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Jo Caird: The Power of Promenade

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Those of you who've read my stuff before will probably be aware of my childlike enthusiasm for promenade and interactive theatre. When done well, this type of performance can offer the most magical of theatre experiences, as audiences are literally carried along with a production and invited to take part and share in it.

Punchdrunk has been instrumental in bringing this work into the spotlight in recent years: the company's The Masque of the Red Death was the hottest ticket of the year in 2007, the show’s combination of darkness and discovery bringing an edginess to promenade theatre that made the cool kids come running.

A couple of recent conversations, however, as well as an unexpectedly inspiring evening of community theatre, got me thinking about the wider potential of this type of performance to engage not just those in the know enough to get their paws on tickets for shows like last year’s glorious You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk’s ENO collaboration, The Duchess of Malfi (which sold out within 4.86 seconds I believe), but people who have never been to, or taken an interest in theatre in their lives.

I interviewed playwright Jonathan Holmes (he of Fallujah and Katrina fame) about his latest project, The Mill – City of Dreams, a site-specific, largely verbatim piece currently playing in a disused mill in Bradford. The play draws on hours of interviews with local people, many of whom have no previous experience of theatre, and the show’s producers are keen to keep the community involved throughout the process.

During our interview, Holmes made some fascinating points about how the “neutrality of a found space” can work to assuage the anxieties of those for whom theatre is an elite and seemingly irrelevant cultural form. Promenade work, he said, is something that young audiences, even those new to theatre, are often more comfortable with because interactivity and progression-based entertainment is already familiar to them from gaming. Essentially, by taking plays out of theatres and letting people take an active role in their entertainment experience, you stand a chance of reaching a whole new audience.

A few days after this conversation, a trip out of London to see The Amersham Martyrs Community Play (which in the spirit of full disclosure I should mention was directed by my boyfriend’s father) was an illuminating opportunity to see the potential of promenade theatre in action.

While a handful of the community cast of 60 adults and 40 children had some experience of amateur dramatics or school plays, most were entirely new to acting. During the play’s scripted scenes, in which a dozen or so people had speaking parts, this lack of technical skill was apparent; but for the production’s improvised promenade moments, including a 15-minute opening scene showing the 16th-century villagers going about their business on market day while the audience wandered around eavesdropping on them, the cast was faultless. It was remarkable to see these non-actors so deeply committed to their performances. My boyfriend’s father later told me that many individuals in his cast have expressed their amazement at being able to take part in this way and have found a joy in something they thought was off limits to them as ‘non-artistic people’.

In the same way that new audiences might be ready to engage with promenade work because it doesn’t involve the ‘baggage’ of conventional theatre, people nervous about acting might be willing to take on a role in a promenade production like The Martyrs because it is gives them the thrill of artistic involvement without the pressure of performance.

So while I’m thrilled that promenade theatre is hip at the moment, what I think is far more exciting is that along with being trendy, the genre could hold the key to greater engagement in theatre and the arts more generally.


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