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L-R - S. Donnelly, I. Corbin, C. Burt and H. Beasley - Garrigan in The Great Gatsby, credit of Helen Maybanks.

Having a good time, Old Sport?

17 August 2018 Suzanne Frost

‘The Great Gatsby’ is on countless people’s “favourite book of all time” list, and even for those who haven’t actually read it, the title alone immediately awakens images of hysteric partying and glamorous excess. So popular is the idea of reliving the golden Jazz Age, that an immersive production of ‘The Great Gatsby’ sold out before even opening when the show first came to London for the Vaults Festival in 2017. Gatsby has proved itself to be a phenomenon and now in a permanent location in London, the show has continually been extended by popular demand, and is now expected to keep on running till the end of the year. A great occasion for us to talk to writer and director Alexander Wright about this unique immersive theatrical experience, it’s popularity and the new challenges the show has overcome by becoming one of the industry leaders in finding ways to allow the ever-changing immersive genre to continue to grow.

London Calling: Gatsby has just been named the longest running immersive show in the UK! Did you expect that?
Alexander Wright: No absolutely not. In 2015 in York we were offered an empty pub that was going to close. We became custodians of this pub and offered it to artists who would come and rehearse there. At the end of that tenancy, we hadn’t produced anything at the pub ourselves and we thought “when are we ever going to get a three story building on our hands again?” So we quickly decided to do a production of The Great Gatsby – and since then we haven’t really stopped, which is amazing.
 
The cast of The Great Gatsby. Photo: Helen Maybanks

LC: It is a very popular story and a popular era. So many people consider Gatsby their favourite book. Was it a save bet?
AW: There is an audience there, that’s right. But what I find amazing about it, and about F Scott Fitzgerald in general, is when I first read Gatsby, I wasn’t aware of when he had written it. I assumed probably something like 1930 or 31, when the depression had hit, after everything had collapsed and that big boom of the Jazz Age had bust. But he actually wrote in in 1925 and somehow had such a insightful understanding of what was happening (and what was going to happen!) in his country and in the world. It’s just such an incredible bit of social commentary. That is why it is such an amazing novel. And it’s been an absolute joy sitting with it for so long. It’s nice to find something where everybody says oh yeah, it’s my favourite book, but actually the art that is behind it is so incredible.
 
LC: ‘Immersive’ has become such a buzzword right now, and has probably been watered down a good bit. For a proper quality immersive show what do you think are the right ingredients?
AW: You’re absolutely right, when we first started making work 10 years ago, people didn’t even know what immersive meant. It has become more of a marketing word rather than a useful description for art. For us, we try to find an alchemy between a really good story, a really exciting space and the best way to invite an audience into that story. And that will change production by production. Sometimes it might be one audience member with one actor or sometimes it might be sitting in the dark all facing one way. We are always asking what is the best way to tell a story and what is the best way to place the audience at the heart of it. For now, that has been called ‘immersive’, but some people may use the word when they’ve just decorated the auditorium a bit. For us it’s the alchemy of audience, space and story.
 
Alexander Wright via leaderlive.co.uk

LC: Your show went through a recent scandal where actors suffered harassment from the audience. What are the challenges you face in immersive theatre and how do you think this might affect the genre in the future?
AW: One thing we always want to do and we talk about a lot is how to give the audience more agency, allow them a greater experience. How do we get better at inviting audiences into the narrative? And I guess like anyone inventing new stuff, you have to think 10 steps ahead on how people are going to receive that and use that. But also, with any new thing, consumers or users learn very quickly how they work and then try to push harder. That means to allow audiences to play more and harder we have to be really good at facilitating that. When you go to traditional theatre there’s such an entrenched rule set, which we’ve just picked up from socially polite osmosis. Because immersive work is relatively new, the audience and the creators are learning at the same time. We learn by getting things wrong, we learn by getting things right. So the harder we try to push ourselves in storytelling the more we have to get really good at understanding how people are going to behave within that.
 
LC: After such a long time, I assume you’ve had cast changes. How do you rehearse, without that unknown factor of audience? How can you prepare a new cast member?
AW: Good question. We can rehearse about 60% of the show. The other 40% you learn as soon as people walk through the door. We’ve had times when almost the entire cast has changed or we’ve had a new cast do a parallel production. We’ve had people who’ve done a lot of immersive work before and we’ve had people who are really great actors but haven’t done immersive work yet. A lot of it is trying to understand the necessity of being able to run so many things in your brain at once. You have to be able to run the narrative, your particular narrative track, what the audience may or may not do, what you need the audience to do, what other actors are doing… you need to string about 5 or 6 things along at the same time. Also you have to be very open. In all our cast changes and all our new companies that we’ve worked with, we are never looking to make a carbon copy of the show. We want every actor to bring their own personality,  and style and ideas to the part that they’re playing, so they feel a sense of surety and control in what they are doing. They have to be in charge and we as an audience want to feel like we are looked after.
 
Ivy Corbin in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Helen Maybanks

LC: I don’t want to ask you what you are working on next but what kind of story do you think makes for a good immersive environment?
AW: All good theatre or all good stories, actually all good art across the board is something which is critically and socially exciting or prevalent or important. All good art is made by and because of people, not because of commercial pressure or other things. Good art exists because of the time and place it was made in and people trying to change or rally against stuff or arguing about stuff. For me, I think about how I can put an audience into that conversation within the art, and whether that looks exciting and worth doing. Immersive theatre is about what’s the best way to tell the story and how to place the audience in it but also, is it still an important story to tell? What’s the gender balance within the story, what is the diversity within the story and how is it having a discourse with our current social issues?  And also what is thrilling and exciting? I get bored quite easily.
 
The Guild of Misrule's The Great Gatsby is at Gatsby’s Drugstore, 84 Long Lane, Borough, London SE1 4AU until 31 December. Tickets are available from £29.50. [url=http://www.immersivegatsby.com]http://www.immersivegatsby.com[/url].
 

 
 
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