Emma Bentley talks with Writer, Cressida Peever about Shotgun Carousel’s new immersive, dining experience, the necessity of safe spaces and giving audience members the opportunity to be noble or a peasant. Decisions, decisions…

Gone are the days of fearful audience participation. We all want to be slightly more immersed in the drama that we’re seeing, whether it’s in the form of helping a character reach a conclusion much like in the work of former Edinburgh Fringe regulars Belt Up aka Jethro Compton, or being free to roam about a space and discover your own story made most famous by PunchDrunk and Secret Cinema. Hot on the heels of this immersive theatre scene is the company Shotgun Carousel, who previously struck gold with their show Divine Proportions. The same creative team are back, taking over the whole of the Vaults with Red Palace, a show which uses Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death and characters from Hans Christian Andersen as a jumping off point. I had a chat with the writer Cressida Peever, where we discuss writing for a sprawling audience, giving the audience decision making power and a certain sexiness that has oozed from both shows.

Speaking over the phone, pre-press night she tells me she’s seen the show four times in the last week. It seems previews for Peever means continued redrafts. She evidently works closely with her collaborators, telling me that one of the things that drew her to the project was getting to work again with Producer, Laura Drake Chambers and Director, Celine Lowenthal. “They are the most brilliant women who allow a safe space for you to throw ideas out. So I don’t have to be afraid of it by the time I’ve got to writing, because I’ve got so much momentum around it,” I imagine her beaming over the phone. She has been making alterations to the script during the past week, to make “the language more contemporary” and really focusing on “whipping the crowd up” in the bigger scenes. With around 150 people in the show each night this sounds like quite a daunting challenge, however writing for a large crowd seems to be one of her big drives.

I ask Peever what has drawn her back to making this kind of immersive work for the second time and she tells me, “I think it’s partly that audience focus, you feel a lot like you’re serving other people as opposed to serving yourself.” She tells me this is also Shotgun Carousel’s prerogative, “to cement the audience as a necessary part of this play.” She goes on, “they’re the guests in the ball, we are really taking them into consideration, casting them, always making them feel that they are at the centre and not an afterthought.” And if you are wondering how the audience participation ties in with the plot, she gives me a sneaky taster. “The premise is that there is a prince and there are all these characters in the palace that are toys that he’s collected to be there and entertain the guests. As an audience member you have a choice to accept this passively or whether you decide to think of these characters not as toys but as people with personalities, and engage with them on that level and empower them to change the story.” The audience are also given roles via their ticket selection. “The VIP dining experience are told that they are the nobility whereas people who don’t have that are told they are peasants.”

Writing wise, Peever explains the maths of the production and how each scene is written in 10 or 20 minute slots, this way, “everyone is ejected from the rooms at the same time” and so you don’t have to follow one specific story the whole way through. I comment that this sounds like it has set her up brilliantly for video game writing, bringing us on to Charlie Brooker’s Netflix Special, Bandersnatch. “That came out as I was writing,” she recalls. “I probably didn’t get as far with Bandersnatch as other people, but I wanted the audience to know where they were going. I wanted to feel like they have power but also there are other forces in this world.” The impressive set, lighting and costume design, not to mention the sumptuous sounding menu provided by 2016 Masterchef semi-finalist, Annie McKenzie all create an atmosphere that is carefully orchestrated. Peever adds that she hopes that “all these things allow the audience to feel comfortable and confident in the world that they are in.” 

This confidence is important when the audience is all masked up and faced with making their own decisions. I think about how some of the non-creatives in the audience will really be thrown out of their comfort zones – in a good way. Peever puts it well, saying that “it’s about being open minded and exploratory and saying yes in a consensual way.” I put it to her that both the previous show Divine Proportions and this one seems to really play upon the fact that we are all talking about sex a lot more these days. I’ve been listening to Podcasts like Naomi Sheldon’s Pleasure Podcast and Sara Pascoe’s Sex Power Money and so this theme of sexual freedom is playing on my mind. Plus, I’m single! Peever responds with “it’s not that we’ve become sexier in our interests, I think it’s that we’ve become more aware of our whole identity and a sex drive is a part of that.” Her relationship with Shotgun Carousel is well developed and she goes on to tell me that theirs’ “and my work is about being truthful to your identity, and sexuality is part of that. If theatre and the rest of the world oppress it before this [time], that’s a real shame.”

This underlying politicised aspect of the show is perhaps hidden but Peever states outright that she wanted the work “to really sizzle.” Although she tells me that “this piece isn’t as overtly sex positive as Divine Proportions,” I can’t help but think that being free to dress up however I want and wearing a mask would encourage me to let my hair down a little bit. I’ll probably go as a peasant to see Red Palace, and have a Maccy Ds on the way home, but if I can get a taste of this story, I reckon I won’t regret it. 

Red Palace is playing until 12 January 2020. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Vaults website.