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Zack Polanski: Making immersive theatre is a risky venture in need of funding

A promotional image from Differencengine's Hollow Hotel. Photo: Ali Wright A promotional image from DifferencEngine's Hollow Hotel. Photo: Ali Wright
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Working in the arts is hard. It can be beautiful, rewarding, inspiring and often we couldn’t dream of really doing anything else. But it can be a struggle. And for years the question has remained of how to make theatre a more secure, professional industry.

When it comes to immersive theatre, we are in the gold-rush era. A lot of these conversations are just beginning. I was an actor in the recent production of The Hollow Hotel when the production company DifferencEngine was liquidated and, horribly, everyone lost their jobs and all the weeks of artistic development just evaporated.

Cast and crew ‘owed thousands’ as immersive theatre company DifferencEngine goes bust

There has been a lot of focus on what the company did wrong, but while mistakes were undoubtedly made, there should be a much bigger conversation about the difficulties for everyone involved in this art form.

The sheer volume of people involved is the most obvious difficulty. Maintaining that many actors on Equity rates (as DifferencEngine did) is very expensive, and with immersive companies struggling to stay afloat a new model is needed.

Rehearsal periods tend to be short. This is because most truly immersive pieces can’t be rehearsed until there’s an audience in. This generally results in between one and five days of character work, then straight into previews (at reduced ticket prices) to work out how an audience responds. Ideally, a company would then go back into rehearsals without an audience, but the costs often mean it’s necessary to try to fix the show during the run.

There’s greater insecurity to immersive work than its conventional counterpart. Often the producers have to beg landlords for use of the spaces that suits the work, such as disused flats and office buildings ripe for development.

But insecurity around the property market and changing regulations mean developers are often keen for the buildings to be emptied quickly (there may be an opportunity here though – just as security companies place people into buildings to look after them, theatre staff could perform the same function).

Immersive theatre can be a tricky sell because people aren’t sure what it is

Immersive theatre can be a tricky sell because people aren’t sure what it is. The financial risks mean companies tend to focus on the fun, boozy night out game aspect rather than a theatre piece with artistic integrity – not that these things are mutually exclusive.

Above all, it’s a conversation about risk. If arts funding is purely channelled into another A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Pride and Prejudice (as wonderful as they are), where will exciting new companies emerge from to create new, thrilling work? Without funding, how can they offer anything but a model that relies on selling enough alcohol and expensive tickets to a white, middle-class audience?

DifferencEngine is sadly gone and we can salute the wonderful work it made. Perhaps one of its legacies can be to kick-start that bigger conversation about how art is funded, how risk is encouraged and not shamed, and how immersive theatre can thrive.

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