Past directing credits include: Heart of a Dog (Theatre in the Mill), Starsong (Theatre Workshop, Sheffield), Bus (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Sigernost (National Theatre of Croatia, Osijeck) and How to Build a Time Machine (International Tour, Seabright Productions.
He was Resident Assistant Director to the West Yorkshire Playhouse ’05- ’06, and is also currently a selector for the National Student Drama Festival.
It’s described by Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane as “a walkthrough immersion installation”; advance publicity for They Only Come at Night: Visions warns that it is not suitable for under 16s or those with a heart condition. So what sort of an entertainment is Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre offering from November 23rd to 28th?
First of all Alan explains the actual organisation of the evening. Every six minutes a group of three audience members leaves the Lawrence Batley Theatre for a location (as yet unspecified, but various references incline me to think it’s a car park) where, over a span of some 40 minutes, directions lead to a series of installations and theatrical moments which may or may not terrify the onlookers.
Apart from anything else, Alan is interested in the variety of reactions. A review in The Observer of TOCAN:V (as it tends to be abbreviated) at the Barbican referred rather sniffily to the need for audiences to pretend to be frightened. Clearly the reviewer has nerves of steel; not everyone has reacted like that:
“We stage 37 shows in the course of an evening. With three people each time, that’s about 100 in the audience. We can be sure that about 20 of those will come out hysterical with fear. Last night there were three people who were just too terrified to carry on. On the other hand, immediately after three people who are terrified, you’ll probably get a group of students who at the end look as though they’ve just been for a coffee, saying it was interesting, but not at all scary!
“The warning about a heart condition is serious in a way. We live in a very careful world and people are used to being warned about anything that might upset them.” (At this point I mention peanuts sold with warnings that the product might contain nuts; in retrospect the solemn notices about smoking on stage might be more appropriate.) “We know that some people will be very scared and, of course, they know their own bodies better than we do. But, at the same time, warnings like this are part of the stock in trade of the horror genre to which we belong – and that’s part of the fun.”
“Fun” seems an odd word to use at this point, but Alan’s conversation is a disconcerting mix of the bizarre and the conventional. Whilst staging a site-specific event that consists of installations that have to re-set themselves in six minutes, he also talks about the need for theatre to tell a story, to appeal to audiences of different types on all levels. Slung Low, now nearly 10 years old, consists of a core of eight people (from, as the company’s publicity puts it, “diverse creative backgrounds including prose, movement, video, sound and theatre”), but half of them have a theatre background. Alan (who spent a year as Resident Assistant Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) has no doubt of the power and importance of theatre in all its forms and asserts that skills and techniques are transferable from conventional theatre to the avant garde – and, no doubt, vice versa.
For all that TOCAN:V is an unusual and remarkable concept. Two years ago Slung Low staged They Only Come at Night as a fairly simple project on a car park in Bradford as part of a small festival, then gradually the idea grew of using the ideas in a variety of performance situations and in many different media. A few months ago another theatrical installation, They Only Come at Night: Resurrection, was staged at the Lowry in Salford. A third theatrical event has yet to be staged. At the same time a whole bunch of allied material and activities can be found on the internet and elsewhere. As Alan points out, you don’t need to know any of this: TOCAN:V can be enjoyed (or however it takes you) as a one-off event or you can turn from the theatre (car park?) to the internet to prolong the experience.
I’m sure I’m not the only person to be thinking, “Why Huddersfield?”. It’s not the obvious place for the only other performances after a run at the Barbican. It turns out that I am very wrong in my assumption that the work originates in London. Slung Low’s highly productive year has come partly as a result of collaborating with Victoria Firth of LBT and all their productions are made initially in Yorkshire where Alan is based. This time, Yorkshire audiences will also benefit.
And will the Huddersfield event be the same as that at the Barbican? Alan is fascinated by how far site-specific works can tour to different places and, though the ingredients will be the same, he tells me that TOCAN:V will have to be “re-made” for Huddersfield. In another sense it will be different. Slung Low uses sizeable numbers of performers – 21 with 250 students for a previous production, 14 in this case – for what Alan calls “large-scale ambitious events”. Two of the London participants have to depart for other commitments in Germany – not really a problem for Slung Low! Alan finds having to replace them “exciting”, but then he finds most things exciting and hopes that the groups of three teetering through the late-November night in Huddersfield (whether trembling or blasé) will feel the same.
- Ron Simpson
They Only Come at Night is at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield from 23-28 November.