Promenade Theatre - a la mode or the theatre of the future?

Since graduating from University where we as all encompassing students where encouraged to look at theatre practices that broke conventions and went against the traditional notion of an end-on, fourth-walled performance, it has been highly appropriate that my first year in the professional world has been predominantly filled with promenade performances. This has struck me as very interesting because I have been working mainly at home in Cardiff, where although a lot of exciting and quality theatre is happening we don’t have the culture of a west end theatre scene. We do of course have the wonderful and highly successful Wales Millenium Centre which is home to many of the big touring productions coming directly from London and whilst this is great for making theatre a more common part of Welsh life, I have discovered that there is so much more diverse theatre going on here right under our noses. Our National Theatre in Wales is in itself pioneering in that it has no set building, making it a very exciting and adaptable company. We are so lucky in Wales to have this theatrical current surging through our country, and from what I have experienced there seems to be a huge trend in promenade work. Granted this concept is not particularly new but are we placing theatre in this loose and non-seated world for the sake of artistic gratification? What does having an audience free to roam around give to a piece of theatre?  For myself, I think this move towards a more relaxed theatrical experience is a GOOD thing. We can discover so much more about the form of theatre and storytelling, but we also have to be careful not to alienate and murky the channels of effective communication between performer and audience. One of the points of interest about promenade being more and more popularised is the audiences reaction to it for the first time. When I was working on ‘Anamnesis 25.12’ with Mercury Theatre Wales, there was a lot of elderly members of the audience who had not experienced having to physically move around a space, and for most of the time without a permanent seat. I worked as production assistant on this production and part of my role was to usher the audience to various points in the space so the next scene could start. This was fascinating for me as I had the chance to watch how the audience moved, interacted and the ways in which the dynamics changed from show to show. I think promenade theatre affects a piece of theatre in so much that it is much more audience dependent than say a end-on Pinter play would be. The mood or play world is created and inhabited by the company right through to performance stage, where there always comes a point of a new addition to that world - the audience. An audience in a promenade situation however is not only proxemically closer to the inhabitants of the world, but also because of the breaking of convention of having an audience sit in the dark, they are also free to interact, talk, focus on something that’s not the intended focus - in fact at it’s basest form they are free to do whatever they like. For some theatre-makers this idea is very exciting, but I think it’s the play of rules that really makes the promenade performance work. Punchdrunk’s work is an example of this - they let you roam completely freely, but make you wear a mask so you become anonymous and you are manipulated into being in a certain place at a certain time. The scale on which they work is huge and I think operates in a very complex way but nevertheless the idea of placing an audience into a role is very interesting and does that mean that it is necessary to give them an absolute position or can it be transient? Apologies if this is a bit all over the place, but I just wanted to share some ideas on this ever growing form, please comment any ideas or questions below - I would love to delve deeper. 

 

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Comment by Adrian Metcalfe on January 25, 2015 at 20:00

That is where we differ I think.

Performance is performance -regardless of the medium.

The only difference is how people interpret the stories, what medium they use. We tell a story whether there is one of us in a cast or a thousand. whether it is filmed or whether it is on the back of a bus. There is only one thing that matters - the audience. What has changed over the millenia is the number of media we have to tell stories. In a film, the director and the cinematographer are equally - if not more so - in telling the story as the actor, on the street, there is only the actor - that is where the actor learns.

Comment by Luke Bevan on January 25, 2015 at 19:42
Hi Adrian

Thank you for your comment. That's really interesting and there is of course so many aspects to how we define a performance. I suppose I have a question about the difference between what we would call a 'theatre' piece and what we would call a 'storytelling' piece. With just an interaction between a performer and audience in a neutral unaffected space can this be defined as 'theatre' or do we need systems and conventions in place to achieve that transitive experience of entering a theatre space? I am by no means suggesting that theatre can't be theatre without sound, light and all the gubbings, but I think there is a distinction between site-specific performance and promenade the two may be used together but it doesn't have to be. Space is clearly very important to how theatre is viewed.
Comment by Adrian Metcalfe on January 25, 2015 at 19:29

Hi Luke,

We are Lighthouse Theatre and we are based in Swansea.

We have been doing 'Promenade', 'Site Specific', 'Immersive' or 'Pub Shows' (call it what you will) for a long time. In fact, last summer, we performed an almost two-mile promenade version of Dylan Thomas' Return Journey on the streets of Swansea for the DT100 celebrations.

Promenade shows fulfill a different need in the wide world of performance. Promenade shows can't do Warhorse or Les Miserables or A Long Day's Journey Into Night, but they can introduce or excite or stimulate audiences in different way to the more traditional theatre experience.

Now, after the development of lights, camera and action, the theatre is sometimes pressurised into creating a world that is 'all bells and whistles'. The joy of performing on the streets, or in the pub, or across the fields, makes the performer learn how to connect with the audience on a very different level. Moreover, the performer learns - very quickly - that the art is nothing more than story-telling. We can be in a great TV show, a wonderful film, a fantastic theatrical production, but nothing teaches us how to do what we do better than asking a person (who after all wants to watch our work otherwise they wouldn't be there) to listen to our stories against the background of drinkers, weather or traffic. Promenade is better for an actor than any training they can ever get.

Keep doing it - you'll know exactly what we mean in twenty years' time!

Many thanks for your blog-

Adrian, Lighthouse Theatre.

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