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Katie Jackson - Ideas Tap - Is Theatre too Safe?

Audience, What Audience?

Is theatre too safe? Katie Jackson looks at theatre companies who are breaking conventions and inviting audiences to become part of the show.

Much to the horror of theatre purists, audiences are changing. Their expectations, tastes, attention spans and viewing habits have undergone a revolution but I don't think that the industry have been quick enough to respond. Fair enough, most have given up any dress code, and some have even started offering popcorn to their clientele, but succumbing to the traditions of cinema is just playing it safe, and theatre should never be safe. We need to be proud of what we've got and we need to learn to flaunt our unique selling point: the live arts are the only arts that are, well, live.

It might seem an obvious point, but to me it is a magical one and one which throws open the door to a range of opportunities that all too many theatre producers, playwrights and directors are prone to forgetting or ignoring. We should be shouting it from the rooftops, "we're here, we're live, get used to it".

Ruffling some feathers and sequins, Priscilla Queen of the Dessert is the latest in a long line of jukebox-musicals to involve the audience by encouraging them to get on their feet and dance. Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You are amoung the other popular favourites. Several of these jukebox musicals have also demonstrated the establishment's lack of understanding regarding the new audiences that are visiting the West End when the critics have hastily poured scorn on productions that have seen huge success at the box office. Another unusual and intelligent form of audience involvement came in 2002 when Boy George's musical Taboo allowed the audience to buy drinks from a bar which also formed part of the set.

So involving your audience and showing off the benefits of the live arts can involve relatively simple concepts, but it can also be taken further and can create an entirely different type of performance. Immersive theatre is perhaps the best example of this type of work and the current leaders are highly acclaimed theatre company Punchdrunk, whose Mask of the Red Death appeared at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2007 and became an instant hot ticket, following on from their success the previous year with Faust. Both site specific, the works involved audience members journeying through the many rooms and corridors of the sets and emerging having had individual experiences with different actors, rooms, and situations.

And Punchdrunk are currently back in the capital, presenting their newest project, Tunnel 228, in association with the Old Vic in the underground tunnels beneath the train tracks of Waterloo station. The National Theatre are also getting in on the immersive theatre act, with Stovepipe, their collaboration with the Bush Theatre and High Tide Production, which ran in a shopping unit in the West 12 shopping centre last month.

Immersive theatre has already gone transatlantic. Since 1988, New York audiences have been invited to the longest running Off Broadway show ever, Tony n' Tina's Wedding. Staged just like a normal wedding with a sprinkling of drama on top, audience members play the roles of the couple's friends and family and are encouraged to get involved, drinking champagne for the wedding toast, dancing at the disco, and cheering the couple on as they cut their cake.

And it doesn't end there. Bespoke theatre company Gideon Reeling have combined theatre with interactive social games. The result is a project entitled At Home With the Skinners, which, as well as being an immersive theatre experience where audience members are invited to enjoy a cup of tea and a cake to celebrate Aunty Eva's birthday, is the first step in the Gideon Reeling Great British Road Trip which has been developed as part of this year's Vauxhall Collective. Teams can sign up to take their own road trip, which follows the story of the Skinner family and offers opportunities to score points along the way, with those who have collected the most points at the end of it all winning an invite to The Reeling Family Wedding, another immersive experience.

Theatre doesn't have to be interactive or immersive to be good, but it is certainly worth looking to these productions for inspiration on how to take advantage of the unique potential of theatre. Being an audience member at a live event is a privilege, and we should be doing all we can to make sure that we flaunt our USP.

-Katie Jackson