and the power of backstage’ in Journal of Sport Tourism 10(4) Routledge, (2005) pp243–252

Machon, Josephine, Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance, Palgrave Macmillan (2013)

Sakellaridou, Elizabeth, ‘“Oh My God, Audience Participation!”: Some Twenty-First-Century Reflections’ Comparative Drama, Vol 28, No 1-2 (Spring- Summer 2014) pp13-38

Schechner, ‘Behaviour, Performance, and Performance Space’ Perspecta, Vol 26 The MIT Press (1990) pp97-102

Schechner, ‘Mainstream Theatre and Performance Studies’ TDR, Vol 44, No. 2 The MIT Press (Summer 2000) pp4-6

The British Theatre Consortium: Janelle Reinelt, (P.I.), David Edgar, Chris Megson, Dan Rebellato, Julie Wilkinson, Jane Woddis, ‘Critical Mass: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ AHRC (2014)

Thompson, Robert C, ‘“Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’: Gettysburg Ghost Tours and the Performance of Belief’ in The Journal of American Culture, Volume 33, Number 2 (June 2010) pp80-91

White, Gareth, ‘On Immersive Theatre’ in Theatre Research International, Cambridge University Press, Oct 2012, 37/3 pp221-235

Zaiontz, Keren, ‘Narcissistic Spectatorship in Immersive and One-On-One Performance’ in Theatre Journal, Volume 66, Number 3, October 2014, pp. 405-425

www.scotland.gov.uk/About/Performance/scotperforms/indicator/culture (ret. 29/01/15)