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Interview: The Spectators Guild present Venice Preserv’d. Diana Damian talks to producer Harry Ross

The Spectators Guild is a collaboration between producer Harry Ross, production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill and director Charlotte Westenra. The company, who, between them, have experience working on the West End and for the likes of Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk, aim to change the ways in which text-based theatre is developed and received, drawing on immersive performance as a productive context, as well as more traditional techniques of acting and staging. Placing emphasis on the entire journey of a production, from its making process through to its public reception, the company seek to bring together artists, actors and audience members in conversation. Their first show is an adaptation of Thomas Otoway’s 1682 drama Venice Preserv’d, staged at the Paynes and Borthwick Wharf in West Greenwich.  

The company are inviting audience members to take part in a Venetian carnival before encountering the play in the newly developed building. Given the wide-range of immersive practices that British cultural landscape has grown accustomed to, from the experimental to the mainstream, The Spectators Guild might occupy a unique position, drawing on a commercial model to support more traditional theatrical work, bringing together a particular performance register to immersive theatre. Here we speak to producer Harry Ross about their new endeavour, plans and the thinking behind Venice Preserv’d.

Run-Riot: The Spectator’s Guild, is a collaboration between a producer, director and production designer. The title of the company itself suggests an emphasis on spectatorship, but also implicates the connotation of a historically-embedded term such a guild, foregrounding mutual association for the purposes of protection, or safe-guarding.
Harry Ross:
The name came from our appreciation of the important role audiences can play in the exploration of a subject matter and expresses our intention to question our audience whilst we are not producing work to find out what theme to explore next. In this very immediate and interwoven approach to putting on work, the lines blur and we are all interdependent, making the work together for the benefit of all. This is also reflected in the way we collaborate. Instead of just the one person exploring the text and dictating a vision, why not open up the process of exploration to each member of the team - and then why not open it up to the whole audience?

Every dedicated theatre goer that knows the nuances of the text, every immersive attendee that ‘gets’ why the work was staged in and around a particular building – these people are part of what makes theatre so alive and we really want to encourage more audience members to look deeper and help us build the work.  

RR: As a company, you foreground adventure and emphasise the collective potential of immersive experience, alongside the power of traditional stagecraft. What has informed these values, and where do you see the company in the landscape of immersive theatre practices that has been gaining commercial and cultural visibility over the past twenty years?
HR:
The immersive theatre scene has been steadily growing over the last twenty years but it is also diversifying. Terms like "immersive" and "site specific" no longer satisfy as description.
The word "theatre" for us contains within it a basis of shared experience, community exploration and social catharsis. Site work has done a lot to positively explore this power, challenging the individual. Individual experiences are then shared in the aftermath by a few, building a picture for many. The importance of shared experience has led to site work pushing the possibilities of social media in ways that have been exciting and inspiring. In Secret Cinema, the screening of the film also provides a shared experience, and a moment of catharsis that unites the audience regardless of whether or not they use social media. Our intention is to take aspects of personal and social exploration and couple them with the shared experience of the main story, the play. Spoken text, and the detailed exploration of a few characters seems to be a dramatic vehicle which has been left behind by the immersive theatre scene in its search for individual audience experience, but with all we have learnt through exploring different types and aspects of immersive performance, we feel ready to tackle this, bringing shared narrative to the heart of the production.

RR: Your first production as a company is an English Restoration Drama, centred around a corrupt Venetian state and a group of revolutionaries attempting to overthrow it. Thomas Otoway’s 1682 play remained a canonical work until the late 19th century, translated in several European languages, though later accused of patriarchal social politics and heavy-handed references. The associations with a sinking Venice and London are embedded in the play itself. What drew you to the play, and how are you approaching its historicity and genre-specificity?
HR:
The play was originally intended to mirror England’s political climate through exploring a story set in Venice. We feel that this play is an apt vehicle for us to examine the social and economic condition of London today.

RR: For the performance you have also commissioned a prologue from Owen McCafferty to introduce the audience to the world of the play. Can you tell us a bit about this?
HR:
Venice Preserv’d is set in the corrupt and decadent world of the Serene Republic of Venice. Owen’s prologue links this world with our own and suggests that things aren’t so very different. The prologue highlights the politics of then and now and asks our audience to engage with the questions the play is asking. It also introduces us to the character of Eliot- a young hothead from the conspiracy who believes in the fight.

Charlie [Director, Charlotte Westenra] has always been a great fan of Owen’s writing. It has a strong rhythmical quality and a robust earthiness to it that seemed an appropriate cousin to Otway’s passionate language.

RR: The experience is set in Paynes and Borthwick Wharf, a former ship engine factory in West Greenwich. Although the event takes place in the factory, audiences arrive by boat. Can you tell us about this journey? How are you approaching the site itself and its role in the immersive experience?
HR:
Usually the building comes first and the idea of what to put on there develops afterwards. Venice Preserv’d was different. It was a play that Charlie felt was particularly relevant for now and so we started to think about where Venice might be in London. When we came and first saw the six listed Italianate arches on the water facing the modern financial palace of Canary Wharf we were thrilled. We were further inspired by the maritime history of Greenwich and Deptford and loved that we could draw clear parallels between 17th Century Venice and London now. Venice was an ex-maritime power suffering a period of financial decline. It had just finished unsuccessfully prosecuting a war in the east which was more about trade interests and posturing that it still was an imperial power that mattered on the global stage. Finally – not everyone comes by boat – but we encourage everyone to meet by the prow of the Cutty Sark so that they can participate in our Carnival which makes use of the riverside location and various architectural spots en route to Paynes and Borthwick Wharf. Our carnival route also follows that traditionally taken by the Greenwich Fair – which was banned by the Victorians for its extreme bawdiness

RR: The Wharf is currently being restored to contain offices, homes, a restaurant and art gallery. The developers are also funding the project.  So you’re working with a building with history that is in the process of being re-developed, its function, features and identity shifting. Can you tell us about that working relationship and dynamic?
HR:
The location matched the play and as I said we were thrilled but we couldn’t have gone any further of course without the support of Paynes and Borthwick LLP. We’re fortunate that two of the companies behind the development, United House and Lane Castle, are led by people who have a huge and authentic enthusiasm for the arts. Jeff Adams who is Chief Executive of United House has been an avid supporter of Theatre for his whole career – sponsoring the Donmar Warehouse for over a decade. Mark O’Grady and William Avery from Lane Castle have long been involved in supporting arts projects in buildings they have developed.  The future of site work is dependent on good relationships with building owners and developers and both sides can benefit from these kinds of production.  The developers benefit from increased footfall and the opportunity to launch or advocate for what their intentions are and the arts organisation benefits from in kind and financial support in a significant location. Another wonderful aspect to our collaboration is the fact that we’ve been working alongside the construction company – Ardmore. They’ve built the infrastructure for our set and have worked alongside us day by day as the building and our production near completion.

RR: The emphasis of the event is not only on the unfolding narrative, but also on the experience itself- audiences are invited to dress-up, eat food and immerse themselves in a carnival. What is the relationship between the scenography, narrative and the carnivalesque for you? What do you want audiences to experience through this?
HR:
We set the play in Venice at the time of carnival because the narrative of carnival follows that of the play. We wanted to treat our audience as an extended part of the world and company and as carnival revellers led by our cast of Commedia performers we could give them the tools to immerse themselves in a way that was narratively significant but also accessible to people who haven’t attended an immersive production before.

RR: Proximity and theatricality seem to be emphasised in the production. Can you tell us a bit about the role of the actors in the experience?  
HR:
There are several different types of actor in the production – we have our verse actors who take on the main character roles in the play these then blur into our Commedia performers who expand on the themes of the play to link modern London with 17th Century Venice. These Commedia performers are joined each night by a troupe of young actors from Greenwich and Lewisham who we have been working with to offer them performance opportunities and coaching from the creative team and local company Emergency Exit Arts. Finally all of our front of house activities (bar etc..) are performed by another acting troupe so that there is no division between front of house and performance. We want to give the audience the opportunity to have great acting at their fingertips from the moment the journey to the venue starts. We’re trying to create the world of the play through realistic rather than forced proximity.

RR: What should we be thrilled about?
HR:
The performances of our wonderful actors who are performing in this way and in this proximity to bring the play to life. In particular it has been a great new experience for Helen and I to be working with verse actors in this way. We are excited that they have left the theatres behind for a moment to work with us in a new way, to challenge the way in which text based work is presented and received, building something new for the future.

The Spectators Guild presents
Venice Preserv’d
at Paynes and Borthwick Wharf, 11 Borthwick Street, Greenwich SE8 3GH
24 April - 8 June
venicepreservd.co.uk

For more about The Spectators Guild, visit thespectatorsguild.org