Behind the Scenes: Promenade Theatre

As a genre, promenade theatre is extremely versatile. With no formal stage, and the audience and actors occupying the same space, it allows for experimentations with both new and old plays, and explores what the theatrical experience can entail for an audience. In moving the audience around throughout the performance, promenade theatre also pushes boundaries of setting in a way that can’t be achieved in regular theatre. So in what different ways can this form be used? Sue McCormick, the director of demi-paradise’s recent production of Much Ado About Nothing and Peter Higgin, director of PunchDrunk’s enrichment program, give us a taster of this diverse form of performance.

As a company, Lancaster-based demi-paradise performs promenade productions of Shakespeare’s classics. Like much promenade theatre, its work is site-specific, meaning it is only performed in a particular location. In this case, all the plays are performed in the magnificent Lancaster castle, a setting McCormick says is both “a blessing and a curse”. One advantage is that during the promenade through the castle the audience gets to experience “hundreds of years of history. It’s breathing history in the stone.” Naturally, this also has aesthetic benefits, as “the fact that we’re doing classic plays, with often historical settings, is obviously much enhanced by the settings of the castle… there’s that atmosphere in there which contributes to the theatricality.” Despite this, there are also challenges to using the castle. As McCormick explains, “practically it can be quite difficult”. Of course, the castle was not designed for theatre performances, so it can be an acoustic and sightline “nightmare… it’s limited as to the plays you can do in there”. Any modern play, or even modern dress in a classical play, would be dwarfed by the grandeur of the castle’s stately rooms, which are very big and imposing. However, this isn’t a problem if you’re careful in choosing what show to perform there. As she puts it, “if you do the right pieces in there I think you start with a massive advantage… for all the difficulties of using the space, the benefits you reap are worth the disadvantages.”

An immersive theatre group, PunchDrunk’s use of the promenade theatre format is radically different to demi-paradise’s. As Higgin explains, “we specialise in putting audiences in the centre of our work and at the centre of their own experience”. Not only do the audience move with the performance, they are actually part of it, and the company aims “to give you a tingle down the back of your spine, to challenge your senses, and to lift you out of being a passive audience member and to make you an active agent in seeking out a theatrical experience.” While its productions aren’t site-specific, they are site sympathetic, and the company seeks out locations that work for each particular production. As Higgin explains it, they work at “transforming or creating sites and buildings, and actually worlds”. Again, this poses some challenges for the company, and it is difficult “finding a space which is open for long enough and is accessible, and that has the right kind of infrastructure to allow us to do work.” Another difference that separates PucnhDrunk from demi-paradise is the size of its productions. While the set up of Lancaster castle only allows for audiences of up to 60, PunchDrunk works on a larger scale, and “you have to take into account that you could have up to 300 different audience members at some of our shows, so you have to make an experience that can satisfy all of them”.

The company’s latest show, The Crash of the Elysium, is also a far cry from demi-paradise’s classic Shakespeare. Based on the TV series Doctor Who, the production was originally conceived for the 2011 Manchester International Festival. Higgin describes it as “an adventure promenade piece” which is aimed at children, and he finds that the medium of immersive theatre is one that appeals particularly to younger viewers. A show that is engaging and stimulating, Higgin feels that for The Crash of the Elysium “the biggest thing is about being active and being in control of your own destiny, of your own evening – not being passive, that really appeals to kids”. Not that the show is for children only, as “what we want is to create a project which adults will be jealous of children going to”, something that won’t be difficult considering the large Doctor Who fan base. As Higgin puts it: “Doctor Who is one of those things that’s young or old, that people are enthralled by”. To accommodate older viewers, the production has an ‘after dark’ showing, which is “less nurturing and pushing the boundaries slightly more”. While describing what happens in the show, Higgin cautioned that he would prefer the details not to be printed, as “our work is unexpected, and kind of works best when the audience don’t really know what they’re going to see”. However, in keeping with the scary nature of any Doctor Who narrative, he does explain that “we actually tread a delicate sort of line between fear and excitement – it has to balance on a knife edge… there’s something important about being scared, about going through the process of overcoming fear.”

The fact that PunchDrunk’s newest show is a modern one allows for some advantages, especially as “one of our biggest challenges as a company is to keep one step ahead of our audience, because we’re essentially always trying to make the unexpected, and trying to do something bigger and better and different than we have before”. Having a modern play makes creating the unexpected that bit easier. But the company also puts on productions of classic works, for example in Sleep No More, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Higgin also finds benefits in working with these older texts, as “often the way we tell stories is non-linear and it’s about experience as opposed to linear story telling, so it helps, although it’s not essential, to have a knowledge of the story we’re telling”. However, they still try to bring the unexpected to the performance, and “often we try and subvert what people think is going to happen”. McCormick also finds there are advantages for promenade theatre with working in the medium of Shakespeare, as “there’s so much fluidity… originally when they were done they were pretty much continuous – and I think that really helps with the promenade feel. You can jump in and out of the play almost at any point.”

As a theatrical experience, promenade productions seem to be something audience members thoroughly enjoy. As McCormick says, “people LOVE them”. Getting the audience to react in this way is part of PunchDrunk’s mission, as with the productions the company puts on “it’s about personal experience. It’s about work which is sensory, and it’s about work that engages you viscerally and makes you feel punch-drunk.” In promenade theatre, this experience seems to be largely achieved by breaking down the separation between audience and actors.  As Higgin says, “there isn’t that divide… they’re right there with you”. While this is literally the case with PunchDrunk, the audience interacting with the actors and becoming part of the performance, this also happens to a degree in demi-paradise. In some of the smaller settings in the castle, the actors often have to get up close and personal with the audience, and in Much Ado About Nothing they’re almost sitting on top of them in some scenes. Because of this, “there’s a real interaction between actor and audience, and a lot of audiences have said roughly the same thing to me, which is you feel more like a participant than an audience member. It’s almost like you’re taking part rather than just watching.” This intimate, personal experience  is one of promenade theatre’s true strengths. As McCormick sums up, “I think that’s one of the most powerful things that we do in the castle is that lack of barrier between performer and audience”.

For more information about demi-paradise, visit their website here.

Crash of the Elysium is presented by the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 8 July. For tickets and more information, visit the 2012 Crash site.

Image credit: PunchDrunk’s Crash of the Elysium

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *