As interactive shows have hit the mainstream in the past 20 years, their success has sometimes been tempered with failure. Specifiq’s Oscar Blustin and Becky Brown tell Fergus Morgan how informal meetings for like-minded creatives have turned into a vital forum that aims to keep the art form artistically and commercially viable
If the first decade of the 21st century heralded the explosive birth of immersive and interactive theatre as we think of it now, then the 2010s are the genre’s troubled adolescence. Issues of long-term financial viability, creative boundaries and sustainable growth regularly rear their head in a theatre form that is still rapidly developing.
One organisation is looking to tackle those problems head on. The Gunpowder Plot is an association of immersive and interactive theatre professionals working to build the support network and creative partnerships that are vital for the sector to flourish.
The group is organised by immersive theatre and events company Specifiq, and jointly run by its artistic director Oscar Blustin and creative producer Becky Brown.
“The name was put to a vote,” Blustin says. “We were in one of the private meeting rooms at the George Inn [on London’s Borough High Street], with a fire burning, sitting at a long table. It was very atmospheric. You can guess what time of year it was.”
The Gunpowder Plot started in 2013 as a regular get-together of immersive theatre specialists at Theatre Delicatessen’s now defunct space on Marylebone High Street, where Brown worked as a production manager. Immersive companies and creatives regularly worked in the building, and monthly meet-ups sprang up as a forum for sharing ideas.
“I recognised that there were all these incredible people with incredible ideas and wanted to create a space where we could talk about those ideas, and talk about the stuff we were working on,” says Brown. “It was informal. There was a bar. We just kind of sat around having a few drinks and talked about what we were making. And there was an appetite for that.”
Blustin continues: “I think that while traditional theatre has such an established way of going about things, with immersive theatre every show is reinventing the form, so it’s so much harder to find a knowledge base to call on, and that’s always been a central idea behind these meetings.
“How can we create an archive, a catalogue of material for people to call on? How can we create a system like that, a resource for immersive companies to use?”
When Theatre Delicatessen’s Marylebone building shut down in 2014, the informal get-togethers ceased, but it wasn’t long before companies and creatives realised what they were missing. The first formal meeting, at which the network’s name was agreed on, took place in November 2016.
“We formalised these things into a monthly chat where we’d send out a topic in advance and meet up, ideally in a different location each month,” says Blustin. “Some pubs, some venues, some museums. We’d always try to invite a specialist who knew a bit more about that month’s topic, too.”
The discussions covered a huge range of topics, he continues. “Some discussions were quite creative. What’s the furthest place we can take an audience member to?, for example. Then at the other end of the spectrum, how can we create a culture of health and safety in immersive theatre? The full range from creative to logistical.”
Those monthly meetings remain at the core of the Gunpowder Plot’s activities, but since that first get-together at the George Inn, they’ve also instituted regular events where a wider group of companies and individuals interested in immersive theatre can make connections.
“The regular meetings have been kept small because we want it to be a fruitful place for dialogue and also because once you get over a certain threshold, those sorts of events become difficult to organise,” says Brown. “But we also recognise that there are so many people in the industry we want to provide a platform for.”
The first networking event two years ago hosted about 45 people. Since then they have hosted three more and the numbers have grown “exponentially”. Brown says: “The last one we hosted had about 110 people at it. We had all the big players in the industry, including Punchdrunk, but we also had academics, escape-room makers, technical professionals, actors, and representatives from potential venues – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and Historic Royal Palaces.”
The Gunpowder Plot is now the largest forum for immersive and interactive theatre in the country, but it’s looking to evolve further. Details of this development are yet to be announced, but it is designed to make the network more accessible for aspiring immersive theatremakers and to help the industry overcome some of the challenges it faces.
First and foremost, that means working to ensure the long-term financial stability of immersive and interactive companies, young and old. In the immersive sector, financial peril is never far away: one of the Gunpowder Plot’s original companies, DifferencEngine, went bust earlier this year owing thousands of pounds to the cast and crew of its ill-fated immersive show The Hollow Hotel.
“In the last year, there have been a number of high-profile stories about shows not succeeding,” says Blustin. “That is incredibly sad to see, but hopefully it’s something the Gunpowder Plot can protect against by creating a culture where that’s less likely to happen.”
Essential to that is the provision of an accessible resource on how to create sustainable immersive theatre – a collection of the knowledge and experience gathered by the Gunpowder Plot. “The hope is that we can provide, as well as these forums for discussion, a really clear framework,” Blustin says, “almost a guidebook, on how to access a building that isn’t currently a venue, how to convert that into a venue, how to promote an immersive show through the right channels, because all of that is different from traditional theatre.”
That includes advice on how best to establish the commercial partnerships that have proved invaluable for the survival of immersive theatre in recent years. “Unlike traditional theatre, which is there to tell stories and provide entertainment, immersive theatre has been used as a vehicle for other ends in recent years,” he explains. “We’ve seen countless brands turn to immersive theatre for product launches and for advertising. We are hoping to provide opportunities and connections with those more commercial opportunities, because we want to offer ways for artists to make a living as well as to make art.”
That’s not all the Gunpowder Plot is focused on developing, however. Blustin and Brown are keen to establish regional events, to foster relationships with similar networks abroad, to provide more apprenticeships and internships within immersive companies, and to establish clear career pathways for anyone interested in the industry.
All this development depends on funding. The backing of a major theatre would be a game-changer for the group, say Blustin and Brown. “It comes down to support from other institutions, and whether we can find a mainstream theatre to support us,” Blustin says. “That will ultimately affect the final format.”
Their dream is for a well-known theatrical institution to step up. “Instead of saying that they’re going to be another proponent of traditional theatre, [we want to hear] that they’re going to be the industry bastion that gets behind immersive and interactive theatre as a clear and evolving part of the industry,” Blustin says. “No one has really done that yet. Some places have made big commitments, but no one has come out and planted their flag.”
Participants: More than 200 active members
Notable participants: Meet-ups have been attended by representatives from the Science Museum, Historic Royal Palaces, Punchdrunk Enrichment, Vault Festival, Time Run, Fire Hazard, Natural History Museum, Guild of Misrule, Hartshorn-Hook, COLAB, Heritage Arts and leading immersive academics
Key contact: The Gunpowder Plot is run by Specifiq. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org