Whether you are a quite the non-traditionalist when it comes to theatre, or are simply keen to experience something different, make sure to drop by Gatecrash for a production like no other. Grab a drink, socialise, eat some questionable nibbles and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations… all of the usual elements of the teenage house party.

This week I chatted with Toby Ealden, Artistic Director of Zest Theatre, all about Gatecrash and the quirky complexities of producing a tour with a unique framework. Zest Theatre, dedicated to creating engaging and accessible theatre for, by and with young people, has pushed boundaries and redefined the theatregoer’s typical experience to produce Gatecrash, an immersive production adopting silent disco technology, throwing out the theatre rulebook for a national tour.

With his parents on holiday, Sam is having a house party. Nothing big, just a few close friends… and a whole audience of gatecrashers. Zest Theatre invites you to join Sam’s house party, where you can explore the space, and interact with other audience members and actors too, all the while wearing headphones. For those of you who haven’t attended the university rite of passage that is the silent disco, let me explain… On arrival you are given a set of wireless headphones, which are connected to two (or three, or four, or five) different DJ stations. You can then switch between stations with the press of a button to whatever music, or in Zest Theatre’s case, conversation, takes your fancy. “I had the concept of creating an interactive show set in a house party way before the idea of using headphones,” explains Ealden, revealing that they arrived at the idea by trying to solve practical problems. “I was struggling to work out how our actor’s dialogue could be heard over the noise of our fictitious house party, I didn’t want to keep the audience quiet or turn the music down, equally I didn’t want to mic up the actors and amplify them over a PA system”. At this point silent disco technology seemed the most practical solution: “they’d allow us to create a perfect audio mix of music and dialogue, whether that be a loud argument or a whispered flirtatious exchange, and would let the audience choose between conversations that interested them”.

This is the first time that I’ve heard of a theatre company adopting this technology, offering not only a breath-of-fresh-air experience, but also one which will be different to every other audience member’s in the same performance… “Every show is different, which is what makes it so exciting, unless you see the show a few times it is impossible to hear and see everything. If you went to a party you and your friends will all experience the same event but will leave having had different conversations and witnessed separate incidents, and we created the show to emulate this.” Ealden then goes on to explain the strangest audience behaviour they’ve experienced at Gatecrash, from people joining in with stage fights to bringing birthday cake to the show for the main character, Sam! “The weirdest, however, was when a woman walked in, sat on the sofa, picked up a prop magazine and read it cover to cover without lifting her head to watch the show – despite spending a tenner on her ticket!”

Zest Theatre was founded in 2007 by Ealden after he was made redundant from his job, but was still determined to continue his work in youth theatre projects for the arts. “For a few years we were continually funded by Children’s Services at Lincolnshire County Council, they gave us job after job to produce a range of projects with young people across the county… It was only when Children’s Services felt the force of the cuts in 2011 that I was forced to really take stock. It was time to rebuild, focus on our theatre output and begin looking beyond Lincolnshire.” Zest Theatre then began to evolve to engage young people in a theatrical setting as well as through schools, bringing productions such as Two to Tango, One Friday Night and Man Up to the stage, and eventually the idea for Gatecrash was born. But what about all of you budding theatre producers and performers desperate to form your own company, too? “We would always say go for it!” says Ealden. “There is no doubt that running your own company is tough but the rewards do outweigh the stresses and strains. Be brave, tenacious, determined and don’t let the knock backs stop you. If we can do it then so can you!”

And what’s next for Zest? With a growing reputation as an inventive company bringing an approachable, engaging theatrical experience to young people, it is exciting to know its next step. “Young people will always be central to our work, particularly those who have never experienced the arts before. Therefore all our future shows will have accessibility threaded through in order to engage and communicate to the widest possible range of young people.” I then get a sneak peek into Zest’s future plans: “in addition to Gatecrash we have a range of projects happening including our youth theatre projects in Lincolnshire and a 120 date school tour. Next summer we’ll be touring festivals and outdoor spaces with our new show Boy Meets Girl – a physical theatre production using the same audio technology. Additionally, we are currently developing a one-man show that will take place within a converted retro caravan, giving us the opportunity to literally take the show anywhere. In our office there’s a white board full of ideas that we are trying to get off the ground… so watch this space!”
Gatecrash is touring nationally from 25 September until 7 November. For more information, visit Zest Theatre’s website.