Immersive Theatre and Audience Agency: A Look at The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo


Over our time in London, the Destination Theatre group has had the chance to see a wide variety of shows of many different styles. Two of these shows, The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo, stood out from the rest for their heightened potential for immersion, although the format of each immersive experience was quite different.

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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby production by Guild of Misrule took place at an old building in central London, which had been converted into Gatsby’s lavish 1920s mansion. The audience took on the role of party guests, and were encouraged to dress in period-appropriate clothing. Throughout the evening, we were escorted through various rooms of the space and pieced together the story through character monologues, short scenes, and one-on-one interactions.

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions (2)
The stage of Life of Galileo

The Young Vic production of Life of Galileo took a different approach. The stage was in the shape of a donut, with audience seated on cushions in the middle and on a balcony surrounding the perimeter. Instead of being brought into the story directly, as in Gatsby, performers in Galileo frequently broke character to draw attention to the nature of spectatorship. “This scene has been cancelled… ask [director] Joe Wright about it…”, proclaims one actor.

While their methods of immersion were quite different, both shows sought to provide the audience an experience different to that of conventional theatre; ideally, one in which the audience member is not merely a passive spectator seated in front of a performance, but is wholly immersed in the act. In theory, this allows the audience member to more fully engage in the performance, since they take an active role in curating their own experience (Rancière, 2007).

However, it is important to separate the mobility of an audience from its agency within the narrative. While Gatsby’s audience may be able to move freely throughout the performance space, their freedom is still limited. Despite their mobility, audience members may share common space with the actors but they cannot become equal participants in the dramatic action.

While shows like The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo may draw attention to their immersive properties, the agency of the audience remains mostly an illusion. In both shows, the imaginary world, its setting, properties, rules, and backstory, remain the product of the creators. The audience enter the performance space as invited, paying guests, and their participation and knowledge will always be restricted to some degree. Instead of representing life, a truer model would be that of a video game, in which the character is free to move and make their own choices, but those choices are limited within the parameters of the game. In this way, immersive theatre and conventional theatre have much in common: the rules of the game may slightly modified, and the spectator may change from observer to player, but the game and its rules will always belong to someone else.

Works Cited:
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Artforum 45: 2007.

 

 

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Would you laugh at the ‘Kid’?

I never considered how impactful the laughter of audience members can be, not only to the performers, but to the other audience members as well. Our first show we saw as a class was “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” written in 2002 by Edward Albee. It was an absolutely shocking piece of absurdist theatre which took on very serious topics, such as bestiality, incest, adultery, and betrayal. The plot of the play is quite literally about a man who engages in sexual relations with a goat, and the chaos and conflicts that ensue in the family as a result. While the show begins by introducing a comedic tone, there is an obvious shift that occurs with the supposed ‘fall’ of the tragic hero, and it appeared that a considerable portion of the audience did not grasp the switch.

Laughter intermittently occurred throughout the production and to the end of the play, which left several of my classmates upset and unsettled, particularly the ones who had studied the play prior to our trip. The fact that the laughter continued even after the tone of the show turned serious gives rise to several speculative questions for me. Why were people laughing when Stevie (the betrayed wife) threw pieces of furniture to release her pain and despair? Why did people laugh when the murdered goat was revealed on stage at the play’s end?

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Damian Lewis as Martin and Sophie Okonedo as Stevie in The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London.

There are several theories as to why humans laugh and lots of research about different circumstances that cause laughter. According to Dr. Lickerman in Psychology Today, nervous laughter has been “noted to occur in many psychological experiments when subjects found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress” (Lickerman, 2011). For example, there is a famous study conducted by Stanley Milgram to discover why people blindly follow authority; the test subjects were made to deliver painful electrical currents to an “unseen” person. Milgram noted that a majority of the subjects began to laugh nervously when they heard the screams of pain, as they became extremely uncomfortable. This draws an effective parallel to the audience of “The Goat”, seeing as laughter occurred at very serious, but also uncomfortable, moments in the show.

The day after we saw the play, my class had a discussion where we had the opportunity to debrief the show; as I previously stated, many of my classmates were bothered by the incessant laughter of the audience. There were various reasons for their distaste, largely due to what kind of personal histories and experiences they had coming into the experience. Some of my peers were offended by some of the laughter throughout the audience because they felt that those spectators were not being sensitive to the grim topics being very bluntly discussed.

For others, the laughter caused them to be annoyed because it seemed to take them out of the moment. (These were primarily the students who had studied the show academically and therefore knew when the switch from comedic to tragic tone occurred.) They were trying to engage in the moment seriously but were distracted and floored by the clear lack of understanding of the audience as a whole.

The audience laughter did not necessarily evoke any feelings of disturbance in myself personally, but I think that was because I was extremely shocked for the majority of the play. While it was a very enjoyable experience, the subject matter covered topics that I was not comfortable with and therefore I was far too hypnotized by the absurdity before me to react to the laughter surrounding me. For a moment try and imagine an entire play where you are constantly bombarded by dialogue which inevitably causes mental imagery of bestiality. Then imagine being provided an actual image of the helpless animal who was taken advantage of as the final picture of the play, and tell me; would you laugh at the ‘kid’?

Works Cited:

Lickerman, Alex. “Why We Laugh.” Psychology Today. 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201101/why-we-laugh

Image:

https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2017/goat-sylvia-starring-damian-lewis-sophie-okonedo-review-round/

Playing at Wilton’s!

We are off and running with Destination Theatre 2017! So far, so good… (well, maybe except for the crazy heatwave!)

Thursday afternoon, we had the privilege to come in from the hot, though – to enjoy the 19th century splendour of Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel – “the oldest grand music hall in the world” (!!) – with Queen Mary’s own Bridget Escolme leading the group in a Vesta Tilley original song on the storied stage.

Herewith, some fun eye candy from the trip. Enjoy!

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Social Currency: The Haymarket, The Goat, and the 21st century Audience

Edward Albee’s The Goat meets the Theatre Royal Haymarket; absurdity on the stage meets the conventionality of the third-oldest London playhouse still in use. Like any other playhouse, the Haymarket faces the task of balancing artistry with profit. The Goat and its cast are interesting choices that I want to unpack from a financial perspective, taking into consideration the aesthetic of the Haymarket Theatre.

In her 2016 essay titled “The Financial Performance of London-based theatres; a step towards business entities?”, Meghna Goyda identifies that there are two main business models followed by theatre companies: commercial and not-for-profit. While the Theatre Royal Haymarket is definitely a commercial theatre company, profit is something they struggle with. As company secretary John Lawrie states in fiscal 2016’s Strategic Review, “2015 opened with Harvey, which attracted little business, in contrast to The Elephant Man, starring Bradley Cooper – one of the most successful runs the theatre has had.” According to Goyda, “although theatres exist within a financial market, several establishments struggle to sustain financial stability while simultaneously pursuing innovative artistic excellence.” The Haymarket seems to have found a special ingredient within this mix: casting film actors.

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Theater Royal Haymarket

The Goat features two familiar faces in two of the show’s four characters: Damian Lewis as Martin and Oscar-nominated Sophie Okonedo as Stevie. There is no denying that having both actors’ names and faces boldly printed across the poster that will be circling both online and in tangible platforms (as well as hanging grandly beside the white columns that stand hauntingly at the theatre’s entrance) will catch the eye of potential audience members. “That’s the guy from ‘Homeland!’” is certain to be a common response to the poster.

For a theatre that has to be money-conscious in response to previous net losses, the market dictates the entirety of the Haymarket, right down to its design.

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Divided entrances

The theatre’s exterior structure divides the audience financially from the moment they enter the theatre – you select which of the multiple doors to enter through based on whether your seat is in the stalls or high up in the gallery, revealing to your fellow theatre-goers how much you spent on a ticket. Could it be that this financial division divides the collectivity of the audience? Despite the fact that this division is a result of John Nash’s architectural design from 1821, it still establishes a sense of time travel that elicits ideas of squeaky floors, moldy walls, and hierarchical conservatism. And while at 20 I do not necessarily fit into the Haymarket’s target market, a 21st century audience gets excited about newness. As a result of staging The Goat, however, a modern audience is able to revel in a 2002 Tony-Award winning, boundary-moving tragedy within a traditionally bound space. This combination may prove to be both financially successful, and politically advantageous, for the Haymarket, as it satisfies the audience and reels in the West End cash. The Goat may have been the perfect choice to increase profitability in both financial and social markets for the Haymarket.

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Theatre Royal Haymarket 

I would like to end with this: no matter what my opinion was on Edward Albee’s The Goat, or on the Haymarket’s strategies to enhance its financial performance, I would not have been able to understand the Haymarket in the way I feel I do now without being there in person. I have read and researched the space to the ends of the Internet for my final project in Destination Theatre, but physically being surrounded by the secret-packed walls was incomparable. As much as you can learn about a place, it can still feel unfamiliar, and I’m thankful the theatre and I have now been introduced.

 

 

Works Cited

Goyda, Meghna. “The Financial Performance of London-based theatres; a step towards business entities?” Academia.edu. http://www.academia.edu/29221917/The_Financial_Performance_of_London-based_theatres_a_step_towards_business_entities

“Theatre History.” Theatre Royal Haymarket. Accessed May 16th, 2017. http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/haymarket001.html

“Theatre Royal Haymarket Limited.” Companies House. Accessed May 16, 2017. https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/00242846