In a new series, Samuel Nicholls interviews small theatre companies to find out what strategies they use to stand out in an over-saturated industry. This month, he talks to Get Out of My Space (GOOMS) about doing ‘immersive’ on a budget.
The decade has only just begun, and already the marketing buzzword of-the-moment is apparent: ‘immersive’. From theatrical offerings like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Play That Goes Wrong, to long-running productions like The Lion King and Les Misérables, to even films like 1917 and Uncut Gems – everything and anything is being touted as an ‘immersive experience’. What does this term actually mean? A promenade piece? Site-specific? Actors occasionally appearing in the audience? For Tobias Cornwell, the Artistic Director of Get Out of My Space (GOOMS) theatre company, it comes down to agency.
“It’s all about choice,” he explains to me, “allowing the audience to choose how and what they experience”. This style of theatre, where the audience is given complete freedom to choose what to watch and where to go, is not necessarily a new concept but is a formidable one. Pioneered by companies like Punchdrunk, this immersive style demands an experience-hardened infrastructure and a mammoth budget to pull off (it’s suggested that Punchdrunk’s 2013 production, The Drowned Man had a crew of over 100 and the budget of a small film). So how does an emerging theatre company like GOOMS, with only a handful of small-scale productions under its belt, deliver a comparable immersive experience? “Well, it’s a lot of spreadsheets,” Cornwell admits.
Based in Tunbridge Wells, GOOMS began as just four school friends ‘challenging’ themselves to see if they could put on a show. “I remember thinking, ‘how hard could it be?’,” explains Cornwell as he reminisces on their first show, Boys by Ella Hickson. “Turns out, pretty hard actually,” he continues. Rehearsals for Boys dominated the four friends’ lives, financially and socially with each paying the requisite costs of the production (venue hire, performance rights etc.) out of their own pockets and spent all their free time, after school and in between lessons, in dedicated rehearsal. Suitably, the company’s name stems from what their drama teacher would spout as she kicked them out of the classroom at the end of each day: “get out of my space”. Boys would go on to be a success and entice Cornwell further to the world of theatre, which he would explore intently at the University of Exeter. Here, GOOMS would have its first foray into ‘immersive theatre’ with Red and Umbra – visceral retellings of Red Riding Hood and Woyzeck, respectively.
Now, GOOMS is constructing its most ambitious ‘immersive’ production to date: a stylish retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in the gang culture of late 1800s England called, Black Fate, where the audience can follow whichever character they want for however long they want. It’s a production of Punchdrunk-proportions, giving the audience unparalleled freedom in how they experience the play, with each character having their own idiosyncratic, pathos-rich journey. Cornwell aptly summarises, “it’s like putting on 17 plays at the same time”. In reality though, it’s far more than that: as each audience member cuts and switches between the various narrative threads, of which there are hundreds of thousands of possibilities and each will experience a version of Black Fate unique to them and to their choices. “Perspective is a powerful thing”, posits Cornwell, “really, what I’m most looking forward to is the bar after each show. I can’t wait to hear everyone’s personal experiences and perspectives of the show.”
So how is a production of this magnitude achieved, and by an incipient company with the fraction of budget and clout of its rivals? Cornwell does so by playing the ‘game’ differently. Pragmatically, he’s well aware that GOOMS doesn’t the same opportunities afforded to established theatre companies, so he turns to non-theatrical sources of inspiration. Indeed, when asked what influences his company’s culture the most, Cornwell responds instinctively with “the New Zealand All Blacks” … as in, the rugby team. “They have these 15 principles,” he elucidates, “and I’ve used them more than anything else”. The most pertinent of them? “Rule 6 – No Dickheads. Black Fate depends entirely on the cast working together. I’d rather cast someone who commits to the team than someone who is just talented.”
Moreover, Cornwell is the first to admit his Business degree has been a key part of the process with the rehearsal schedule, for example, reading more like a complex algebraic equation than a typical timetable, factoring in character combinations and actor availability in deciding how to rehearsal all the interlocking scenes. “It’s all a giant Rubik’s cube,” jokes Cornwell as he explains to me how the narrative threads weave together. “At this stage, the actors know the show better than I do,” which is to be expected considering the sheer scope of the two-hour long performance.
Of course, this level of ambition comes hand and hand with risk. “Sometimes I pause and think to myself, ‘am I pulling an Icarus here?’,” confesses Cornwell. Black Fate by necessity can’t be performed in a typical space, both because the multi-layered narratives need separate areas to ‘breathe’, and because what theatre would take a risk on such an ambitious concept? Instead, the play is being performed in The Beacon, a local restaurant that has previously let GOOMS stage their productions. And thus far, it’s been very effective, with Cornwell noting that he’s developed something of a “local following” from it. But even then, the productions hitherto have never been to the scale of Black Fate so the risk is very much still palpable, but what can be gained is equally great.
What’s next for GOOMS beyond Black Fate? Again, the answer can be found with the All Blacks: ‘Rule 2 – Go for The Gap: when you’re on top of your game, change your game’. “Every kind of show we do, I get Imposter Syndrome and I want to move on to the next thing,” Cornwell explains. “GOOMS is still young, I don’t want it to be known for just one kind of theatre, I want it to be known for good theatre”. Well, if Black Fate’s immersiveoffering is anything to go by, GOOMS looks like it has nothing to fear.
For more information on the company, visit the GOOMS website.