Anyone who has lost a weekend watching an entire box set of Homeland, Breaking Bad or The West Wing knows the dangerously addictive quality the TV episodic structure can have. Radio also plays this game – who hasn’t been left clinging to a cliff hanger desperate for next week’s instalment of The Archers? But what about live art? Excitingly, it appears theatre companies are getting in on the act and serializing theatre.
In a world driven by short attention spans and compartmentalising minds, an episodic structure enables us to tell epic stories that span decades. In 2011, the Bush Theatre produced a response to each book of the Bible with Sixty-Six Books. You could watch them in a selection of instalments over a two-week period or in 12 and 24 hour marathons (as I did). While many of the individual stories stood alone, Sixty-Six Books enabled the broader narrative of the Bible to be told, albeit often refracted through a secular prism, to a modern audience. It also gave space for in depth analysis and commentary on this narrative.
Tackling something equally as vast are Nature Theater of Oklahoma, who in Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 tell the story of one woman’s life from her earliest memories to adolescence. Episode 5 is on the way in an ever-developing piece that can also be seen in one marathon sitting or in instalments. The company believe that “epic stories need epic forms” but are canny enough to accept that not everyone has ten hours – the complete running time – in one go to spare.
The serialisation of theatre not only offers the ability to tell epic stories in an accessible way without compromising on quality, within immersive theatre events it also allows for a collective conversation for those who are experiencing a show between instalments. This ability to compare and contrast choices made and experiences felt encourages a deeper connection with the work for each audience member.
Leading the way here are fringe theatre company RETZ, who last year serialized The Tempest into six distinctive experiences over the course of six months. The telling of one story in smaller chunks O Brave New World was not a case of connecting independent narratives but – similar to a TV/radio structure – of building up momentum through each episode to build up audience interest for one large conclusion.
This year they are back with The Trial – a one-on-one, site specific version of Kafka’s The Trial performed across various spaces in east London. This time, the retelling encompasses two parts, each a month apart. The time in between provides space for conversation and a collective building of excitement that encourages audiences not only to return, but to speak about the project in anticipation of the next chapter.
Our obsession with TV box sets proves people love the chance to return to something, following a trail of narrative breadcrumbs that draws you in bit by bit.
Will this trend in theatre continue to grow? You’ll have to tune in next week to find out.