Alice Barber (Creative Producer) and I (Artistic Director) run a Leeds based theatre company, Front Room Productions. The company was started and exists to create theatre in unconventional locations, which brings with it many different challenges, but also produces some of the most exciting projects you could possibly dream of.
We are currently working on our most daring and ambitious project to date; throughout March we will be touring our brand-new play, ‘Hurry Up, Jess’, to people’s bedrooms across Yorkshire and the North West. Now this might sound like a crazy idea, and when we explain to people that the show will be performed in REAL houses, in REAL bedrooms, naturally they have a million and one questions… “How did you find these people?”, “What’s the capacity?” … “WHY?”
To put it simply, I wrote a play revolving around a young girl in her bedroom, and so that’s where we wanted to put the show on. But it also goes further than that: the play is about friendship, loyalty, and coming to terms with loss, which leads audiences on an interactive jaunt through the bedroom and childhood memories of a young Northern girl. By performing the show in a bedroom, we wanted to create an intimate journey around a very personal space, that will enable audience members to feel as though they are more than mere spectators, but instead sharing a lived experience. Working in unconventional settings, and especially a setting as personal as a bedroom, allows us to push the boundaries of what theatre is perceived to be. We want to try and engage with people who may never have been to the theatre before; by using a space that is familiar for everyone, we are removing the formalities traditionally associated with going to the theatre, and instead aim to immerse audiences in what feels like a real-life situation.
Over the past year we have produced shows in an operational market, on a sheep farm, in an old school house and a converted mill. We find that as soon as you remove the ‘on stage’ formality of theatre – the ‘us’ watching ‘them’ concept – there is a whole level of engagement and interaction to be enjoyed. A lot of people shrink in fear at the idea of ‘audience interaction’; even I sometimes find myself in this number, when sitting in the audience and praying I’m not going to get asked a question or get brought up onto the stage. But we’ve found as soon as you remove the stage, and as soon as the characters are found amongst the audience, watching scenes when they’re not participating, and emerging from the crowd to take up their next role, our audiences relax into the interactive nature of the performance, and wholeheartedly end up throwing themselves into the action.
Over Christmas, we toured a new adaptation of Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (what else!) that I had written, in which we, albeit often chaotically, taught and danced a ceilidh with the audience – we saw smiles creep onto the faces of even the most reluctant participants, because it’s at moments like these, when the audiences feel like they’re not just a spectator, they’re truly part of something. By creating this form of interactive theatre in unusual locations, this is the feeling we’re seeking to create, a shared experience, combining the real world with the world of the play.
Obviously, when you seek to combine the real world with a performance, there are all sorts of extra challenges you can be faced with, that nicely don’t exist if you perform in a traditional theatre setting. In the past, we’ve been challenged by people walking through a scene, unaware of its existence, and going about their operational job, and over summer, having to repeatedly clear up sheep poo! However, the challenges become part of the fun, the performances are always SO different (especially when an actor ends up sitting in sheep poo mid-way through a tender scene), and exploring new locations brings new things to the show. For Hurry Up, Jess the size of the bedroom determines our audience capacity at each venue, and although there’s a level of continuity in the props we will take to each venue, ultimately the set will completely change at each place. And therefore, the overall feel of the piece will shift from location to location.
Site-specific theatre will continually be the theatre form which excites me the most. Where the lines are blurred between audience and action, there’s a new level of engagement to be found, allowing us to find a place to intimately share some of the most personal stories.
Hurry up, Jess is playing across the North West and Yorkshire from 3 – 31 March 2018. For more information, visit https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/frontroomproductions