Home-grown company Burn The Curtain Theatre are getting ready for their upcoming event in Swimbridge after their very successful appearance at Rougemont Gardens in Exeter in July, with 'The Adventures of Uncle Lubin'. Director, Joe Hancock, explains how they achieve a unique interaction between audience and performers.
Who are Burn the Curtain Theatre and What is The Adventures of Uncle Lubin?
We go on adventures. The audience come with us. Sometimes they get there first......We make outdoor, site specific and promenade theatre. The main focus of our work is on children, families and young people, but not exclusively so. 'The Adventures of Uncle Lubin' is a story by the Illustrator William 'Heath' Robinson about an old man who goes on an adventure by accident when his nephew is stolen by a giant Bagbird....
What do you mean by 'Hands-On'?
Ours shows aren't just to be seen and heard- they also involve making and doing, for both the audience and the performers. Some of our shows start with a workshop where the audience make things that they will need in their adventures. Often characters will ask the audience to help to complete our shows. It is not panto- it's not just getting our audience to shout things out on queue, but neither is it like a magician or hypnotist asking for a volunteer to come out of the audience, and cross over onto the stage, where the rest of the audience will look at them, where they are in the spotlight. We don't use a stage and we don't have an auditorium- there is no line to cross, and often the whole audience are involved in an activity simultaniously, led by something a character needs to achieve.
It seems that Burn The Curtain work to create a unique relationship between performer and and audience. Why is it important for your audiences to engage in building the performance together with the performers?
Because I think it is essential that our audiences feel ownership over what they are experiencing. So much of our entertainment has been created for us by someone else- the films you watch, the music you listen to; often many miles away, sometimes years ago. You can't change it or affect it, it is pre- recorded, it is what it is. It's not unique- your neighbour may have exactly the same CD or film in their collection. That is why live entertainment is so important- there is a particular magic in sharing a story and a performance with a group of other people at the same time and in the same space as you- creating something unique together.
What is achieved through this unique relationship?
Have you ever been at a show or a concert where the performer looked you straight in the eye? Makes you feel special doesn't it? We do this all the time. Not only that, we use our audiences names, and ask them for help. There is a lot of satisfaction in being able to say 'We made that happen' not as individuals, but as a group.
How do you find audiences respond to the encouragement to engage in a higher level of participation?
Really well. Keeping it low key early on really helps. In the workshop before the main performance people get their hands busy first, making something simple, have a bit of a laugh, and forget to be nervous. After that 'warm up' they feel much more at home with helping out with more complex tasks- writing poems, releasing butterflies, taming wild beasts, being characters and building novel modes of transport.....Taking the audience on a journey helps too- once they have taken that first step, there is no going back.As any improviser knows, it's about offers and acceptance. As one of our audience members said ' Yes, you offered – and we accepted. In fact we grabbed! And we couldn’t get enough'. In Swimbridge we have invited our audience to come dressed as their favourite Explorer, Scientist or Inventor- I can't wait to see who turns up!
Due to the higher level of participation from the audience, to what extent does the experience of each performance change?
They are all completely different. If someone asks 'What does a bagbird eat?', then they need an answer, and we give them one. If they ask 'Why aren't we going that way?' we need to give them a reason. The characters know what they want, and where they are going; beyond that it is all fluid- a conversation between characters and audience, fellow adventurers.
Do you expect make new discoveries each time you perform to a new audience? Have you ever made any unexpected discoveries?
Every performance! That's one of the things about performing in public spaces- you have to relinquish a degree of control- you know where you are planning to go, but often you have to negotiate around the general public, the weather and nature, and what the audience wants. One of my favourite moments in 'Alice at Antony House' was when 20 odd performers and audience ran around a corner on the way to the queen's tea party, and found a small rabbit chewing on a leaf. So we had a conversation with it (a slightly one sided one admittedly..) and came to the conclusion that it was the White Rabbit's cousin Fredderick. Another time, a quiet bespeccled father who had not said anything for an hour at least suddenly declared that he was 'A Lion!' We had to agree....
What's the significance behind the stories you tell?
So far they have all been stories about journeys. People find out what they are capable of when they are taken out of their comfort zones.
Video by Meatbingo. All photos by Chloe Pooley and Flavia Fraser Cannon.