The Burning Man Festival: Immersive Theatre for 50,000 people?

Convener(s): Nicholas McInerny

Participants: Easytiger, Analogue, Atticus, Nerfertiti, Googlemaps (These are all Playa names)

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Description – Burning Man is an annual Festival which takes place at the end of August/Beginning of September, on a desert lake bed called a Playa, nr Gerlach, 270 Miles north East from Sanfrancisco, in Nevada. 50,000 people gather and create BLACK ROCK CITY – the 4th largest town in Nevada for that week.

It is a LEAVE NO TRACE festival to which attendees bring all their own food and water. It is also a gift culture – you bring gifts to give others and there is no commerce allowed at the Festival, other than a coffee/ice concession in centre camp, the proceeds from which are given to local charities. Other major principles include RADICAL TOLERANCE and RADICAL INCLUSION, the idea being that whatever event/performance/interaction you plan, theoretically it must be able to involve anyone.

On the Saturday the climax of the Festival happens when the Man – a huge wooden structure which sits at 12 O’clock of the Festival Site, is burnt. On the Sunday the Temple of Remembrance – which represents the collective memory of the is burnt. Throughout the week there is a continual stream of events, happenings and small theatrical moments that start to weave themselves into the daily life and self expression of those who attend. Examples include:

  1. The Pantichrist. A man dressed as Jesus who distributes fresh white underwear to the women. He is very popular.
  2. Pizza Sluts. BLACK ROCK City’s very own pizza parlour that delivers pizzas randomly.
  3. The Critical Tits parade. One of the major events, where the women in BLACK ROCK CITY paint their breasts and ride through the city on bikes, being cheered on by the men.
  4. The Temple of Atonement. They hold regular auctions where you can be sold as a sex slave.
  5. Adopt a gnome. Go for an interview and earn the right to adopt a garden gnome.
  6. The Deep End. BLACK ROCK CITY’s very own purveyor of the finest House Music and Tea Time dancing, everyday 4 to 7pm.
  7. Heebejeebies – experience everything from Reiki to Tantric Massage.
  8. A Thunderdome from Mad Max 2, complete with regular ‘fights’ and audience participation.
  9. The Flaming Lotus Girls’ amazing steel and flame creations.

This is just a tiny example.

I have always seen BURNING MAN as an experiment in Utopia and Utopian living – but one that contains it’s own darker side, as indeed all Utopia’s must. I have often described it as a religious festival for a secular age, in which hedonism is pursued with a puritanical zeal.

It is also a piece of theatre for 50,000 – in which you are both participant and spectator.

Other issues we discussed.

  1. The Apollonian v Dionysian principle in BM. With ref to Barbara Eirenbach’s (?) fascinating book, DANCING IN THE STREETS.
  2. The role of the Situationists and Merry Pranksters from San Franciscon – how overtly political is BM?
  3. Accessing the potential within us all – how we gradually move towards greater self-realisation.
  4. SAFETY THIRD! – the idea of a culture in which you are allowed to make decisions that allow you to really take responsibility for your actions.
  5. If you were in an environment that said, you can do anything you want? Now what do you want to do? What would you choose? And is it always a good idea to turn a fantasy into reality?
  6. A growing sense of Community and how that impacts on your self of self.
  7. Bad experiences on the Playa – too much consumption?
  8. Ideas of sacred space and spiritual dimensions.
  9. The gift culture.  How significantly that affects your relationships with others.
  10. Sustainability of the vision of BM.
  11. Carrying that vision back into the default world. THE REAL CHALLENGE.

We then related some of those ideas back to the idea of Theatre and of what we want/expect/hope from the theatrical experience. BM – for a week – allows us as individuals to expand that theatrical experience which we reserve for allocated times into the whole of our daily existence. Whilst this is undoubtedly exciting and liberating on a personal basis, how does it affect our ability to make theatre? Moreover, is there a relationship between the BM experience and rise in Immersive Theatre which draws on other arts forms – Clubs, Burlesque, Video Games, the Fetish World, Festivals (over 400 in the UK at the moment!).

We ended the session with some participants expressing a desire to go to the Festival – or to renew their passion to go. Maybe a small spark has been lit. 

Nicholas McInerny