Two immersive theatre productions are revived this May, both under the watchful eye of Owen Kingston. Daniel Perks catches Owen to learn about For King And Country and Land Of Nod.

They may seem like a fad, but immersive productions have been on the fringe scene for a long time. The genre is now firmly placed within the commercial public eye because of the success of companies such as Punchdrunk and Les Enfants Terribles, who go to great pains to create fantastical worlds that an audience are effortlessly swept up in.

There are just as many varieties of immersion as there are companies that perform. Whether it be a guided group narrative as part of Alice’s Adventures Underground, or a single audience experience through a Yum Me Bum Bum Train creation; whether it be any manner of dining cabarets, gaming strategy productions or treasure hunts with puzzle solving and detective work, the capital is teaming with ways to include ticket holders in the action.

For King And Country COLAB Factory

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground (image courtesy of Rah Petherbridge)

For King And Country

Writer/ director Owen Kingston, also the Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre Company and Venue Manager for the COLAB Factory, happens to have two immersive productions running simultaneously in May 2018. The first, For King And Country, drops its audience into a World War II war room, with an epic responsibility:

For King And Country COLAB Factory

Owen Kingston

“The stakes couldn’t be higher.” comments Kingston. “Nowadays it’s sometimes quite difficult to tell who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are, but our understanding of wartime Britain is very clear. The audience don’t feel that ambiguity – they know exactly what they’ve got to do and can get stuck in, get on with it.

“When you’re faced with the difficult decisions, you have a sense of reality about it. It makes you think about modern politicians and what they’re faced with – you have to walk in their shoes a little bit. It’s all very well having idealistic opinions, but when you’re faced with the reality of what it means…”

For King And Country is based around Britain’s Darkest Hour, where audience members are tasked with making decisions that will affect the outcome of the war against Hitler and the Third Reich. This particular immersive theatre is grounded in an alternate reality, which has made for some animated audience participation in the past:

“We’ve had some really interesting, full blown political debates during the show – people discussing in a rational and spirited way. It’s given people a forum and an impetus to discuss those things, which is mature and interesting – we don’t get the ability to do that in modern society.”

Adding to the variety of available immersive shows, For King And Country is structured with an interesting twist – there is not set script for the seven actors to follow. It promises a truly unique, individual experience for every single production and in many ways epitomises a cornerstone of immersion. The audience are in themselves an unpredictable element, one that must be prepared for and improvised around, so why not allow the actors to fully immerse themselves as well?

“There’s a structure, a core of the experience – that took the time to write and refine. The actual rehearsal period for this show is only a week. In that time, we immerse ourselves in the period. We also make the characters as real and believable as possible, learning to confidently improvise in character – having enough detail to be able to riff and come up with interesting things on the fly.

“There is a strategy game element to the show as well, so the actors learn all the ways that could possibly play out. Although this is a game theatre, we bury all of the game mechanics, so they aren’t visible to the audience. We want it to feel real.”

Believability is key for a successful experience in immersive theatre. The world created doesn’t have to be factual, but it has to be plausible, defined by rules that construct the element of possibility. For King And Country is based on events that didn’t happen but could have done, if historical decisions were made differently.

For King And Country runs at The COLAB Factory until 10 June 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.

Land Of Nod

For King And Country COLAB Factory

Parabolic Theatre Company’s Land Of Nod

Land Of Nod, the second in Kingston’s simultaneous productions, is similarly built from plausible scenarios. The difference here is that this is social piece, one that in one form or another happens all the time. Rather than be confined to a basement in The COLAB Factory, this production is staged across a square mile of Croydon – quite the adventurous endeavour:

“It’s gone to another extreme really! We’ve been planning Land of Nod for a while – we produced a version of the show three years ago, it’s one of things that made me want to found Parabolic Theatre Company. It was an experiment to see whether you could give an audience the level of agency that you might get in a Punchdrunk show, without having them enclosed in a building. Could you have them wander around a town centre and not have the show completely fall to bits?

“We found that it worked better than we thought it could! Because anything could be part of the show, everything therefore was part of the show, whether we’d intended it to be or not. Audiences wandered around and saw Croydon through a completely different lens, making their own fun. They made sense of real world situations as though they were part of the show – that became part of the show as much as the stuff that we intended to be there.”

In Land Of Nod, the audience are asked to play the function of investigative journalists, piecing together a tragedy that highlights the proliferation in gang violence and knife crime across the Croydon borough. They are given a press pack and a badge, eventually wandering around Croydon to uncover the truth behind the story:

“We have started talking to the borough about doing this for school groups, kids that are at risk of knife crime and gang violence. We have some plans to adapt it to work in a school environment – if there was a way of making an impact locally, that would be tremendous. It’s such an intense, real experience that will hopefully connect with younger audiences – the first-person aspect to it makes it feel like a live video game of sorts. We’ve tried to showcase how many lives can be affected by one moment of madness.”

Both shows serve to highlight the breadth of possible experiences that come under the immersive umbrella. Each production removes any sense of fourth wall and actively gives its audiences agency to affect the narrative. Many such creations fall into the trap of claiming to be immersive simply because they engage their audiences. Owen Kingston, The COLAB Factory and Parabolic Theatre Company do not make such a mistake.

Land Of Nod runs as a site-specific work from 3 – 20 May 2018. For further information, please visit the company website.