As a 12-hour-long Macbeth opens in an East End tower block, Emily Jupp talks to the immersive theatre fans craving a one-on-one performance.
A stranger in a grey suit takes me lightly by the arm and walks me gently but firmly across a dark space, led only by the light from his torch, into a small box room. There’s a desk, cluttered with knick-knacks, and a narrow child’s bed covered in a woolly pink blanket. He puts a hood over his head and taps the bed, gesturing for me to sit. He comes so close I feel his breath in my ear and his fake moustache brushes my cheek. He mutters incoherently in a faux-American accent: “He wanted to go to the stars but when he got there everything was dead and broken, so he came back down to Earth and… HE’S STILL HERE!”
He shudders and convulses and I find myself holding his body up. Then he reaches around to my side and shows me a small knitted toy. There’s a loose thread and we both follow it, guided by his torch, out of the door and across a pitch-black space. Suddenly, he twists me around and directs his torchlight to the floor, lighting flashes to illuminate what appears to be a dead horse. Before I can process what’s happening, I’m thrown back into the world, left to ponder the meaning of his words.
I’m at The Drowned Man, the current production in a Paddington warehouse by the pioneering immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, and I realise I’ve just had a one-on-one.
Interactive drama has evolved. After years of wandering around sets, half right in and half distinct from the action, audiences are thirsty for more — a twist to the storyline. So actors are now getting up close and personal, plucking out lucky members of the crowd for an individual treat.
My experience was just one of 16 different and equally elusive one-on-ones in The Drowned Man. There’s no mistaking when it happens, as the mandatory mask that audience members must wear will be removed and you will be isolated with an actor for a few minutes of intense performance. Crazy things will happen.
While Punchdrunk coined the term one-on-one (or “1:1” as it’s often written), it is the natural conclusion of any production seeking to break down the fourth wall, and several other London troupes have taken the one-on-one as their own. With several immersive productions about to start in the capital, your chance to score one has never been better.
In a fully immersive experiment, RIFT theatre company is about to stage a performance of Macbeth in a brutalist East End tower block, where audiences will have dinner during the banquet scene, stay overnight on the 27th floor and wake to watch the final battle scenes conclude at sunrise.
“Audiences like to be rewarded for their efforts and what is exciting is that we can create these holistic worlds for them, with food, a bar, a sleepover,” says Felix Mortimer, the director and co-founder of RIFT. “It lets them experience that world intensely, rather than the traditional format of going for a drink, then a show, then dinner and then back to our cold beds.”
Mortimer ensures that each audience member enters alone and is confronted by the coven of witches in a one-on-one-type scenario that lasts for five minutes. “Audiences describe it as feeling like the protagonist in a film, as though all the characters are created just for you,” he says.
This thrill of individual experience is fiercely sought by theatregoers, however. As a result, a whole etiquette has arisen around seeking out a one-on-one. The trick, as with love, is not to want it too badly. “If someone is too needy the cast won’t take them,” says Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. “It’s a gift, so you are rewarded by being curious about a character and really wanting to know their inner workings.”
There are fans who go to these productions just to collect one-on-ones. “Trophy-hunting, collecting scalps,” says Hannah Young, the administrator of The Drowned Man Facebook fan page, which has 4,890 members and counting. “It must make for an incredibly stressful show experience and they’re totally missing the opportunity to invest in the wider, arching narrative, which is the thing that really makes the one-on-one special in the first place,” she adds, disapprovingly. The Facebook group carries detailed floorplans, multiple spoilers and a near-constant level of activity from members who have visited The Drowned Man time and again. One-on-ones are a frequent topic of conversation.
Barrett claims the original concept for a one-on-one came about even before Punchdrunk was formed, when he was experimenting at university.
“I liked the idea that there were just two people, so who’s the audience member and who’s the actor?” he says. He created a show while studying at Exeter which involved an audience member coming to a swimming pool at night. Debussy’s La Mer played as just one swimmer did lengths of the pool until, after five minutes, as the Jeux de Vagues section — the allegro — started to approach, the swimmer would exit the pool. “She embraces you and then she leans in and is about to kiss you, but just as she’s a split-second away she pushes you in the pool. That was our first foray into one-on-ones, and 15 years on they’re an integral part of what we do.”
Although these very personal scenes appear natural and spontaneous, they involve “a lot of very large spreadsheets”, according to Mortimer. So much effort goes into making these small, perfect moments work within the wider context of the story. “They need to be as meticulously rehearsed as a big set-piece,” says Barrett, “because you are so close it’s like a film close-up — your eyelid is telling the story.” .”
“[The performers] know exactly how far they can push boundaries, exactly when to ramp up the intensity,” says Young. The experiences are addictive, she believes, because of the apparent lack of control and adrenaline surge that comes from being intimate with a total stranger. She was once so worked up during a one-on-one that she didn’t realise her toe was broken until the end of the show. “It feels like you’re doing something really stupid, allowing yourself to be locked in a room with someone you don’t know, drinking shots with a ranting cowboy who subsequently blindfolds you and literally walks you through his own emotional life story; cradling a walking corpse in your arms as she takes her last breaths,” she says. “Of course, the reality is that it’s the safest place ever to take those risks but you feel intensely vulnerable, at the mercy of your captor.”
Each audience member reacts differently to the experience, from mute terror to wild hysteria but that style of controlled madness found in a one-on-one can even be therapeutic, as the sole audience member is the arbiter of a made-up world. In RIFT’s production of The Trial (based on Franz Kafka’s novel) one audience member is alone and suddenly arrested. “[One man] got so freaked out he ran down the road and we had to find him,” says Mortimer. “He said it was because he’d been put in a hostage situation before in real life and it was very similar. Then he came back and played it out and said it was cathartic to be in a controlled situation.”
It’s time to immerse yourself.
Source: London Evening Standard