Sunday, October 10, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #10 artsdepot

Forget theatres, the subplot of 52:52 is going to be about my using the Tube. Even I admit that's not particularly interesting given the amount of people who use it on a daily basis and undoubtedly make a lot less fuss about it than me.

So - in case you didn't guess the undercurrent there - visiting artsdepot meant that I had to use the tube. During rush hour on a Friday night. Needless to say - it was crowded. It was hot. I shot disdainful looks at people. I also went further up the Northern Line than I ever have before. It's probably worth noting that though I've wanted to see Stan's Cafe for some time the combination of a three hour show and a two hour + round trip on a school night would, under normal circumstances, have ruled me out. But such is the self-inflicted pressure of 52:52 (for, though I'd seen four shows already this week, none of them counted under the rules), with the added element of 'why am I doing this if not to make me see things I'd love to see but am normally too lazy to go to', I brushed off my reservations. Is 52:52 making me a better theatre-goer? Certainly it's making me a more obsessional one. I'll come back to you as to whether this is a good thing or not.

artsdepot is all glass and high ceilings and shiny modernity. Also - it has an escalator. This is notable because in all my experience of theatre venues the only other one I can think off hand that has an escalator is the Royal Opera House. So, yes, I was impressed. More than its impressive building though it's got the feeling of a space that is used - there's even a children's play area in the large (and cheap) cafe. It feels like this is where art - in the broadest sense of the word art - is important. It is, even on a Friday night in October, a doing place rather than a watching place.

Tuning Out with Radio Z is the opposite of a passive piece of theatre. Devised afresh each night Radio Z not so much tells a straight forward narrative (though there is a story) as tells a feeling. On stage is a radio show, outside of this room something has happened that is causing "the city" to be evacuated. We never find out exactly what that "something" is (though we know there's fog, or smog, or gas or something filling the air) or where people are or aren't being evacuated to, or indeed if there is in reality anyone or anything outside the confines of the room. Between the radio-styled banter different scenarios between the two presenters play out so you're never quite sure of their relationship either. Added to this there are four shrouded figures asleep on stage. And when I say asleep - I mean, actually asleep.

That's not where this show ends though. You're told beforehand that you can bring laptops and phones and interact. It's a radio show after all. So you can text, you can email and, possibly most interestingly, there's a forum where you can log in and not only post things but also see what everyone else is posting (and this includes James Yarker, the Director of the piece).

This takes me a little time to get straight in my head - firstly I'm acutely aware of having my phone on my lap (even though turned to silent). Secondly I'm not sure of what the 'rules' of engagement are. Do I have to wait until I'm solicited? Should I start texting things like "spatula"*? Thirdly, it takes a bit of juggling to operate technology and get your head into the piece. I log on to the forum but quickly decide that, given I'm using my phone, it's too time consuming for me to post through it so I take the text option. The girl sitting next to me is taking the text option too, though she's missing the point slightly I feel by texting her friend about the show: "It's some weird art thing but it's amusing". Quite.

What emerged was that, as much as the thought of there being no rules of engagement puzzled me (conditioned as I am by many, many years of sitting in Proscenium arch theatres), it was up to us as individuals to make our own rules. You could take the traditional improvisation route (at some point someone communicated 'go to the toilet', so one of the presenters did). You could interact directly with the radio show (there was an ongoing thread about odd - and probably rubbish - museums as well as the traditional 'play this song for...'). You could take a third option, however, and become a character caught up in whatever was happening outside, becoming a citizen journalist from your seat. The narrative was what we made of it.

Rather late on in the process I realised there was something else at work. Through the forum (for I'd cracked the multi-tasking required after thirty minutes or so) I saw one of my texts be put into the forum by the director. Rather than being directly read out and attributed to a listener, however, it became a piece of dialogue. It clicked for me that there was a much subtler way we, as the audience, could use our power.

At last count I've seen just under 100 productions this year, none of them has challenged my notion of what theatre might be as much as Radio Z. For all its use of technology there was nothing gimmicky or showy about it - the technology was so integral and natural that it couldn't be separated out from the performance. Walking out of the theatre I wished I could go see the show again, not only out of intrigue in how different it might be on another night, but because I wished, now I knew what the rules of engagement were, that I could experience it again. I wanted to be bolder. To interact more. To push against it and see what might happen.

It's appropriate that Radio Z asks more questions than it answers. I've expended hundreds of words on it and I haven't really gotten on to those sleeping people, or the moment I realised that there was a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice going on, or on my take about what the show was about (I'm not saying exactly what this is because I think everyone should be able to make their own version, using their imagination as well as their phones - but I will say that the clue is in the title). I haven't written about how interesting I found watching what the director chose to publish on the forum or the fact that though you were allowed to come in and out of the performance I sat through all three hours without once feeling the need to move. I haven't even written about fear or joy or pain, all of which Radio Z evoked for me.

So 52:52 and artsdepot, I think I owe you one.

*It might just be the audiences which BattleActs Improv garners but the command to shout out a kitchen implement is always met by four fifths of the room shouting "spatula".



Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Tuning Out with Radio Z (Stan's Cafe)

Type of space: Modern conversation of older space, glass and high ceilings and bright colours. Multiple spaces, the studio I was in had seating on three sides.

Type of productions: Range of "high quality" performing and visual arts. Receiving house with inhouse projects.

Nearest Station: Between West Finchley, Central Finchley and Woodside Park tube. Most obvious - and best lit - route (though not the shortest) from Central Finchley.

Seating: Individual seats (allocated), comfortable with good leg room and very good rake.

Condition of toilets: As modern and functional as rest of building - which is also to say that there is an appropriate number of them.

Bar produce: Bar with snacks. £1.60 for a Diet Coke and a mini-muffin. And it was a chocolate one.

Other comments: In a moment of ticket confusion the Box Office staff thought I looked young enough to get A Night Less Ordinary ticket. artsdepot I love you a little bit for that.

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