I think it’s fair to say the word ‘immersive’ is overused.
It used to have a mysterious, transgressive feel, enigmatic and anarchic and unpredictable. It used to feel risque, drawing a brave, adventurous audience willing to leave their comfort zone and explore an often darker, more dangerous-seeming world. Recently however, the word has become a marketing buzzword, slapped on anything even slightly out-of-the-ordinary. I recently walked past an ‘immersive’ housing development in North East London.
Despite this, the word has some use – as a broad umbrella term for an ever-expanding group of non-traditional theatrical forms, encompassing everything from 1-on-1 shows to site-specific, promenade, interactive, game-based, choice-based, participatory, experiential, whatever you want to call them. Anything that does more than sit its audience in a dark box and point them at a story.
As a maker of this sort of format-challenging work, it often feels like you’re constantly covering new, unexplored ground. This is in fact rarely the case, but from the inside the obstacles you meet as soon as you venture out of a theatre are extensive, and the systems in place to deal with them sparse or non-existent. In traditional theatre, if you need a lighting designer, you advertise for a lighting designer. If you’re converting an office block into a usable theatrical space, you might need two different types of electricians before you are in a position to find a lighting designer, and the familiar mentor-mentee relationships that theatre relies and thrives on are few and far between for this sort of work.
So. A few years ago we started something named The Gunpowder Plot – a network for artists, designers, technicians, journalists, venues, producers, commissioners – anyone with an interest in or experience with non-traditional theatre. A group of people aware that boundary-pushing is as difficult, as rewarding, and as likely to fail as anything, but that pooling our knowledge and experience would be essential for ‘immersive’ in all its forms to ever graduate from the fringe into the mainstream.
There are two types of meetings – a monthly discussion group capped at 15, touching base about new shows and formats, keeping track of industry developments, sharing commission opportunities and useful contacts, and debating different aspects of this constantly evolving field. There are a few core members who’ve been with us since the start, but we try and rotate attendees as much as possible, suiting the invites to the discussion topic of the month. The second type of meeting is a big ol’ networking event, and that’s where VAULT comes in.
For the first time this year, VAULT Festival hosted Unit 9 – a dedicated immersive venue, offering a selection of boundary-pushing shows in different formats. From the immersive-VR-hybrid horror show Pendulum, to the escape-the-room style The Lifeboat and playable interactive game Revolution, Unit 9 invited its audiences to get involved, telling stories through experience rather than purely through witness. We hosted a big Gunpowder Plot meet up last weekend at VAULT Festival to celebrate this work, make new connections and continue to build the network as more and more immersive work emerges throughout 2018. Our 90 available spaces at this free event were snapped up in a matter of days, and we’ll be expanding before next time, hopefully reaching beyond London to invite non-traditional theatre makers and supporters from across the UK.
Many of the original Gunpowder Plotters continue to collaborate and feed their expertise back into the group – differencEngine are on the cusp of a large-scale show announcement, Lab Collective host regular industry-leading workshops on the unique techniques and skills that go into creating interactive work, and the final Late of VAULT Festival 2018 sees SPECIFIQ team up once again with Dean Rodgers of Rogue Productions for RUCKUS, an immersive St Patrick’s Day party with the Irish Mob.
Click here to join the mailing list for the Gunpowder Plot and be included in occasional mail-outs about our meetings, events and other industry-specific information. Or follow us on social media to keep up with all we are up to
We look forward to you joining us at the next Gunpowder Plot.
Becky Brown & Oscar Blustin