Immersive theatre can put you at the heart of a revolution. But does it make you revolutionary?
We like immersive theatre as a technique to be used in our collaboratories (see how Chicken Shed performed “The Chair” at our opening event in 2017). Done well, it can turn a networking event or collective meet into an electrifying space of possibility - the idea that you can change your world, or change the rules by which that world operates, made tangible
“We should be rioting in the streets” is the thought that flashed into my brain, as I stood at Counting Sheep, an immersive performance that puts you at the heart of the 2014 anti-government protests in Ukraine, and surrounds you with performer/protestors waving blue flags with gold stars.
The protests we’re recreating were sparked by the president’s last-minute move to sign a treaty with Russia, instead of taking a step towards membership of the EU – prompting people to pour into Kiev’s Maidan Square in a furious surge, setting up soundsystems blasting out Ukrainian techno, blankets, food supplies, flaming barricades of wood, sandbags and tires. As an audience member, you have no choice but to stand up and join the protest.
Afterwards, I read through another succession of headlines documenting the UK government’s shambolic path towards a hard Brexit that not even they want, on a train regularly crossed by homeless people trying to avoid sleeping out in the settling frost.
I went on a few anti-Brexit, pro-EU protests, before and after the vote. They gave me a strange sense of dutifulness, undercut by futility, like going to church when you’re not a believer. There’s a set route, carefully agreed with the police, who observe the whole thing with a kind of disconcerting benevolence (not a level of benevolence you’d get at other protests: this is a crowd deemed, by its levels of whiteness, middle-classness, to be ‘safe’).
The placard slogans were often more about irony than anger: ‘Can’t live, if living is without EU’. We know we can. We also know that we’ll leave tidily by 8pm, whether or not our demands have been heard.
Given that British people have such a poor track record when it comes to protesting (memorable, myth-worthy exceptions like Greenham Common and Cable Street excepted) Counting Sheep feels necessary. It’s not really a way of learning about the events of the 2014 Kiev Uprising (although the facts do trickle through, you’d be better off following news coverage for that).
It’s more about learning about what it feels to pour out into the streets in anger and not go home. It’s intensely sensory. Ukrainian techno pounds in your ears, especially at first, when the protests starts as one big party: there’s dancing, beetroot-on-rye to eat, placards to wave.
The use of video projection (designed by Josh Pharo) is ingenious– you’re in between two giant screens made from tacked together hessian, which project real footage of the protests at full life size.
The partying turns to bedding in, turns to danger. You pass sandbags, see rising columns of thick black smoke. It’s uncanny and uncomfortable and essential: this stuff is real, and you’re not allowed to forget it.
More here. The article notes that The Jungle is also answering an appetite for theatre that pulls audiences into the heart of social change (Paul Mason’s It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere is another example). Here’s also a great piece from Beautiful Rising on Boal’s Legislative Theatre.