After receiving very positive reviews during the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I decided to grab myself a ticket to Fiction – an immersive performance experienced in complete darkness (produced by Fuel Theatre, and conceived by Glen Neath and David Rosenberg) and found it incredibly rewarding, if a little out of my comfort zone… Fiction was a vivid dream that disappeared rapidly as the lights turned on. When you’re in it, you’re in it, terrified and present, and when you leave your seat to walk out onto the streets (for me, the insatiably loud and intense vibrancy of the Fringe) you’re instantly craving more of the darkness.
Séance is the next installment of Glen and David’s collaborative experiments with theatre that get into the dark crevasses of our thoughts, confusing reality and fiction. I talk to Glen about the process of creating Séance, his favourite audience reactions and the art of subtle manipulation.
Edwina: Does Séance follow a similar structure to your previous collaborations with David Rosenberg?
Glen: All the pieces David and I have made together are primarily geared toward offering each audience member a singular experience, we’re not interested in presenting ‘radio plays’ in the dark. Every one of the shows, at it’s heart, has a desire to make each audience member feel special, that they have been picked out in some way for special treatment. What has been exciting to discover as we have gone along is that although each audience member is offered the same stimulus there is a very large number of different interpretations of the material – situating the audience in such an extreme environment allows for this breadth of responses.
Every one of the shows, at it’s heart, has a desire to make each audience member feel special, that they have been picked out in some way for special treatment.
E: What part of writing for theatre experienced in complete darkness excites you the most?
G: There are some things about our method of working that are frustrating, primarily the fact we cannot re-write once we have set the script for recording – which is why all the shows have been made and then re-made following their initial dates. A lot is learned about the experience once it is put in front of an audience. But a lot of prescient work has to be done in advance, and we approach the recording as prepared as we can be, but also open to ideas that occur in the moment. The text is written with the way it will sound in mind, we imagine objects and environments from the point of view of the sonic possibilities and if some object or action doesn’t sound as exciting as we expected it would we have to work out a way around this in the edit room.
Our collaboration (David and mine) is very equal. I co-write the pieces with David and David co-directs them with me. Every line is discussed before we record and then looked at again when the first edit is assembled. A lot is done in post-production with as much work done on the text after the fact – trimming lines; adding pauses; shifting scenes, finding and adding sounds to create tension or drama… it’s a very rewarding enterprise.
E: The struggle between collective and solitary experience is a huge part of your previous two collaborations with David Rosenberg. How much or little do you feel like you need to give away, when audience experience often stems from a reaction to the darkness?
…although each audience member is offered the same stimulus there is a very large number of different interpretations of the material – situating the audience in such an extreme environment allows for this breadth of responses.
G: When we made our first show, Ring, we were very wary about giving anything away at all – apart from warning the audience that the whole thing took place in absolute darkness. After a lot of talking around the ideas for the show, we became convinced the best way to make the most of the technology we were employing was by hiding it. We wanted to explore what the audience thought was real and what they imagined was fake; it seemed to be a very blurry line.
Both these shows have bold opening gambits that are highly improbable… and yet possible. In Ring the first action is that the audience rearrange their chairs into a circle. Many people when thinking back on the show have told me they remember it all happening in that false configuration. In Fiction we inform the audience half of them are actors and each audience member is assigned a chaperone. I think when presenting material in the dark, if we are clever, we can introduce false information that it is hard to ignore once it has been put into the audience member’s mind.
Bizarrely the shows (particularly Ring) only work as collective experiences. They play with the relationship between the audience you enter the room with and the audience on the recording, with whom you share the experience.
The lack of visual stimulation and the open-ended narratives allow a lot of space for each audience member to inhabit.
E: After seeing Fiction at Edinburgh last year, I was surprised by the very startling realisation that my childhood fear of the dark was still very much real and present and found it an incredible yet uncomfortable experience. What has been your favourite audience reaction to your previous work so far?
G: There have been a few. I am very excited about the huge range of reactions. A couple spoke to me after Ring, him asking me: ‘How did the actors move around in the dark?’ and she, mocking him, saying: ‘It was a recording you idiot… but what did everyone else hear?’ I think that these shows are completed by the audience, because the lack of visual stimulation and the open-ended narratives allow a lot of space for each audience member to inhabit. A man spoke about how he felt guilty for killing the child at the end of Ring, when of course in the piece itself that doesn’t happen. People have smelt the orange that is (not) peeled in Ring, a reviewer, about Fiction, talked about being touched! There have been some extreme responses too, one woman in Bristol left during the show, having suffered a panic attack, but hung around for the Q&A at the end. She felt she had enjoyed something about it regardless. A critic in Malvern left almost immediately and reviewed her feelings about that and what the other members of the audience told her had happened when she spoke to them afterwards.
E: The notion of a séance of course is in the eye of the believer. Do you personally believe in the ability to contact the spiritual world?
G: In fake séance experiments participants would regularly report incidents that were alluded to but didn’t actually happen; the role of suggestion is key. In a séance room, people are more suggestible than at other times, and we wanted to explore the psychology of a group who have been bombarded with suggestible material, which is an interest we carried forward from our previous two shows. At first this was of more interest than the idea of an actual spiritual encounter, which we promised ourselves we would avoid. But the more I researched the more it seemed that we should not waste the opportunity a séance presented to us, after all we all have some notion of what a séance is and it brings a huge amount of narrative material with it. Because we wanted the piece to be short (15 minutes) and intense, suddenly it seemed that by framing the piece as a séance, half of the story of the show would already be told. This is key to formulating a ‘complete’ experience in such a short space of time.
The more open the mind the better able for us to get in there and rummage about.
We refer to this piece as ‘an entertainment’, which I think is very much in keeping with historical precedents. Many of the spirit mediums in the past used relatively rudimentary methods to convince their audiences they were in contact with the dead and most were unmasked as fakes. We think we can bring something more sophisticated to the party.
E: Who are your biggest influencers in your writing?
I’ve been doing a bit of teaching / mentoring recently and The Five Obstructions, a 2003 film by Lars von Trierand and Jørgen Leth kept coming up in conversation. Although I haven’t seen it since it came out and remember very little of it, the basic premise (I think) – that obstacles can be very useful in the creative process – seems relevant to a lot of what I do now. The pieces I have made with David and the work I did with Ant Hampton, began with a premise, with the text being written around that. When David and I started talking about Ring for example, the obstacles were that each member of the audience was to be the protagonist. They had to feel key to the ‘plot’, and yet they had to remain mute.
E: Is there anything else you’d like to tell your audience before entering the shipping container?
G: We may be giving out a Séance Agreement form for the audience to sign before they enter the container, but this is as much about successfully setting up the story before we begin as it is about anything else. We might decide we don’t need it. On the form and in the marketing blurb we do ask that everyone enter into the experience with an open mind. The more open the mind the better able for us to get in there and rummage about.