Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A new form of Dinner Theater...and then some.

A few weeks ago I saw two performances that incorporated a meal as a part of the Coming Up festival. I love food almost as much as I love theatre so I was very much looking forward to seeing Kindle Theatre's Eat Your Heart Out. After seeing/eating that show I heard about Civil Unrest produced by Spike Laurie so I quickly booked tickets to that event meal as well.

We enter the long corridor of the Debut tunnel underneath London Bridge. A long table runs along the centre. Three cloaked figures stand on the table as a foggy mist drags us deeper into the tunnel. With the tables set, we sit down as guests of this post-apocalyptic dinner party.

The Aide, a hunched figure with a white face and hallowed eyes clad in black with one high-heeled shoe, welcomes us to the feast. Her high-creaky voice and eager grin is curiously inviting. Before we can partake of the aperitif, she and the three cooks of their mistress, the Queen and through differing points of mood paints the picture of the world destroyed by an asteroid leaving the world without life and therefore without food. The Aide then explains the ‘artefacts’ on our plates: in the right hand we pick up asteroid ash and in the left distilled jewels of the Queen to a toast.

Next is a little game like musical chairs but is played with a crown as the Aide selects guests. A male guest is crowned and is ceremoniously brought along the table and into the blinding white light of the kitchen. Music plays and in the distance we hear the muffled sounds of a struggle, and few hacking chops, and then what sounds like blood gushing out into a bucket. The dinner preparation noises continue as the band plays whilst spurts of nervous laughter from around the table punctuate the festivities.

Finally, the Aide re-emerges, blood drips from her mouth and hands, with an impish grin. Let the feast begin! We’re served dessicated butter and coal bread with hearty stew. I timidly poke the bread and then bang it on my plate. After tearing it open and ripping off a piece, I decide that it is more than edible, it’s rather tasty. The servants bring out the stew in tin cans, dripping with blood. I start up a conversation with the people sitting next to me (a playwright and a dance critic) as we eat our meal, consciously ignoring the question of ‘what exactly are we eating?’ ‘Mmmm, murder,’ I say with a cheeky grin. Thankfully the red hued lighting is low enough to where we can’t really see the details of what’s inside the can. I really don’t want to look in it. Blanch & Shock created the food and apparently they specialize in fake blood.

For the pudding the Aide and the three cooks carry out a wooden coffin. We’re given pH 4.2, a chilled drink, as the servants scoop out chocolate cake soil with edible flowers into our hands. After everyone has finished their pudding, the Aide comes out for one last hurrah, ending with a joke.

The narrative was simple enough to bring us into this fictional world and was entirely structured around the meal. My main complaint is that the table/stage was so long that those of us at the end could barely see the cooks on the other end. Having watched a video of a past, more intimate, dinner setting I’ve realised that we missed a lot of the playful interaction the cooks and Aide engage in with the guests. Also having read past reviews of other renditions and earlier workshops, it seems the food was a bit more adventurous too. I understand the need to simplify things a bit for such a large venue but now I feel like I’ve missed out on something more compelling. I did enjoy what was presented, I eat all of my food, and enjoyed the company of those around me, but knowing what they’ve done with the piece before makes me long for a more intimate experience.

That being said, I could have watched the Aide (played by Nina Smith) all day. She had terrific presence and highly nuanced physical gestures, movements and even voice pitches.

The Baroque inspired setting worked well with the post-apocalyptic narrative. The underlying message of food, and more importantly were we get our food from come together beautifully both thematically and aesthetically. A common anxiety today is resources and that we’ll soon run out of them. As oil prices rise, so does the cost of food. More and more attention is being directed to food – where it comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s delivered and even how it is cooked. The farming of animals in under scrutiny as documentaries and books tackle the reprehensible treatment of animals: from injections of antibiotics, growth hormones and other drugs; to cramped, unsanitary living environment; to simply inhumane treatment. The industrialisation mentality of production has driven us to the machine-like treatment of animals and food. The simple question of ‘what would the world be like without food?’ is explored in an entertaining yet poignant way with Eat Your Heart Out. An exploration that could go even further, asking more questions along the way.

Civil Unrest was completely different in almost every way except for the whole eating food part.

Once the doors were opened we were greeted by riot police. As we tried to step forward they shouted, ‘step back!’ A nervous laughter quickly spread throughout those of us at the front. Finally one guy yelled ‘push through’ and quickly downed his wine and made an attempt, but was pushed back. Slightly bewildered, he tried again, in vain. Then another guy suggested that we all band together. Determined, but with a playful easiness, we pushed through. Once through, the exhibit of photographs and journalistic art on the walls and gates created a maze in the vault. A few of us unknowingly slipped on ahead and were nicely asked by the producer to go behind the gate (so much for illusion, but it was their first night so I’ll let it slide). As we all crowed round behind the gate, we watch documentary footage of the student riots at Millbank last November.

The riot police began to antagonise us and “encouraged” us to push through again to the next section. Then we queued up for our slop of prison food, conveniently served in paper trays. The couple I stood next too wanted to play along so I joined them in heckling the police and coming up with clever chants. Then we discussed the difference between the group motivation at the protests and the group motivation of us at a theatrical event (having just discussed Teresa Brennan’s Transmission of Affect that day in class, it’s possible that I initiated this conversation.) After collection our trays of food we entered the mess hall comprising of two rows of tables and benches. Along the perimeter were benches for those who would be coming just for the play later on, and a rigged catwalk, which allowed guards to watch us from above. The table were covered in white tablecloths and each “inmate” was set with spoons and napkins as well as ‘Welcome to Prison’ notes detailing this fictional world in the near future where prisons are outsourced and prisoners are fed a gourmet meal.

I was a bit sceptical of the spoon as we were given beef, but as soon as I touched the meat with my spoon, it delicately fell apart. There was also an artichoke puree, roasted veggies, the most amazing brioche with a roll and for the pudding a delicious cheesecake mousse with poached pears and crumble topping. I ate. Every. Last. Morsel.

I had a pleasant conversation with my fellow inmates – the lady and gentleman I had been rowdy with out in the queue and another man and a female friend of his. We talked of theatre and politics, as well as food – we were all thoroughly enjoying our meal.

At the end of the meal, while the were removing the centre tables to open up the “stage” we were served a Courvoisier (a sponsor of Coming Up) cocktail. By this time the perimeter free benches were full of people – something that should have been acknowledged more during the meal but wasn’t.

Unrestless by Ben Ellis chronicles last year’s student protests through the three differing perspectives of siblings; Paul, the eldest, is a police officer; Amy, the middle child, works with students and is a major activist; Tony, the youngest, is apathetic towards both sides and is focused on finding a job to help deal with the dept left by their late parents. Director John Kachoyan utilised the entire space with actors running up and down aisle, traipsing over tables and standing above us on the catwalks.

In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I usually dislike political theatre. I find it didactic and often inhuman and lacking in depth. It’s evident that Ellis tried to avoid this by using the familial bonds as a structuring point. And although this helps in bringing a human and honest quality, it doesn’t quite suffice. I did, however, find the humour refreshing and the horse/we are all animals motif poetic (a motif that had great potential but needed more fleshing out). The play is entirely one sided and depicts the police (except for Paul) in an unflattering and ridiculously ignorant caricature. There’s one scene that really didn’t settle well with me. An officer talked about the beauty of destruction, and I was totally with him until he mention 9/11 and the twin towers. I didn’t find him quite so poetic after that, but rather heartless. I tend to stay away from political theatre because it is so invested in right now. So caught up in this very instant that it loses sight of the past and blocks its vision of the future. There’s no distance, no sense of mystery or evolution. The earnestness of it all totally turns me off. And the earnestness of this play is strongly felt, especially with protests still happening.

After the play there was a quick debate (I don’t remember their names but there was a lawyer, an MP and an human rights lawyer/activist). Although it was short, a few interesting points came up. The notion of a real life political drama and how each person plays their role in political protests came up. The use of language was also brought up and how reality is overlaid with lies, which are used in politics and social control.

Overall, I applaud creative director/producer Spike Laurie for the company’s ambition and thank them for taking a risk on this amalgamated theatricality. I think the entrance into the space, where we had to force our way through was a bold choice, but ultimately unsuccessful as the audience didn’t play the role of riotous mob but rather a group of theatre goers who were also hungry. Remember, we paid to be there. The expectation of us actively rioting was never alluded to in the promotion of the event. Not to mention, most people had drinks in their hands and no one wants to waste alcohol whilst playing “angry mob.”

As for the meal, I was under the impression that the free people would come in and essentially watch us (who paid the £25 for the meal) eat in this mock up prison of the future. The idea of outsourced prisons as a profitable enterprise is a fascinating idea in and of itself but its connection and importance to the overall conceit of the event is elusive.

There was so much happening over the course of the evening: an art/documentary exhibit; (timid) role play as rioters; an experimental meal; an environmental and politically charged play; and a debate. I think because this was the first night, things didn’t run as smoothly as possible, but I also think that’s because the creative team bit off more than they could chew. That being said, I’d rather have too much than none at all.

To my five followers:  how about you? Have you been to dinner and a show where the dinner was the show? As usual, let me know your thoughts. Again, I'm writing an essay on the topic for my contemporary theatre class so any suggestions and thoughts are much appreciated. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

London has turned me into a criminal.

First I broke into a building and stole things, now I'm traipsing around Londontown meeting with thieves and searching for clues to stolen goods. The following is about my experience and initial thoughts to Accomplice:  London which is one of four iterations; there are three in New York and one in Hollywood. Created by Tom Salamon and his sister Betsy Salamon-Sufott after a disappointing walking tour, they came up with the idea to create a new and exciting way of engaging with the environment. Having missed going to see it in Hollywood I was excited to see the London version.

27 February

Two days ago: I got an angry and demanding voice message instructing me to meet at a black bench at a known London landmark at precisely 4pm. Don’t be early. Don’t be late. Oh yeah, and destroy the phone. Can’t leave any evidence behind.

I show up early but don’t go to the meeting point. I look around wondering who else was there for the same reason I was. Afraid someone might be watching me I decide to blend in and wait until 4:00pm. I sit down just as my clock struck 4. A couple sit next to me and look around anxiously. It’s now after 4pm and I’m getting nervous. “Are you here for Accomplice?” I ask the couple. They nod. We wait. A guy sitting on the other side of me stands and rattles off names and walks off. I hear mine and follow after him, along with the rest of the group – about ten of us in total. Me, the young couple, a mom and dad with their 12-year-old son, an older woman her friend and an older couple.

As we gather around he begins with telling us why we’re there. He rattles off information so quickly that I just smile that impish grin of mine that I make when I find something ridiculously awesome. The details are coming in so quickly that I’ve already given up on my childhood dream of becoming a spy – I just can’t handle that much information at once. “Nigel Peter Hammersmith.” I remember that much because we all repeated it. Nigel is the reason we’ve all gathered. He organised an elaborate heist worth millions and was subsequently killed. His faithful group of thieves, or the Alliance, have waited a year to put together the clues Nigel left behind to the location of the treasure. Since there’s a hit out on the other members of the Alliance, we’ve been brought in as accomplices.

A man with a green hat walks by. We move to another area. I see a guy with a multi-coloured scarf. He seems dodgy. And what about those two guys with a map? It’s barely begun and I’m already paranoid. The man tells us about project [blank] and that we will be meeting others in the Alliance during our adventure of solving clues, cracking codes, and navigating the South Bank of London.

I’ve already shared too much. What makes Accomplice successful is its mystery. The creators of the Accomplice series ask that those who participate keep the details secret. Without giving all the details away, I will say that the entire event is fairly easy to navigate, yet paranoia will keep you second-guessing at every turn. At each meeting point members of the Alliance seem to appear out of thin air to give us the next piece of the puzzle and then just as we turn our backs, they disappear. Never knowing exactly who the next member is, I found myself wanting to approach strangers or if I caught someone looking at us, I wondered if they were in on it.

After meeting a host of characters, solving puzzles and collecting clues we made it to the end. We had a bit of trouble at the end as we were missing a clue (which was not our fault) but managed to solve the last clue and unlock the treasure. All in about 2.5 hours.

Although I enjoyed the experience as well as the subtle humour, I wanted more, for lack of a better word. I wanted my heart to beat a little faster, I wanted there to be a stronger element of risk. Maybe my group was too safe? I’ve heard stories of people talking to the homeless, going into stranger’s flats, getting lost, or not solving the puzzle at the end. My group didn’t really stick together, we didn’t really collaborate that much. While the 12-year-old and myself were completely enthralled some of the others treated it merely as a scavenger hunt and weren’t playing along. Well, to be honest, they were playing along – they just weren’t playing along to the extent that I wanted them to. I do have to mention though, at one spot where a strip club was brought up and one man from my group was called out – he played along with great comedic timing. Kudos.

It makes me wonder what the experience would have been like had I gone with a group of friends rather than my loner self. There would have been more camaraderie and easily acquired acceptance of this fictional world we were about to enter. This is a piece that uses a real landscape, characters and (an albeit weak) narrative mixed with spectacle, puzzles and comedy to create a hybrid theatrical experience, one where we aren’t just spectators but active participants. That being said, I still want more. And I think I now understand what that “more” is: power. I not only want to participate in the event, but also in the narrative. And I want a shared narrative with my group.

Obviously, with every group the experience is going to be slightly different, but because the narrative is pretty much fixed, as are the clues that get you from place to place, not much variation can occur. Where things go awry are the in-between places. The going from one clue to the next. For instance, in the beginning after we solved our first clue and met with the second person of the Alliance, we weren’t sure on where to go and almost took a wrong turn due to conflicting opinions in the group. And as I’ve mentioned before, there are stories of groups going completely off track.

It seems that the risk involved with Accomplice is a very homogenised risk. Just risky enough for the average participant but not too risky to where things get completely out of hand. I wonder if it’s possible to create an experience where the element of risk and narrative collide that feels real rather than imitation. One that really challenges and pushes you, that gets your heart racing, rather than coddled by the confines of the theatrical contract – the one that blatantly states this is fakery and therefore there’s nothing to be alarmed about.

OK, I know these last few paragraphs make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy myself. I did, thoroughly. I think the entire experience is clever and inventive, with a clear yet undemanding narrative, eccentric characters, and the city as a backdrop. It’s quite simply fun. I’d love to do it again. Obviously, I would have to pretend like I’ve never done it before and have no idea what’s going on (which I would gladly do just to see another group go through the experience).

If you've done any version of Accomplice please let me know what your experience was like. I'm using this (and Heist) as case studies for my MA dissertation on interactive theatrical events.