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Lyn Gardner: It’s time to discuss protecting performers in immersive shows

Thomas Maller in The Great Gatsby when the immersive show was at Vault Festival, London Thomas Maller in The Great Gatsby when the immersive show was at Vault Festival, London
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Alexander Wright is about to open a new version of his successful immersive production of The Great Gatsby in a disused pub in Mold as part of Theatr Clwyd’s spring season.

The Guild of Misrule’s show has previously enjoyed runs in York, Sheffield, at the Vault Festival in 2017 and, since last year, at a location in Borough in London, where it regularly sells out and employs a cast and crew of 40 people.

Wright is justifiably proud that the production has attracted new audiences, but he thinks there needs to be an industry-wide conversation about safeguarding everyone involved in immersive theatre productions – to share experiences and develop best practice.

There is an urgent reason: despite the considerable safeguarding in place for The Great Gatsby at its London venue, in the past two weeks there have been two incidents of alleged sexual assault on cast members during the show. In both incidents the police were called.

Last month, Buzzfeed detailed 17 incidents of groping or sexual misconduct by audience members involving the cast of Punchdrunk’s long-running version of Sleep No More in New York. Last week in The Stage, aerialist Rebecca Rennison, performing in Becoming Shades at Vault Festival, spoke of the difficulty of performing for drunken audiences, saying ushers had to ensure people kept their distance.

Aerialist Rebecca Rennison: ‘We need ushers to keep drunk audience members away from performers’

The code of behaviour drawn up by Vicky Featherstone and London’s Royal Court in response to allegations of widespread harassment in the industry aims to ensure that those working in theatre can expect to be treated with respect by those they are working with.

An Equity report into sexual harassment in performing arts last week called on the industry to adopt proper codes of conduct to stamp out harassment and protect people working in all areas of theatre. Equity vice-president Maureen Beattie said a change of culture was necessary in the industry that had in the past “protected” perpetrators.

But what if the perpetrators are paying audience members? And is there something particular about the nature of immersive theatre, in which the traditional boundaries between performer and audience are breached, that makes casts more vulnerable to abuse?

I have written in the past that immersive theatre changes the contract between performers and audience, and how that can sometimes feel uncomfortable for an audience because they are not quite sure of the rules and will often go along with anything for fear of being made to look stupid.

But I’ve also had conversations with theatremakers about how audiences have become  much bolder in their interactions with the cast as immersive theatre has become more common. But these incidents of sexual assault on performers in their place of work show the dark side of these interactions.

As Wright observes: “It is difficult when audiences start stepping outside the invitation of the show.” This is why the extent of the invitation needs to be clear.

Like many people, I thought the anonymity afforded by the masks worn by the audience might be the reason why Sleep No More has been particularly prone to having cast members assaulted. But The Great Gatsby affords no such disguise to its audience.

There are probably other factors at play: the darkness, the intimacy of the relationship between cast and audience and the fact that audiences have often had a drink or two. Alcohol is definitely a factor in audience behaviour, as shows such as Dirty Dancing, which retain the fourth wall but have had to employ bouncers to keep audiences in check, attest.

Wright and the management of The Great Gatsby thought they had robust safeguards in place before the recent incidents, but they have significantly upped them with tiers of code words available to cast and crew, and hidden whistles, torches and radios in every room. They also remind audiences before the show that there is zero tolerance of abusive behaviour towards cast or fellow guests.

What they have also done is reframed the way that audiences are met and briefed so that warnings about abusive behaviour are pressed home before the audience is plunged into the immersive world of Jay Gatsby and his friends. It reminds those attending that the show is a piece of theatre, and one that they want audiences to enjoy to the full, but that any abusive behaviour has consequences in the real world.

Last week’s shows were the first to put the new safeguarding practices into place, and it will be interesting to see what effect they have on audience behaviours. But all power to the Guild of Misrule for being honest enough to admit there is a problem and trying to open up an industry-wide conversation about it.

Abuse is abuse whether the perpetrators work within the industry or are part of the audience, and actors have as much right to protection as employees in any other industry.

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