Photo courtesy: Belt Up Theatre

If your idea of a good night at the theatre is sitting silently in the dark and passively observing while the actors have all the fun, it’s probably safe to say Belt Up aren’t the company for you. If, however, you want to play games, take on roles, or get naked in front of a room full of strangers then you’re likely to respond much better to what they do.

There is undoubtedly a growing demand for theatre that challenges the conventional role of the audience and places them at the very heart of a piece, which is the idea at the core of Belt Up’s theatre. “If you do something unfamiliar, which we try and do”, says Marcus Emerton, “it’s quite easy then to get people scared or involved. You have to be on your toes a bit – you’re not allowed to just sit back and relax.”

Yet often one of the problems audiences experience when given the opportunity to participate in theatre is not really knowing what is expected of them, and being afraid to get it wrong. Belt Up very carefully, but yet also highly subtly, work their audiences into a play by casting them in a specific role, laying out the boundaries of appropriate behaviour and defining their expectations for the audience from the outset. In Lorca is Dead the audience are visiting Surrealists, so pretty much anything goes; in Antigone they are guests at her funeral, and the need for quiet respectfulness is clear. As a technique for making people feel comfortable, the Belt Up approach works brilliantly.

Not that it is always straightforward to get the audience to play that role. Audiences may be up for a bit of fun in theory, but when the chance is actually offered to them to participate in its creation, that great British reservedness has a habit of kicking in. James Wilkes makes it clear that respecting the audience is key to making them feel comfortable enough to get involved. “We invite people to play but we don’t push them if they clearly don’t want to, because that just ends up feeling awkward for everyone”; however, he says experience has taught them there are a number of different types of ‘no’, and you can often tell when an audience member just needs some gentle persuasion.

Marcus agrees that the company tread the fine line between respecting the audience and encouraging them to get the most out of the experience. “Someone might want to just come in and sit down and just watch the play, and not ever feel like they’re exposed or part of it. But with a bit of encouragement people very quickly realise it can be fun to be involved as well, whether that’s scaring them, embarrassing them in front of their friends or getting them to interact in a way that Lorca does, which is sometimes funny and for comic effect, but a lot of the time it’s trying to tell a story seriously and asking the audience to help. That can be just as unnerving as someone jumping up at you in the dark.”

Audiences can be unpredictable creatures, and while their antics may give the performers a buzz, they also present challenges that most professional actors would find hugely challenging to deal with. The key principles of improvisation form the basis of Belt Up’s work and allow them to work with whatever the audience throw at them – James says that in both rehearsal and performance openness to ideas and never blocking suggestions are fundamental to their practice. “We do a lot of work based on Keith Johnstone and mask and trance. So we create these characters through the process of mask work and improvisation, just so that we have a really rich understanding – so that whatever the audience throw at us we can respond in character.”

What’s easy to forget is that this strong theoretical grounding and ability to handle themselves as actors in remarkably trying circumstances all come from a young company, none of whom are formally trained, that have only been working together for a few years. Having themselves met through the University of York Drama Society, their tip for other companies starting out is simply to get stuck in to making the work they want to do. This approach is serving Belt Up well, and although this interactive element is central to their work at this point in time, James says they are keen to avoid being pigeonholed. “When we first started we described ourselves as an immersive theatre company, and people used to ask us if that meant underwater! But nowadays everyone seems to know about immersive theatre and have a rough idea of what it means. Now the definition of that word has got a bit hazy as it’s attached to too wide a spectrum, so if you say ‘immersive’ people have different expectations. Personally, from the artist’s perspective, you don’t want to categorise yourself, you just make the work you want to make and leave the categorisation to other people.”

I’ll try to avoid lazy shortcuts like categories and genres by just saying that Belt Up don’t as much break down the fourth wall as wilfully ignore the idea that such a thing ever existed. Don’t be surprised if after seeing them you start to find other performances that maintain such an archaic theatrical convention frankly rather passé.

This is the last of three features on Belt Up – read parts 1 and 2. Sunday’s (final!) instalment in the Belt Up Weekend will be reviews of Lorca is Dead and Atrium from the Southwark Playhouse season.

Belt Up Theatre‘s Lorca is Dead, Atrium and Quasimodo run at the Southwark Playhouse until 27th November. Discount deals for tickets to all three shows are currently available.