What drew you towards doing an immersive piece?
I was originally approached by members of TBC to see if I’d be interested. I’d literally just seen a number of immersive shows overseas, some had worked and some hadn’t which gave me a clear indication of what I liked and what I didn’t like in immersive theatre. When done right it has a unique way of allowing an audience member to choose their own path; in a sense create their own story. It made me reminisce about the ‘Choose your own adventure books’ - which I loved as a child, so that’s the thing that excited me. Most of the immersive works I had seen which worked had no words and could be timed musically. This show was to have no music and dialogue which created a whole new set of problems when it comes to timing scenes which all had to happen in different places at the same time. The challenge of this is what drew me to the piece. It was something I hadn’t done before – which was quite exciting.
What was your process in the development of the show?
As there was no script in the beginning we had to work backwards to develop the show. The original story that was presented focused on a central storyline. With an immersive piece multiple storyline have to be happening at once. Clare and I worked together to expand on what she had already written to include more characters and to raise the stakes. Drawing from the large amount of research Clare had done on the period of the 1890’s a background story was created for each character. I then told actors they were not to share any of the details of their history or secrets to anyone else unless information directly related to that other character. It was up to them to discover this information during the rehearsals through the improvisations. This helped provide true responses and excitement in the actors and helped them learn how to manipulate and trick each other into revealing information. This would also help Clare in deciding how and when to reveal information in the scenes.
I worked a lot with Laban in the initial stages to help the actors find how the physical can influence character and the way one reacts in different situations as opposed to having them improvise as themselves. As we discovered the characters more we learnt how they would respond to each other which ultimately led to scenes in the play.
In the back of my mind all the time was how all these scenes were going to fit in with each other and how they would move in the space knowing that there would be multiple scenes happening at once. Many of the exercises I gave the actors was used to help them make discoveries, putting them into scenarios which forced information to be revealed, but also to help me know if the order of scenes would work in the timeline that Clare and I had created.
What’s been the most exciting part for you in putting this production together?
Seeing it come together. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking ‘Have I made the right choices here? Is this actually working?’ Because it wasn’t actually until the first run whether I had any idea if it was all going to work – and so that was very exciting when it did. Also seeing what the actors came up with during their improvisations in rehearsals. There were always surprises and things you weren’t expecting which added and helped develop the story– so that was great.
You mentioned working in your head, then coming together in the building – did you find your theatrical instincts useful for an immersive work? Or is putting something like this together a different skill?
This is the first time I have directed an immersive piece before so yes I drew on much of my theatrical experience to pull it together but there was a lot to learn for all of us. There was a lot of trial and error. But I knew from the beginning how I wanted the piece to work so it was just a case of finding ways to make that happen.
Immersive theatre works best in my mind when there is intimacy where the audience feels like they are getting a personal story or engagement, so you need to have interaction. However, with the immersive side of this show you are reliant on timing. You can’t engage too much with an audience member otherwise you can’t move the story forward and you throw the timing out. But you still need to make an audience member feel part of it and to encourage them to explore. This was the challenge I gave to the actors; to find ways to invite the audience to follow them or to investigate a room without doing so with words?
You’ve been given a lot of praise about the timing of the show throughout the house – how did you manage to get that right?
A lot of planning. So, Clare (the writer) and I worked quite hard and had a lot of discussions over the timeline of things, so we literally, Clare in particular, had sheets everywhere , most of mine was in my head. Clare came from story point of view and I came from performance point of view, and we had to work together to marry everything. But it is about knowing where everyone is at any one time. While there is a scene happening in one room, there is generally another happening somewhere else. If one is a short scene and the other is a long one, something else then had to happen to make sure following scenes were in time.
After that it was a case of experimentation. So when we got to the venue we literally started from the beginning and played. And say ‘yep, that fits’ then no that didn’t – so go back to the beginning and we’d start again and keep running forward until something went awry and then go back to the beginning, run it again and eventually it got to a point where everything just seemed to slot in.
In some cases the actors have cues that allow them to know when they can move to the next section. This is important as, depending on how audiences react, scenes can speed up or slow down so everything has to be flexible.
If one section goes out too much it can really throw the show – fortunately, the actors know what needs to go where. There are a lot of back up plans – plan B, plan C, plan D – to make things work.
Do you have any favourite moments in the show?
I have many. One of my favourite scenes is when Hugh and Mary are talking to each other in the dining room where Hugh flirts with Mary and reads the whole moment completely wrong. Also the scene between Mary and Naismith outside is a beautiful scene; the awkward dinner scene always makes me laugh and I like the play between Agnes and Abercrombie and how they come from the same worlds but have totally different ways to manipulate. There are so many, but they are the ones that come to mind…
It’s called Mr Naismith’s Secret…but do you think there are many secrets that the audience haven’t found yet?
There isn’t a single protagonist because everyone is one, depending on what path the audience takes and every character has their secrets. It’s impossible to find them all in one viewing. Many people have discovered the secret of the central story by the end of the play but only one I know of has worked out what I consider the ultimate secret and that is actually finding out and understanding why the other secrets exist in the first place. There are the surface secrets but there are also the underlying secrets which are far more interesting.
So…what’s next for you?
I’m not sure yet, I have been approached about doing another immersive piece – so I’ll have to check that out. There’s also my own play that I’ve been writing for some time now, which needs to get up on it’s feet, so that’s got to go back into development. And there’s also a kids TV pilot which we’ve done the pilot, we’re just looking where that goes next.