BWW Interview: Alexander Wright Talks THE GREAT GATSBY at Immersive LDN
Alexander Wright has just moved his immersive version of The Great Gatsby into the newly refurbished Immersive LDN in Mayfair. We got a chance to ask him what makes a great immersive show, how to take care of the wellbeing of the audience, and his thoughts on the fascination surrounding the Jazz Age.
How and when did you fall in love with theatre?
I think I've always loved theatre, I've always loved music, and I've always loved books - I've always enjoyed being whisked away into a story. I was dragged into a production of Annie when I was 11 because my sister was in it. Then at school, I ended up directing a production of Jim Cartwright's Road, as our only drama teacher was off, and I was hooked.
When did you decide you wanted to get into immersive theatre? Was it something you personally enjoyed?
It's just always made more sense to me than asking an audience to sit in the dark for two and a half hours and to ignore them. It's a really weird social convention. It's far more normal to include an audience within the world and within the narrative. Of course, not all stories should be told in an immersive way, but I think our traditional understanding of what a 'theatre' looks like is really pretty weird.
Do you approach frontal shows differently from immersive ones?
Honestly, I've never made a 'traditional' show. I've made lots of storytelling shows for the back rooms of pubs, or raucous shows for people's gardens, or site-specific shows for loads of brilliant places. Maybe one day it will feel right to tell a certain story in a fourth-walled theatre, but that day and that story hasn't arrives yet.
What's the most important thing to remember when making immersive theatre?
I think always asking how the audience sit within the story - the audience should always be actively present in the story. And, in some ways, that's all immersive work is - putting an audience into the middle of the story. If we forget about them, then it won't work.
How do you make it feel "real"?
We make it feel real by creating real intentions and emotional drives. Pretty much all stories are to do with people, and people wanting or needing or losing or gaining things. So, for us, it's about working with brilliant actors who can make all those things feel real, then we as audience will feel that too.
The recent increase in immersive shows has sparked a conversation on the wellbeing of audience and performers, as well as some concerns relating to safety and comfort - how do you approach those kinds of issues?
It goes without saying - or maybe it needs saying more - that everyone should feel happy and well and safe when they're at work. In our instance, an immersive world is our workplace. So it's our job to make sure that actors, audience, production and everyone else can spend time in those worlds together without anything going wrong.
The main thing is trying to measure people's behaviour, so that everyone knows the rules of the world. And then, of course, we have to put in lots of different ways to help if that doesn't go right. We are constantly developing our safeguarding policies and putting more things in place to help look after everyone.
Why do you think Gatsby has been so successful?
There's obviously an alchemy that we weren't expecting. We made the show to run for four weeks in an empty pub in York over Christmas in 2015, and the show is still going from strength to strength, which is amazing.
I think The Great Gatsby is an amazing world to step into. We're lucky to be a part of a boom in immersive and interactive theatre and arts, to be making work at a point where audiences want to step outside the traditional show-watching modes. But I think the alchemy of incredible story, brilliant actors and adventurous audience has created a really special production.
Do you think there's a sort of fascination around Fitzgerald's material?
Yes. Fitzgerald creates visceral narratives in a wild moment in history. The 1920s in New York was a huge time of revolution - some good and some bad. The time gave rise to commercialism, capitalism, materialism, advertising, and celebrity. It also gave rise to social liberation, to jazz, to hedonism and a wilder society.
At the centre of his stories are glorious and tortured people - we love them and hate them in equal measure, they are magic and tragic in equal measure. We do, as a modern society, fetishise the Jazz Age - a term Fitzgerald coined - because I think we see a lot of ourselves, a lot of our wants and desires, amplified in those stories.
Giving away as little as possible, what happens over the course of the night?
A lot! All the audience arrive at one of Jay Gatsby's infamous parties. From that point on, the story divides into multiple parallel narratives, which interweave, cross over and collide. There's a host of parties, dangerous liaisons, secret meetings, confessionals and intrusions. In some ways, The Great Gatsby is a beautiful love story, in other ways a hero-breaking tragedy. We play out a host of narratives across myriad spaces in our beautiful Gatsby Mansion.
How would you describe the show?
I describe the show as interactive, immersive, and narrative-led. Everything is always moving chronologically forwards, the story driving on across the whole building.
All the characters know the audience is there the whole time - sometimes this is great if a character wants to host a party, and sometimes it's super hard if there's a private moment that's forced into being public. It's a big explosion of Fitzgerald's incredible dark and sparkling world.
Has it changed since you first premiered it?
In some ways, it's changed hugely - the scale, the production value, the nuance and detail are constantly developing. But in other ways, the heart and soul of the show is the same as when we started: to create a unique experience for an audience inside Fitzgerald's towering and thrilling world.
What can audiences expect from it?
Some damn good Charleston, a cocktail or two, secret meetings, scandal, lost loves, finest romances, heart to hearts, hedonism and hope across a remarkably designed venue.
Why should they come?
There's an invitation from Jay Gatsby waiting for you - why wouldn't you come?
Photos courtesy of Sam Taylor and Helen Maybanks