It’s play time: How much interactivity can one take?

Roger Foss
,

With interactive theatre without actors on the horizon at BAC, theatre critic Roger Foss argues that performance should be left to performers rather than audience members

“Work, work your thoughts,” says the prologue to Henry V, Act III. You know, it’s that key moment in the play where the actor playing the Chorus encourages the audience to imagine flotillas of warships sailing to France, before Henry’s troops go “once more unto the breach”.

But try and work your thoughts to imagine a theatre where there are no actors and there is no stage, where the performance is “performer-less”, and where the place only comes to life when the punters roll-up their sleeves and become interactively involved. Welcome to BAC.

Reading the recent press release for this sparky south London venue’s forthcoming Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us season, I thought, how much more interactivity can a man take? In these democratic days, we’re expected to participate at just about every level, even voting for the cast of West End shows on TV. And now the two Davids (Jubb and Micklem), the dynamic duo who have transformed BAC into one of London’s must-go venues, are inviting us to take part in what’s described as “interactive gaming” and join in with A Small Town Anywhere, the season’s centrepiece, in which audience members will play all the roles in a create your own neighbourhood game.

I wish I could buy into the BAC buzz. I suppose it’s okay to have a bash at making your own little home sweet home amidst the Victorian grandiosity of the former Old Battersea Town Hall. But the truth is, it all sounds suspiciously like Legoland on Lavender Hill.

And all these audience members interacting instead of actual actors reminds me of Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, where anyone can become living art. I mean, who needs artists or sculptors when you’ve got citizen-statues? And who needs living actors when at BAC, you’ve got Home Sweet Home, an event where a troupe of citizen-actors construct houses from bits and pieces?

For the price of a ticket, everyone can be an actor, a playwright, a designer or a director now.

Of course, the trouble is there’s no instant label for actor-less theatre. Site-specific? Installation? Stunt? Happening? Whatever the moniker, I have to confess that it might be for them and it might be for now, but it’s really not for me.

Still, I can see some attraction in becoming a kidult and playing with a doll’s house in a romper room for a couple of hours.

And it’s fairly obvious too that, whether it’s amazingly brilliant or utterly pointless, non-narrative theatre ticks all those artistically correct boxes for Arts Council England funding wonks.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no theatrical oldie stuck in a proscenium timewarp. I’ve earned my participation stripes – and I don’t mean shouting “behind you” at panto time. I signed-on for those epic eighties Welfare State International spectacles such as The Raising of the Titanic and, more recently, maxed out on interaction at Shunt events and extravaganzas created by the inventive Punchdrunk crew, including the audience-driven Masque of the Red Death (a BAC co-production).

I know, too, that innovation is the lifeblood of theatre. But today’s shock of the new invariably becomes tomorrow’s mainstream. So don’t let’s kid ourselves that vogue-ish theatrical interactivity is anything more profound than a chance to grab a slice of live, edgy action in a bland, broadband world. Otherwise, we’ll devalue the traditional playwright with a view on life and downgrade the link between author, actor and audience that makes theatre a unique, lived experience.

Then it’s only a short step before we begin to distrust the age-old organic vitality of language itself. By definition, performer-less performance is also wordless.

You see, it’s a profound mistake to assume that the traditional story-actor-spectator relationship has to be a deadening social control device, or that hip and happening audience interactivity is in the vanguard of liberation.

Typically, the venerable Peter Brook hit the nail when he warned that: “Tradition itself, in times of dogmatism and dogmatic revolution, is a revolutionary force which must be safeguarded.”

After all, the ritual of performing stories for an audience (large or tiny) in a public space (indoors or alfresco) has never lost its mojo – and surely never will, for as long as human beings plod the planet, unless there’s some sort of genetic mutation and we end up just Googling ourselves into a state where interactive, video game drama replaces the real thing. It’s embedded in our souls – a gift from the gods, if you like.

For me, sitting in the crowd watching Phil Willmott’s powerful outdoor reinvention of Medea at the Scoop at More London this summer was a reminder that our brains still clock-up collective emotional overtime when we interact with timeless stories, just like they did when Euripides was plodding this mortal coil.

In fact, it’s the same experience when actors perform any play by a writer who holds a mirror up to life and gives it an imaginative twist for the stage. Think Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, Wilde, Pinter, Beckett, Orton, Stoppard, Rattigan, Churchill, Ayckbourn, Miller, Coward, Hare, Tennessee Williams, Roy Williams, Sarah Kane – emotional and intellectual participation is irresistible.

Or take Polly Stenham’s Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court earlier this year. Performed in a traditional living room set with a cast of real actors, her play connected with today’s murky moral universe far more effectively than any “performer-less performance” could ever achieve.

Talk about “work your thoughts”. My mind still boggles. For me, that’s real interactivity.

* Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us runs at BAC from October 14 to November 7.

* Next week, BAC artistic directors David Jubb and David Micklem respond. If you have any comments on this topic, email them to editor@thestage.co.uk.

Search more roles

Also in Features