"The performance is possible and gains a new sense of purpose only because of the audience"
Re-creating the Shawshank experience - Photo by Creativesocialblog
Immersive or participatory theatre is about designing your performance with active participation from the audience. The audiences' presence makes the play possible. Their actions give the play a new sense of purpose.
A fortnight ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a re-creation of 'Shawshank Redemption', as part of London's Secret Cinema venture. This simply meant that I was a prisoner in Shawshank. I dressed like one and ate like one and was definitely treated that way too. The experience was questioning in many ways about how I truly felt through the experience and after its conclusion.
We were asked to come dressed in formals, and wear our long johns under our clothes. I was sent for trial, where I was convicted of kidnap and sentenced to 8 years in prison. A prison bus drove us from one location to an abandoned school a few miles away. As soon as we got down, we were mocked at, guards yelled at us in their firm tones, commanding us and treating us like dirt. However, you know that everything you are going through is an act and you know for sure that you are safe. It's that willing suspension of disbelief that makes it or breaks it for you. At this juncture in life, I don't think I will ever be convicted for kidnap in reality. This was my chance to live a second life, though you may not really want to.
We were sent into a common hallway, where we changed and everything was administered in a strict drill sort of fashion. We were led to our bunks, where prisoners also offered to sneak in beer and other eatables. Dinner followed, where we were given steel plates and served food in a rather harsh manner. A whole spoon full of baked beans was shoved into my mouth, against my liking. (I am allergic to baked beans, but the guards dint care) The atmosphere set was scary, strict and violent.Well, that's how jails are, at least from what we know of it from the movies we see. We were taken to recreation rooms, where I sketched and also made wax candles. Of course I was inducted into the library, where the jail warden pushed out books from all rows and it was my job to rearrange the whole bit. I did have my revenge. I stole the warden's shoes, as it happens in the movie !
We were then taken to the medical room and asked to consume some pills. The nurses at the counter refused to tell us what the pill was and almost forced us to take it. I took the pill, but did not swallow it and spat it out as soon as I left the room. At that precise moment, I felt like I was really a prisoner, breaking the rules and being sneaky. It was a realization of another sort. Was I really feeling violated and manipulated at that moment? Was my life really in someone else's hands? Was I really in jail ? Do I ever want to be in jail and be put through such treatment ?
I also broke the rules, where I disobeyed the guards and created chaos. I was literally pushing boundaries and testing their patience. I know that if it were all real, I'd maybe be shot down by now, but it was rather interesting to see and feel the tension of the environment and be part of it.
We also got to watch Shawshank Redemption at the end of it, to top it all. Plenty of beer was served and we were finally released into the real world !