Immersive Theatre for Political Action

Devoted & Disgruntled – Sunday 21st January

Facilitated & Edited – Zack Polanski

First of all, big apologies in the delay. I'd make lots of really good excuses about life getting in the way – but ultimately sorry it's not here sooner.

Secondly, now it is here – my memory is slightly shabby. Also I was really enjoying the conversation.

The most obvious thing to point out before I write up the full minutes is that my intention was to have a discussion about how Immersive Theatre can be used to create political change. I had initally meant it in terms of more long form, produced shows that happen to have political messages – but the conversation almost immediately took a turn to be more about invisible theatre or political activism in public spaces. I'm highly interested in this area too – and the group we're all engaged so the immersive theatre conversation is one that I still hope to have soon!

This was summed up by one participant as 'Theatre as a tool for activism vs Political Activism as a piece of theatre.'

And finally, the politician in me wants to point out that these aren't necessarily my views (although I did largely agree!) They're much more reflective of the general flow of conversation and the group, including myself, were in no way in complete consensus.


We started by discussing how all roles in public space are performative. Police play a performative role – the public space is already inherently theatrical. We rehearse and they rehearse their agency – every so often there's a change in the script and everyone is a little uncertain and we all improvise together.

We discussed theatre where the audience come as themselves. What if they had to take a citizenship test to check that they were enough of themselves?

The conversation moved on to the worry about fetishisation in immersive theatre. Pussy Riots recent show was brought up. (Editor note – I saw a dress rehearsal and really enjoyed it. Didn't think it was perfect by any standards but felt there was strong potential.) Nevertheless, this also became a conversation about actors apparently being treated badly and Equity getting involved. Something neat about a piece of political theatre 'failing' for the audience but politicising it's company against the Saatchi Gallery.

Discussion about who is theatre for?

If we want political action – we need serious change. And need to take it seriously. But can we only truly take things seriously when we're having fun?

Reclaiming pressure as embedded fun.

Artists need to be more into activism.

Sometimes just baring witness to what is going on. What is control?

Increase our sphere of influence.

John Sadir (Sic?) of the Pirate Party in Denmark created a piece of work for Iceland. 50 people created a constitution through open source work.
Ruling on Consensus – Not necessarily on Democracy.

The line between Progressive and Populist Change.

Inequality is so high – people are desperate for change. Artists are ready and willing to fill that vacum.

Brexit/Trump – Artists on the whole didn't see it coming. What are we doing if we didn't see things coming?!

(Editors Note – Really interesting conversation earlier in the day around Women and Power. Why accept money from the Government who are trading arms when we won't accept money from BP? Where do we draw those boundaries of acceptable sponsors/funding and how important is it sometimes just to get the work done?)

People love roleplaying.

The important role of pervasive gaming. The equally important role of rules in pervasive gaming and if you give someone the opportunity to be a military dictator – what are the consequences of that? How do you moderate those consequences without curtailing freedom?

The very act of where you choose to make your work is already a political decision.

Disrupting the norm should ultimately be the artists main perrogative. Chaos. (Editors Note – recall an intersting podcast where Russell Brand said that he always found the Coalition of Chaos quite an appealing idea. Chaos isn't inherently evil – it's creative and opposed to single party oppresive doom.)

Positive Agency Afterwards- What's the point of political theatre unless there's a call to action at the end? One participant had been to see a show on foodbanks. At the end, all audience given a postcard and suggested that they write to their local MP. This is good but can we do even better? Go straight from the theatrical space and go do something about it?

Audiences at political theatre and immersive theatre often are hungry for more. Is this just indicative of how had it is to create political change through action/

Maybe we just accept change will be incremental? But surely it has to be more than just signing a petition? That's almost become part of the game now?

Is theatres opportunity to be that platform for truth? In the era of fake news, allowing spaces for facts to be heard.

Conversation about truth – how do we get audiences to trust us?

It's ok to push an agenda – scientists push an agenda all the time. We just feel the need to own it and be transparent.

Is there something built into the experience itself which is a political action?

Fantastic when theatre involves the agencies directly involved. One piece of work about Sex Workers in Bristol – there were people in the lobby space after the production ready to engage with audience memebrs and explain what they could do to help/inform.

The Privilege – (Jamal Harewood) Smashed in the face with our own racism. (Editor Note – I've heard nothing but amazing things about Jamal's piece and still haven't seen it. I stuck my fingers in my ears for the next minute as I didn't want any spoilers. General consensus though is 'The Privilege' is a remarkable piece of theatre and everyone should see it!)

Maybe we need to get out of calling it theatre? It's an expereince within the work and that's where real politic happens.

Discourse and Discussion is a radical act. Looking after people is a radical act. We need to look after our audience and our casts. They're our responsbility – and that's political in itself.

Don't traumatise people. It doesn't do anyone any good.

One participant talked about their experience of theatrical political action at Nigel Farage/UKIP. In a pub doing a Cabaret of Diversity. Cabaret about HIV Awareness. They didnt' know Farage was going to be there – he turns up and they have to respnd quickly.

A colourful and vibrant piece of art in a grey middle class town.

There was negative publicity though – and UKIP immediately spun it as an attack. Artists have to be smart and ready to respond.

Bring the journalists in – have them involved before you even start. Make your intentions very clear.

Activate the Public Space.

Participant told a fantastic story of just simply dancing with a few other artists in a shop near Oxford Street. Security came over and told them to stop. They politely refused and continued a very small bop. Management responded by cutting music off in the entire store. They continued to bop. They were removed and then followed for a short time outside the complex. Who's space is this? What are the implicit rules of space? Participant is a lady of colour? Would men have been responded to in the same way? What if all participants had been white?

Had there been a politician involved or a newsreader? How might that have changed the dynamic? It's not even unheard of for a corporate space to pay people to come and sing and dance in their building. Is this a question about control?

Their panicked response – amplified the reaction. IF they'd just ignored it, it wouldn't have really been a story or anything noticeable but they created a context of resistance and power struggle.

These places are empires of consumerism. Some of the questions about who's space it is are grey areas – they react in a terrified fashion. (Editors Note - Strikes me writing this up that terrorism as horrific as it can be is starting to provide a really convenient narrative to make some of these questions civil liberties vs national security paradigms – and in that the artist can rarely win.)

We talked about the increasing theatrics in politics. Donald Trump is transparent about lying – what are you going to catch him out on?

We have permission to be out and proud about the world we want. We might not even want a Utopia necessarily but why do we have to settle for what we've got or what politicians offer us?

And if you do want utopia, is it not time for artists to stop and say 'this is the future I want to inheret/inhabit. Permission to say utopia is what I want.' Let's stop apologising.

Me Too/Times Up – Space for women to speak truth to power. We must have a better standard/expectation.

Who is the political action for? Why jump just to audiences that consume?

Need to document things. Youtube already making political actions. Someone gave an example of Trans activist going into bathrooms and recording peoples reactions. Conversations that wouldn't normally be happening are beocming a focus point.

There are political consequences to everything – and we've got to somehow over ride money talks.

Highly helpful if art can find a space for people to articulate anger/frustration especially if then there's a context with which they can do something with it afterwards.

We discussed about how London centric these conversations can be. Things that matter in cities that bother other people seem so ludicrous in the country (And vice versa) Completely different priorities.

Rural areas are really lacking in investment – yet we use and abuse them for food. Resources becoming a major conversation that doesn't seem to be happening on the political or activist stage at front and centre.

Interventions tend to do 1 of 2 things but rarely both.

1) Empower people who already agree.
2) Change Minds.

Who is this being made for? Why? Who with? Who are you trying to impact?