Whilst the rest of the theatre world is gearing up forthe season of pantos and family shows, the Pleasance Theatre in Islington has an altogether different festive treat in store, a strictly 18+ event that recreates the often awkward yet riotously chaotic yearly office party. This show is immersive theatre at its most fiendishly experimental, inviting each audience member to join a department and assume the role of an employee of the fictional Product Solutions for the evening, joining in party games and hobnobbing with the CEO whilst the drama and internal dynamics of their colleagues unfold around them.
Fusing comedy, cabaret and improvisational genius, Office Party demands that audiences expect the unexpected as performers infiltrate the audience, burst into a song or pole dance and the corporate entertainment bares all to the tune of Lady in Red. The show began at the Barbican in 2007 where it received critical acclaim and sold out its run before heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2008. Now it’s back, with a bigger and better venue, to wow audiences yet again. A Younger Theatre caught up with the show’s creators and the corporate entertainment for the evening’s events, Christopher Green and Ursula Martinez, to shed some light on the creative beginnings of this sell-out show and its huge appeal.
What was your inspiration for producing Office Party?
Martinez: Ideas just come. You can’t really explain it. It’s organic. But in terms of our history, we’d worked a lot together with a company called Duckie and we’d done quite a lot of immersive stuff with them, so in a way we kind of cut our teeth with immersive theatre working with Duckie.
Green: And we’d done a big Christmas show with them which was really successful; we did the Barbican for two years running and then they were very keen on more Christmas shows. Obviously this idea is very seasonal. It doesn’t have to be done at Christmas but that was the impetus.
Martinez: It was perfect for a Christmas show.
Green: I suppose we were on the lookout for a seasonal idea, which this was. The thing about it is that it’s not interactive in the sense that there’s a bit of performance and there’s a bit of interaction. The whole thing is interaction really and that’s the bit that took it further than anything we’d done before.
So why the hiatus between doing it at the Fringe in 2008 and bringing it here this year? Has the show developed in between?
Green: It has, but it was mainly to do with funding. It started in the funded sector, funded by the Barbican and Arts Council England and then we did it commercially in Edinburgh. Then it was just working with various commercial producers. It’s a big ask to produce something like this commercially.
Martinez: Also it was literally finding a venue that fulfils the criteria that we need for the show. It’s a fairly complicated and unusual set of requirements that we have. The venue [the Pleasance Theatre, Islington] is perfect in terms of the office space attached to the theatre. The audience arrive at an office building, and there are the various rooms that we need. Then they get taken through to the theatre. It’s unique and perfect for this show. When we first came to see it, we recognised instantly that the architecture was brilliant.
What do you think is the secret to the success of Office Party and what does the show offer to audiences looking for a different kind of night out?
Green: I think people are interested in site specific work and immersive theatre, and this is very humane. It’s very accessible. There is a lot of theatre in it. There’s a lot of craft in it but there’s also a lot of fun, a lot of entertainment. And we don’t take the play too seriously – we don’t say there is a right and wrong way to play – we just encourage them to play in a way that is useful for the show. So it’s very inclusive.
Martinez: I think it’s a very clever idea, but then we’re not trying to be clever with the delivery of the show.
Green: We don’t need to draw attention to the conceit all the time. The conceit is so robust that it just is. So we don’t need to say “Oh look it’s all a show, it’s all a show, haha”. It just is. We’re just inviting them to play.
Martinez: And I think it’s experimental. It’s conceptual, but actually, you’re too busy having a good time to notice those things.
What struck me about Office Party is how, in a way, it’s almost pure entertainment. There is no pretension about it, and it’s true you don’t have to hide behind the fact that it is all a show – you just show people a good time.
Green: That’s what we do in our work generally. The politics, the message, the thing we’re exploring – it’s absolutely in there – but it’s primarily entertainment. We both do that, and we’re really committed to that. It’s too easy to go, “Look how serious we’re being about this issue”. But if you make people think and feel and be stimulated whilst entertaining them, that’s the ideal. And we do that in a whole range of things. I’m doing a show about the global economic crisis at the moment but I’m doing it through country music. Ursula is dealing with sexual politics by doing this fantastic striptease. We want to be entertaining. That’s our main criteria.
Shows such as Office Party provide a very different performing experience because of the nature of the interaction. Have there been examples of audience members crossing the line, becoming too involved?
Green: We’ve employed a whole variety of comedians and actors to be the heads of department who are doing all the cold face improvising and those are the ones that have all those experiences. There are people absolutely engaging with it and taking the stories further and inventing stuff for themselves. People will play: if you make the context safe for them then they will play. And they play very well night after night after night.
What would you like an audience to take away from Office Party? What is the main thing you want people to remember?
Martinez: To leave with a smile on your face and a pep in your step really. We have people who say, “Oh I was really tired before I got here and I wasn’t sure” and then they leave completely energised from the experience of the show. I think that’s what we want. And then if they remember, “Oh and that bit, and that bit was amazing and what about that guy? I never realised!” or if they are going away just thinking about something, that’s a bonus.
Green: Primarily we want them to be entertained and to have fun. People come back time after time after time.
Martinez: Ideally sort of, not predictably entertained, but to be entertained and to have been surprised along that journey. That’s really nice.
Green: Also, we’re dealing a lot with people’s expectations and therefore their fears, so people come thinking, “Will I have to do anything?” Hang around in the foyer when people arrive and you’ll hear a lot of nervousness as you hear people say, “Oh I want to keep my bag in case I have to leave” and, “Will I have to do anything – will I get picked on?” And then you see them two and a half hours later and they’re going, “Brilliant! You were fantastic! It was great!” And then they were the ones that were starting the whole thing, dancing with each other…
Martinez: Doing the conga….
Green: Yeah, people lose their inhibitions which is always fun to see. When people read about it they think, “Oh that sounds great but I’d never go to it”, so I have a lot of admiration for people that just turn up and think, “Yes, I will commit my money and overcome my fears to come”. You can join in as much or as little as you want to. But it’s hard to convey that in a poster.
Martinez: They get sucked into the fiction and that is one of the strengths of the show, that it draws people in.
Green: Really this show is an extended warm up. We warm them up for a really long time, bit by bit by bit, and then there’s a point where it kind of goes BANG and the theatre kicks in until the end of the show. And that’s why people are slightly reeling. But without warming them up quite skilfully and quite subtly then that wouldn’t have the impact that it has.
The Office Party experience, then, is what you make it. You may prefer to observe from a distance, soak up the seemingly familiar and yet strangely surreal atmosphere, or you might want to get fully involved, engage with the actors and play along with your new-found role as an accountant, cleaner or marketer. Whether you are spectator or participant, one thing is for sure: after you’ve seen what Mandy from Marketing can do, you’ll never look at your co-workers in the same way again.
Office Party runs at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington until Saturday 17 December. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website here .
Christopher Green’s Tina C seasonal shows will be playing at the Arts Theatre, London from 14 to 30 December. For more information and tickets, visit the theatre’s website here.
Image credit: Idil Sukan