- The Curious Voyage: The Potentials and Pitfalls of Immersive Performance
When assessing a performance, there’s usually no higher compliment than to say it was transformational: that it transported its audiences, shifted the ground beneath their feet, and caused them to look at the world anew, as though they had travelled to a foreign country. One can apply those descriptions to Talk Is Free Theatre’s production of The Curious Voyage, not as praise but rather as fact. Called “the ultimate, international theatre adventure” in press materials (Murray Paterson), the immersive, site-engaging performance took place in October 2018, beginning in Barrie, Ontario, and concluding two days and an intercontinental flight later, in London, England.
According to Talk Is Free Theatre, seventy-one people bought tickets for the performance, at a cost of $1,950 (which included accommodation and airport transportation, but not airfare), demonstrating that at least a small audience was interested in Artistic Director Arkady Spivak’s offer of an experience that demanded a vastly different level of commitment from that required of viewers of a traditional play, even a more traditional immersive play. Spivak notes, “What’s different here is because the audience is not a participant but almost a co-creator, a colleague, but they’re actually paying for the privilege as well, and almost committing to more than the artists who are actually engaged by the project.”
The production demonstrates the impact of the experience economy on performance practice, particularly its contribution to the rapid increase in immersive and site-specific theatre productions. Adam Alston explains that the mass appeal of immersive theatre lies in its targeting of a potential audience member’s narcissistic and hedonistic desire: “hedonistic, because the experiences are often pleasurable, with pleasure often sought as an end in itself, as a site of self-indulgence or even eroticism; narcissistic, because the experience is all about you, the participant” (130). Though they primarily reflect dominant traits of the immersive theatre-going market, these experiences are hardly apolitical; in addition to highlighting escalating ambitions in the immersive theatre industry, they also demonstrate what Alston argues is immersive theatre’s ability to “mobilize and reinforce neoliberal values towards citizenship” (qtd. in Roche 138).
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Spivak’s audiences are not only paying for the privilege to be co-creator, but they’re also buying an exclusive experience off-limits even to those involved with the show as they are, in fact, the only ones who receive the full impact of The Curious Voyage, as the Barrie and London parts of the performance use two separate casts, and the audience’s experience begins long before the first day of the performance. Communication with an unknown aide [End Page 82] named Alden Russell begins shortly after the moment of ticket purchase. “You must put all of your trust in me, we will be getting to know each other well, I assure you,” they write by email, and they go on to solicit information like jacket size, height, and phone number. Secrecy, however, is paramount to the experience: participants received no clues as to the plot, settings, or themes of the show they would experience. Initial instructions were simply to arrive in a pre-booked hotel room in Barrie and to wait for the experience to begin.
The first part of The Curious Voyage was co-created by Daniele Bartolini of DopoLavoro Teatrale, a company known for devising travelling performances for one audience member at a time, and a group of sixty local teenagers. Bartolini and DopoLavoro Teatrale typically favour images, atmospheres, metaphor, and communal activities over clarity and story in their work, and these characteristics are notable in The Curious Voyage, which sends the audience on a mission to find a mysterious and potentially dangerous fugitive named Antony. One to three audience members are immersed in short scenes performed by one actor at a time, in settings ranging from a hotel room, to a dingy apartment, to the...