Interview: 'There Was Definitely Blood Involved. Blood And An Accordion': voidspace live's Katy Naylor Discusses Immersive Theatre And Her New Interactive Festival

"If we've done our job right, you'll come away having discovered something you didn't even know could exist."

By: May. 25, 2024
Interview: 'There Was Definitely Blood Involved. Blood And An Accordion': voidspace live's Katy Naylor Discusses Immersive Theatre And Her New Interactive Festival
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The post-pandemic rush of immersive theatre in London has been very hard to ignore with new shows popping up every month. Next month, this resurgent art form is celebrated with voidspace live, a packed day produced by Theatre Deli and voidspace Zine editor Katy Naylor which showcases a dozen works .

Perhaps taking note of the success of Punchdrunk and the grand scale of its most recent effort The Burnt Citymany high profile West End productions have jumped aboard this particular bandwagon including Cabaret, Guys & Dolls, An Enemy Of The People and A Mirror who have all woven in some form of interaction with those in the pews. Outside theatre, the Royal Ballet's Dark With Excessive Bright provided an intense and close-up view of its top dancers. Immersive dining experiences have allowed audiences to spend the night with Batman's foes and friends, rest up in a Seventies ski lodge when not running away from a Yeti and travel the world in a hot air balloon.

Naylor describes her regular voidspace zine email bulletin as "an arts organisation I started by mistake". It has become essential reading for fans of the art form, not only for its in-depth interviews with cast and creatives but for its listing of productions that would otherwise fly under the radar. One example is Midnight Circle's Frankenstein, a twist on the classic story that was voted top immersive show of 2023 by Broadway World readers.

Her next big venture (in conjunction with Theatre Deli) is the exciting voidspace live. As she says, "if we've done our job right, you'll come away having discovered something you didn't even know could exist." The all-day event next month will see a baker's dozen of immersive experiences split over three sessions. The audience will be (appropriately enough) be allowed to choose how they want to spend their time. Collaborative dance, storytelling and supernatural rituals are all on the menu as is a spot of public service with the critically-acclaimed Jury Duty

We caught up with Naylor to discuss how she was bitten by the immersive bug.

How did you first fall into the world of immersive theatre?

Like many people, I first discovered the world of immersive theatre through Punchdrunk. A friend of mine had some discounted tickets for The Drowned Man back in 2013, and I thought I may as well tag along. I had no idea what to expect; I'd expected some kind of promenade piece themed around Hollywood, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of stepping onto the set for the first time, onto woodchip-covered ground of a rundown trailer park, dimly making out the neon of a dive bar in one direction and, some way off in the far, far distance, a chapel.

The sense of scale, the contrast between the hyper realism of the set and the abstract expressiveness of the dance, and the thrill of being invited to become a direct part of the action blew my mind. After that show closed, I sought out anything and everything that called itself immersive, and my passion for the massive variation within the genre only grew from there.

What's your personal definition of "immersive theatre"?

I think that nowadays the term "immersive" is as much a matter of marketing as of art. The term has been overused to the point where it has ceased to be that useful. An "immersive" experience nowadays can be anything from a cleverly crafted and thought provoking piece of interactive, to a themed cocktail bar or dinner show. 

For me, the term "immersive" at its best applies to experiences where participants are genuinely made part of the world they have been invited to enter, whether through interacting with the set and choosing how to observe the action, engaging in a multisensory experience (for me, this can be a piece of audio or installation art) or by participating in more clearly game-like experiences. What most interests me are pieces that genuinely provoke this kind of engagement. 

In my own work with voidspace, I tend to favour the term "interactive" to make this distinction clear. People can get a little prickly about the term "interactive" as there is sometimes an assumption that it is more closely associated with game theatre, where the audience are invited to directly influence the outcome of the show. I love those kinds of shows but I think that the concept of interaction goes so much further: the choice of where and how to engage with a show or installation, the invitation to incorporate your own experiences into the work, deep multi-sensory engagement with the storytelling and/or artistic provocation. For me, the concept of interactivity embraces all of these elements.


What's the craziest immersive experience you've heard of or been to?

I think that would have to be You Me Bum Bum Train in 2015. The show's speciality is throwing a single participant into a series of big crowd scenarios in quick succession. Like most people, I wasn't lucky enough to get a ticket so I went along to volunteer as an extra. We spent the whole night in a huge hall cheering on a series of bewildered individuals as they were invited to speak as leaders at our political rally. We even had placards with velcro letters we could change to show their names! And this was only one of many similar scenes. It just so happened a friend of mine had managed to get a ticket that night, and being part of her experience was amazing.

It's a toss up between that and being an audience member in Shift's all-night Macbeth at Balfron Tower, also in 2015. We stayed in rooms there and pretty grim they were too, with stage blood all over the bathrooms. The main plot was set within the imaginary ex-communist state of Borduria, giving the whole thing a strangely liminal air. The finale involved a revelation that one of our genial hosts (played by Sam Hunt) was actually the stony faced leader of a coup. We were watching it all unfold on TV, when the soldiers burst in and made us kneel at gunpoint. The biggest shock of all was being woken in the middle of the night by performers from Gruff Theatre. I can't quite recall all the details, as I was half asleep, but there was definitely blood involved. Blood and an accordion. Surreal, terrifying and brilliant. 

Most recently, I absolutely adored Deadweight Theatre's Manikins: A Work in Progress. This is the most exciting thing I've seen for years: lasting up to 90 minutes, it features just two actors and a single audience member. It's every bit as strange, heart-poundingly surreal and dreamlike as the most magical Punchdrunk show, but within that it gives you genuine agency, all without breaking the spell. I wouldn't have thought it possible if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Its currently sold out, but I hear a rumour that it may extend into July. If so, I encourage everyone who can to catch it. You won't regret it. 

Your newsletter is essential reading for all fans of immersive theatre. How did it start?

The voidspace zine actually started as a litmag. I was writing a lot of interactive fiction in 2021 but had nowhere to publish it so I created my own venue. Originally, my aim was to get regular writers experimenting with interactivity in their work, but then I realised there were a lot of artists who made interactive work - in theatre, dance, opera, indie gaming, you name it - whose work would be of interest to my readers. So I started interviewing practitioners for publication. 

I soon realised that this would be of interest to people who were outside the literary world but more generally interested in immersive/interactive art. After The Drowned Man closed, a bunch of the friends I'd made through the show, queuing together and sharing experiences afterwards, stayed in touch. We would always tell each other if anything that seemed like "this kind of thing" came up in London or further afield. I thought it would great if I could formalise this sort of word of mouth network, and spread the word about "this kind of thing" among a wider audience. So as well as interviews, I added listings to raise awareness in particular of the great grass roots work out there. 

From there, a live festival seemed inevitable. It all grew so organically that I only realised gradually that it was bigger than the sum of its parts, and that I'd started an arts organisation by mistake. 

You've attracted some big names to your first voidspace live. What should people look out for?

voidspace live (produced in association with Theatre Deli) is going to be an absolutely wild ride. We've taken interactive work from all different corners of the arts worlds, and smooshed them together under one roof. If we've done our job right, you'll come away having discovered something you didn't even know could exist. 

voidspace live happens on 9 June.

Photo credit: Katy Naylor




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