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SANDBOX: Creating, Immersive Worlds and playable spaces

What do architects and immersive theatre-makers have in common? According to Becky Brown, Creative Producer of site-specific and immersive theatre company Specifiq, more than you might expect. “What’s really interesting about immersive theatremakers is that everything we do is site-specific,” Brown starts off by stressing, “We’re going into spaces architects have made and in the future we might even get custom-built spaces for this work.” The question, she wonders, is “Why don’t we speak to architects more?”

Roland Smith, Lead Producer at the Potemkin Theatre and former co-artistic director of Theatre Deli, agrees. There’s always been a “pragmatic” aspect to immersive events and theatre, he explains. “It was about performers and artists finding new ways of getting their creative voices heard – using empty buildings, using squats, taking over useless spaces.”

This reimaging of disused or unloved space is also what Maich Swift architects, the team behind the Potemkin Theatre, have done. Located on top of a canal-side Haggerston warehouse, the winner of the Antepavilion Prize 2019 deliberately plays with our expectations of a building. Not only does it inject sudden colour and height into the landscape where it wasn’t before, from one side the structure is covered in laminate panels and looks permanent, whereas from the other it proudly reveals the wooden beams acting as its bones. Smith describes it as a “disruption of the urban landscape” and its name is a reference to Grigory Potemkin, an eighteenth-century Russian military leader who attempted to please Empress Catherine II by creating fake picturesque villages.

In late September, this unique building is going to be used as the location for the two-day symposium, SANDBOX: Immersive Worlds and Playable Spaces, bringing together professionals working across the whole spectrum of immersive events, from tech specialists and game designers to academics, scenographers and, yes, architects. The Potemkin’s “sense of unreality and imagination,” Smith says, “made it a perfect match to work with the practitioners and creatives who have built this community of immersive and experiential performance.”

Curated by Brown, SANDBOX grew out of The Gunpowder Plot, a regular event set up by Specifiq to enable immersive creatives to meet, share ideas and learn from each other. Brown is passionate about establishing better dialogue and collaboration throughout the industry: “The only way we can grow as practitioners is by listening to each other and creating spaces for discussion.”

This spirit of sharing and learning from each other greatly informs the symposium’s programme of events. The finished schedule will involve around 25 cross-disciplinary speakers, including Martin Coat of Boomtown Fair, director Janet K Howe and members of PunchDrunk. Each day will start with a keynote address, followed by three workshop sessions where attendees can select one of three events to attend (meaning: there’ll be nine workshops per day in total to select from). Many of these will be panel discussions or fireside debates because, as Brown says, “we want to inspire dialogue”, but there’ll also be more practical-focused options available. For example, Brown describes a task involving a floor plan where participants will learn more about an audience’s journey through a space and consider the positioning of scenery, props and doorways. Like The Gunpowder Plot, the event will be attended by a large number of professionals, but Brown also hopes to attract students (there’s a concessionary ticket price) and other avid fans of immersive events.

One of the announced speakers is Meg Cunningham, a current PhD candidate and hugely experienced scenic designer for immersive events. Along with working in immersive theatre, Cunningham’s previous projects include being an art director for AMC’s The Walking Dead Walk Through attraction at Universal Studios, Hollywood theme park. Interestingly, Cunningham initially trained as an architect before moving into the business of designing immersive events. Her involvement with the symposium will focus on scenographic world building.

“I have always been interested in the ways audiences can occupy the same space as the story,” Cunningham explains. “I think that’s the reason I was drawn to theme parks, because you get to walk into this big world, as an audience member, as a guest. You get to become part of that story and can be your own protagonist. It’s your own version of a story as you’re walking through this big, built environment.”

Her background in architecture is a natural fit for this because on starting a new site-specific or immersive project her first instinct is always to ask “How do we manipulate this space?” and “What does this world feel like?” Which, essentially, are the same questions an architect would also be asking.

When I speak to Cunningham, Brown and Smith, they all raise a similar point: what exactly do we mean when we say ‘immersive’? As Cunningham summarises, the term can include anything from a massive app-interactive attraction at Disney World to a one-on-one theatre piece to the hugely ambitious Boomtown Fair or, as she recently discovered with a wry laugh, an audio book. And, as Smith adds, “Arguably immersive theatre occurred before theatres. It’s biblical stories being acted out in a church or passion plays being created in the streets of a village.”

Whatever ‘it’ is exactly, immersive  – in it’s most expansive sense – is at an exciting point in its evolution as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other tech-based tools increasingly become available as alternative ways of building worlds and telling stories. Brown also stresses how Britain has an especially “unique” immersive scene that is “really pushing boundaries”, not just with how it incorporates tech but its general creative flair. Yet whatever shape a piece of immersive work takes, underpinning it is almost always a consideration of how the audience interact with the space they’re placed in.

“And galleries have been doing that for years and years,” says Smith. “The London Underground does that each morning on a massive scale with hundreds of thousands of people. For architects this is their bread and butter: how people interact with space. So there’s always going to be things we can develop and learn from them.”

For more information on the Potemkin Theatre click here: www.potemkintheatre.com 

Rosemary Waugh is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. Her current work includes regularly reviewing theatre for The Stage, Exeunt and visual arts for Time Out.