This is not a review. However, it may do some things that a review might do. If you read this in the near future (in the near future of my posting that is) it may persuade you to see the show. But, that’s not really my intent. I’m actually writing this to help me reflect on my own experiences of the production and develop my own project ideas and ideas about ‘immersive’ theatre. So, utterly biased, subjective and agenda-filled musings within.
Also, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS! But probably not as I’m really talking about the ‘structure’ of the experience rather than anything too specific about what actually happens.
My experience and expectations
I saw the Sunday, 21 September 2014 performance of CarnEvil (presented as part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival program).
I went in not knowing much about the show. I’d read the blurb in the program when I booked my ticket but hadn’t looked at it since. I recalled that it would be a sideshow/carnival setting and that there would be a mystery to solve that would involve speaking with the people at the various attractions and investigating the site.
In addition to CarnEvil I saw/am seeing two other shows from the Fringe program which had been described as ‘immersive’.
This might be relevant
One of my reasons for not reviewing the event blurb in the lead-up to the performance is that I really don’t like clowns. Some clowns are worse than others but none are good. Maintaining a state of calm denial was essential in getting me to first buy the ticket and then to show up for the actual thing. It’s testament to both the level of my interest in ‘immersive’ theatre and the appeal of the show’s blurb that I decided it was worth the risk.
One of the things I’m enjoying about Melbourne Fringe is that it’s taking me to places in Melbourne that I’m not overly familiar with. The venue for CarnEvil was an underground carpark in Collingwood and, as I walked down a small slope from street-level to the carpark (and event) entrance, I enjoyed the sense of transition from the ‘everyday’ to ‘something else’.
But, it turned out that the show hadn’t really started as yet. A man asked me if I was one of the stall-holders or here to see the show. When it turned out I was audience I was directed to wait inside the carpark space but outside of the performance space itself. What I could see of the carpark space was still interesting though. I could see parts of the ‘circus’ and then mostly it was dark elsewhere (although bits and pieces of rubbish and some cars were also visible).
The promising and the potential
Without going into too many specific details these are the aspects of the show that I thought were most successful or had the most potential:
- Each visitor receives tickets that can be used in the carnival. A set number is given to all but more can be purchased from the bar.
- Having world ‘currency’ helps to make you feel like you’re a part of the world – that you can literally trade with it. Really clever.
- In addition to the ‘story’ attractions there were a few carnival games to play and also some market stalls.
- The market stalls were a clever way to plump out the setting and give visitors more to see and do.
Mainstage & special guests
- In addition to being able to roam the carnival and its attractions there was also a stage which housed performances throughout night. At these times the audience was brought together. That rhythm of being dispersed and then brought together was very satisfying and created opportunities to help advance the story.
- The mainstage acts also included special guest performers each night. A great way to engage with the broader artistic community. The variety also creates more incentive for repeat visits.
Showcasing different skills
- The carnival theme and immersive setting created opportunities for the artists to showcase diverse and multi-disciplinary skills. For example, in addition to ‘acting’ as various characters, they might also sing to provide background atmosphere and music when the stage was not in use.
- The opening and closing of different attractions and different roles each performer took on throughout the night also helped to create a sense of a larger story than was immediately apparent.
These are my take-away observations about what I would do differently, develop further or be cautious about if I was working on a show like this.
Special guests and stall-holders
- Involving market stall-holders and special guest acts has a great many advantages but also presents some challenges.
- If you’re not overtly ‘explaining’ the situation to the audience then they may try to work out the ‘rules’ of the performance through observation and interaction. If that interaction is initially with the stall-holders, those interactions potentially have a significant effect on the audience. Are the stall-holders prepared for and able to take on that role? (My first interaction in the space was with a stall-holder who told me that her rabbit didn’t like me. I didn’t know at that stage whether this was part of the story or not. It suggested to me that there was a right and a wrong way to be/react in the space and that I had somehow done the latter.)
- A similar rule holds true for the guest performers – to what degree do they need to fit in to the story world of the experience and be always ‘on’ if visible to the audience when not on stage?
Audience first-impressions / induction into the space and story world
- How can you tell the audience/visitors what they need to know? Is there anything they need to know? Or, is it okay if some of the point is missed because, for example, the majority of the audience didn’t understand that they were being asked to work together to piece together clues?
Did it work?
What made CarnEvil a worthwhile trip for me was:
- I freaked out (but also didn’t completely freak out) about the clown/s
- Although the realisation didn’t live up to the ambition of it (for me) I enjoyed the ambition nonetheless and that promising imperfection has sparked a lot of ideas and thoughts about the show and shows of this type
- I have a couple of new names to add to my ‘artists to keep an eye on’ list
- One guy in the audience (who was brave enough to get his face painted into a really impressively hideous skull/clown face) who I saw keep trying and trying to get answers from the performers about one of the story developments
- Realisation that what the audience is prepared and/or capable of doing in terms of the skills they have to navigate the world you invite them into is everything and could change substantially from night to night
If you’d like more information about the production try these links: