In a new series of interviews with young theatre companies, Samuel Nicholls finds out what strategies they use to stand out in an over-saturated industry. This month, he talks to Mannequin Mouth about utilising the internet to create new experiences for an audience.
Just over 10 years ago, influential theatre critic Lyn Gardner predicted in a Guardian article that “the growth of pervasive media and digital technologies [would offer] theatre-makers and audiences unprecedented new opportunities.” The internet, with all the tools and resources it encompasses, would fundamentally change not only how we make theatre but how we consume it. A decade later however, and it’s difficult to see evidence of this shift. Despite the internet being more ubiquitous than ever, permeating into every part of our day-to-day lives, it would appear as if its influence hasn’t quite yet reached the theatre. In comparison to how Netflix, YouTube and Spotify have revolutionised their respective mediums, its hard to see examples of the internet affecting how theatre is innately created and digested; it’s seemingly the same as it has always been … that is, unless Mannequin Mouth has anything to do with it.
Formed by Will Pinhey and India Howland at the University of Exeter in 2018, Mannequin Mouth is a new-writing-focused company, inspired by what the pair felt was a lack of theatre that offered deep emotional resonance. “We’d see a play and think it was enjoyable, but it wouldn’t have much impact on us,” Howland explains. “Life’s too short to be indifferent to something you’re watching.” Thus, the pair were spurred into action, staging works that intentionally provoked “extreme” emotional responses from their audiences and, as Pinhey asserts, “no one leaves a Mannequin Mouth show unaffected.” Indeed, that’s how the company’s producer, Emma Gabola, got involved. After watching Mannequin Mouth’s inaugural production, Primrose Path, which portrays the increasingly violent power-plays of an unhinged couple, she emerged with two thoughts: “I feel rotten after seeing that” and “I must get involved.” Now based in London and with three productions under its belt, the company is turning its sights to unchartered territory: the internet.
The idea came to Pinhey and Howland as they were deep in the throes of future planning. Weighed under the demands of both their last year at university and show week of their second production, the pair were naturally looking to the future: of what was ‘next’ for Mannequin Mouth. Inspiration struck as they listened to music. As Pinhey explains, “the world is so online. You can watch the live show of a band you love, and you could great time watching that show, but you’d never say, ‘I went to that gig…’ some of my favourite bands, I’ve never seen live – it doesn’t matter, I still love their music and I still connected with them in this way so why can’t that be the same for theatre?”
Why can’t this be the same for theatre? At a time when theatre attendance is at an all-time low but online engagement is at an all-time high, the internet seems like the obvious choice for new companies hoping to break-through, and Mannequin Mouth takes it a step further: they release full film adaptations of their productions online. Did you miss their run of Primrose Path? No worries, just log on and watch the entire thing. Want to see if you vibe with their style of theatre before you commit to buying a ticket? Peruse their online catalogue. Want to support the company but live too far away from where they stage their shows? Follow and encourage their efforts from across the web. At a time when, according to the Arts Council, ‘risk-taking in theatre has never been lower’, Mannequin Mouth uses the internet to mitigate the challenges incipient companies face, innovating both how audiences can engage with their work and the work itself.
However, this isn’t to say the company isn’t stage-focused: as Pinhey affirms, “these films don’t replace the theatrical productions, they reinforce them.” Specifically, the films aren’t substitutes, they’re supplementary. Their online presence supports their real-world work, allowing their productions to have a presence and impact beyond their initial staging. In this regard, Howland draws a parallel to how fans of musicals follow their favourite productions, “audiences can continue to engage with the depicted worlds by listening to those productions’ soundtracks – we’re essentially doing the same thing” – enabling their fans to revisit and reflect on the company’s work. Moreover, by having their catalogue available online, the company can afford to be even more ambitious with their projects moving forward, adding narrative and thematic depth that may not be apparent on the first viewing. In essence then, this strategy allows Mannequin Mouth to create productions that work beyond their staging, soaring to heights they otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.
Of course, the seemingly obvious comparison to this approach would be ‘NT: Live’, the National Theatre-sponsored programme in which theatrical productions are broadcasted to cinemas around the world. But this is a parallel Mannequin Mouth is eager to dissuade. “There are two major differences between us and ‘NT: Live,’” explains Howland. “First, unlike their productions, ours are shot like actual films, complete with score, visual effects, specific cinematography; they’re unmistakeably films, not just theatre productions that have been filmed. Second, if you’re watching an ‘NT: Live’ screening, you’re not the intended audience – the initial theatre production’s is. Your experience of that play is filtered through the audience watching it and unlike ‘NT: Live’, our films are specifically made for the screen.” In this sense, online audiences aren’t an afterthought: they’re given the same care and attention that theatrical audiences are, equally enticed to support the company’s work.
So, with this utilisation of the internet, Mannequin Mouth should easily find success, right? Unfortunately, nothing is ever that easy. Indeed, although Lyn Gardner predicted “unprecedented new opportunities” through the internet, she also foretold potential new “challenges” – namely, how do you get noticed alongside the deluge of content that already exists online? “It’s a double-edged sword,” admits Gabola. “The internet may make you more accessible, but it also makes you compete for attention.” On YouTube alone, it is estimated that one hour of content is uploaded to the site every second, so the odds of Mannequin Mouth getting noticed in this streaming tsunami are seemingly insurmountable. But the company is far from afraid. “We get shit done!” jokes Howland. “We know it’s going to be hard work, but we can’t wait to get started.”