Bertie Watkins is artistic director of Colab Theatre, which has recently opened a new immersive venue in a former pub in Elephant and Castle for the company’s latest show Crooks 1926. He talks to Giverny Masso about different genres of immersive theatre and offers his advice for new companies…
How did Crooks 1926 come about?
We’ve done a production called Crooks before, which was set in the 1990s, and I thought it would be nice to do a story about the predecessors of the gang. I love the idea of a gang’s den and what happens in there, and what kind of environment it would feel like. I saw the King William IV pub, which is the venue for the show, two years ago. I started researching Elephant and Castle for what crime was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, and it turns out it was a hive of criminal activity. Alice Diamond was one of the most interesting characters of the era: she ran the Forty Elephants, which was an all-female gang. She went out with someone called Bert McDonald who was one of the other big gang leaders in Elephant and Castle. After doing the research, it all started clicking into place.
Tell me about the Colab Factory?
We opened it three years ago as a space for people to do some immersive theatre. I always find that as an artist practising immersive theatre, it’s really difficult to find or to negotiate with theatres that are used to a stage and normal lighting. It is hard trying to explain what immersive is and getting them to open the door to you because, usually, it doesn’t make as much money as a normal sit-down show and requires twice as much work. So it was it nice to open up this space. We did loads of little shows, then The Great Gatsby came along and that was the biggest success, running for two and a half years, which was brilliant.
I always find that as an artist practising immersive theatre, it’s really difficult to find or to negotiate with theatres that are used to a stage and normal lighting
How do you define immersive theatre?
I think because Punchdrunk basically created immersive theatre, and called it immersive theatre, everyone thought that immersive was a practice rather than a design term. I try and break it down: “Is it immersive by design, is it interactive or traditional?” We discuss it at the Factory because a lot of people say their show is immersive, but how is it immersive? Anything can be immersive – you can have an immersive bar experience, you can have an immersive cup of tea. It’s nice to feel that people get what you mean when you say immersive. They get that it’s slightly interactive and you’re probably going to stand up a bit and you’re interacting with the environment a bit more. I break it down into whether the audience is sat down or promenading; are they autonomous? Then we’ve got design, which is traditional, immersive or pervasive. Pervasive theatre takes you outside and on the street, because pervasive is the theory of blurring the line between reality and fiction.
How do you characterise the type of theatre created by Colab?
We’re trying to pioneer a thing called action theatre. I describe ‘game theatre’ as being completely reliant on the audience interacting to enable the show to go ahead, while ‘action theatre’ sits a bit in between that and more traditional theatre. You need the audience to interact but the show still carries on even if it doesn’t.
What is your advice to companies that are new to immersive theatre?
Don’t rush into a venue that seems too good to be true, because it usually is too good to be true. When I see a building, I can see where the money needs to go to make it operable. That’s really difficult because estate agents and owners try to cover that up as much as possible until you get the building, and it’s only when you start spending money that you realise there are thousands of problems. My advice would be to get someone who knows buildings to take a look at it. It’s knowing what you can do yourself, and knowing when you need to get a professional in.
Training: Young People’s Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre (2009)
First professional role: Young producer at Battersea Arts Centre (2009)
Crooks 1926 is at the Colab Pub in Elephant and Castle, London until May 30. Details: colabtheatre.co.uk