Immersive productions are increasingly popular, but safeguarding issues remain thorny. Anna James speaks to theatremakers about how to keep audience members and performers safe in such close-proximity environments
In the FAQs section on the website for the new immersive production of The Wolf of Wall Street, which opens shortly in London, is the question: “Should I be concerned about the show’s content?”
Given the source material – Jordan Belfort’s 2007 memoir, which was adapted into a Hollywood film six years later – that showed the drug and drink-fuelled excesses of New York’s financial district in the 1980s, it is a question many have been asking in regard to safeguarding the audience and the performers.
The answer on the production’s website reads: “While the story of The Wolf of Wall Street depicts misogyny and depravity at its core, the team behind the production is committed to creating a respectful and happy environment for its audience and staff.”
As the immersive theatre industry expands with new shows, formats and worlds for audiences to play in, the issues around consent and safeguarding remain thorny. While creators are clear it is at the forefront of their minds, immersive theatre is often designed to test boundaries and identities, so how does the necessary and evolved conversation about consent in the age of #MeToo factor into that?
“This is a relatively new kind of form of theatregoing,” says Alexander Wright, the director of The Wolf of Wall Street. “And it gives us an opportunity to create a new set of expectations and boundaries, which is exciting. It’s great to be at this point in that journey.”
He continues: “It’s really important, for me, to always understand that not everything should be immersive theatre. Why, in this instance, is it a good idea to put an audience into the centre of that narrative? It’s an interesting world to unpack – and I make no bones about the fact it’s a very ugly world.
“We ask people to narratively participate in it, and in part to celebrate it – because bits of it are exciting – but also to interrogate it, and to be implicated within it. Hopefully what we do, by making it a creative, immersive piece of work, is to ask an audience to come out of the other side knowing more about how we now look at ourselves and our community.”
Misogyny is an undeniable part of the story of The Wolf of Wall Street. The appeal of being immersed in such behaviour, or asking actors to perform that behaviour in an immersive environment, is up for discussion. “We have taken out a lot of that aspect,” says Wright, who also directed the immersive production of The Great Gatsby, which made its debut at the Waterloo Vaults in 2017. “It’s not something that disappears entirely, but it’s not celebrated, or condoned within the world of that story. We would be naive to take it out entirely because there’s a truth to it, and presumably it still happens, but how we do it with full care for our company, and an audience, is incredibly important – so we can tell those stories in a useful way.”
The issue of consent and protecting performers has been live for some time. Last year, assaults were reported at Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York, as well as The Great Gatsby. Earlier this year immersive theatre came under scrutiny from the union Equity, which feared performers were “exposed to many forms of abuse”, after members identified it as a priority area. In June, Equity launched a survey specifically for immersive theatre professionals to share their experiences as part of their Professionally Made Professionally Paid campaign.
Immersive Wolf has hired Brodie Turner as its dedicated safeguarding, consent and inclusion coordinator. He describes the “multi-layered” systems they have in place including extensive out-of-world and in-world messaging, including post-experience “aftercare”. There is also a code-word system, access to radios and alarm buttons for performers, security on specific tracks, all backed up with CCTV, and a series of physical signals performers can use to alert stage management visually. This is also supported by training in safeguarding policies and its practical implications for all staff members, as well as people trained in mental health support and physical first aid.
Wright is keen to emphasise that “we should always work on the assumption that people are brilliant” but isn’t naive as to the exceptions. All interaction will be by invitation – and audience members will not be invited to get involved in any of the racier scenes or in the behaviour depicted. The protocols and systems will be flexible and responsive, and can be expanded or stepped up to suit whoever attends.
“The nature of the show and the show’s intention will be made clear, and expectations will be set,” Turner says. “The idea that once you put in rules you’re starting to eat away at the magic is not something we fully subscribe to – rather we think the boundaries give you freedom because once you know where they are, you have a full space to enjoy without worrying where the line is.”
Turner didn’t work on Gatsby, but having worked with Wright, he says: “Bringing that expectation setting at the beginning, and having a cool down afterwards – all those things came in relation to those incidents [at Gatsby], which we’re now building on for Wolf.”
Issues of consent are central to the approach of Laura Drake Chambers, the founder and director of Shotgun Carousel, which put on its first immersive theatre show last autumn – Divine Proportions at the Vaults. A queer cabaret dining show themed around Greek mythology, it will be followed this month by Red Palace, which will fuse Poe’s Masque of the Red Death with gender-playful fairytales. “As artists and creators we should be challenging sexual politics and gender constructs and the narrative we all exist in,” she says. “I want to hear stories told differently, rather than just played over and over again.”
Despite the show’s explicit content being about consent, feminism and gender identity, incidents were almost entirely perpetrated by women. Molly Beth Morossa, who played Aphrodite and Persephone in the show, dealt with several instances of inappropriate language and touching from female audience members: “It made me so despondent. It was so brazen, as well. Because you’re female, and I have a female-appearing body, that’s not a contract, that’s not an invitation, that gives you no rights to touch me. Yes, you’re part of a group of people who are systematically oppressed, but the same rules apply to you.”
Divine Proportions used a traffic-light system to deal with issues, which stage manager Ruth Parry developed with the venue and the company. The three tiers – complete with Greek mythology code words – ranged from green (“Medusa”) to signal someone that needed an eye on them, through amber (“Minotaur”) for someone who was taken out of the world and spoken to but allowed back in, to red (“Cyclops”) for someone who was immediately ejected. Parry also works closely with performers from rehearsals through to performances and keeps notes on the specific boundaries and limits for each person. Her advice is: “There will always be something that’s missed. Expect what you would never expect. Put time into it.”
Andrea Moccia, senior producer at Secret Cinema, also emphasises the importance of ensuring the rules are clear, especially for first-time attendees: “I don’t think behaviour is getting worse, but there are more people new to this form of entertainment being exposed to it. It’s up to us as the organiser that they know what the rules of the game are. So we know there can be absolutely no instance in which the audience member can say: ‘Sorry, I didn’t know that was out of order.’ By being here, we know you’ve acknowledged our communications.
Secret Cinema has created worlds full of sex, violence, and scares, but for Moccia it’s “about how you frame the conversation”. Every show it does is connected with a relevant political conversation, and charity. For the current production of Casino Royale, it has partnered with CALM, a male mental health and suicide-prevention charity, and points such as interrogation scenes are often challenged in-world. “We have quite strong values,” Moccia says. “We have done productions in the past that have been very political – we’re not going to shy away from that, we always have a very strong message.”
The conversation around whether any art needs a message is as big as that around consent, but a relevant one when inviting people into immersive worlds. “No matter what your intention, the thing that’s being made is going to have an impact or influence outside of its own control,” says Morossa. “It can have such a personal effect. When you put a piece of art out there, it’s going to be interpreted. It’s a bit like a Rorschach test.”
Perhaps the conversation that matters most is not what the logistics and protocols are – those should be non-negotiable, well thought-through by people with experience – but the purpose of inviting people to explore certain worlds and what creators want audiences to take away from them.
“We walk a really fine line,” Chambers of Shotgun Carousel says. “It’s escapism, and we want people to invest. We want people to tumble and tumble – but not too far. And agency for performers, constant stage management presence, good codes, good procedures – all of these things are the tools to find that sweet spot and protect it.”
The Wolf of Wall Street runs from September 19 until January 19, 2020