How to engage young audiences is a challenge facing many venues. For Lincoln-based Zest Theatre, though. it’s at the heart of all the company does.The company is about to tour its interactive show for teenage audiences, Gatecrash, that uses Silent Disco headphones to allow the audience to listen in to various parts of a house party. Artistic Director Toby Ealden talks to Glen Pearce about the show and attracting the next generation of theatregoers.
So tell us about Gatecrash.
Gatecrash is a production especially designed for teenage audiences, set within a teenage house party. It’s an immersive show set within big sets that look like a downstairs of a house. Up to 60 young people at a time can come into the show but they don’t just sit in chairs watching the show, they are cast as the gatecrashers of the party. Over the hour, they can do pretty much what they want, as long as it is safe and legal. They can sing, dance, eat snacks and drink our very convincing non-alcoholic ‘alcohol’ drinks. They can sit on the sidelines and observe or play games as well as observe the action and follow the narrative as it is taking part around them.
We’ve got five characters who tell their story throughout the night, and alcohol fuels the night, from awkward beginnings when they first arrive right through to tears and fallouts by the end.
What was the aim behind devising Gatecrash?
The main idea really was to produce a piece of theatre that engages young people who may not normally think that theatre is for them. It is very much about creating an exciting and dynamic environment that will inspire them to want to come back to venues to see what else is going on. So rather than think theatre is irrelevant and stuffy, to think it is actually something that is about them and for them and blows their expectation of what theatre should be.
You mention young audiences sometimes seeing barriers to attending the arts, is enough being done to break down those barriers?
Tackling the issues about engaging teenage audiences across the board is a really big area we all need to look at. We need to see what those barriers really are, to see what is really stopping them from attending, because those young people are our future generation of theatre goers. That could be a whole range of things, from the financial aspect but also socially. Teenagers like hanging around with their mates, so they’re only going to go places their mates see as cool places to hang out. I think we need to look across the sector on how we make these buildings, that are important to their communities, become important to future theatregoers.
Silent disco technology plays a big part in this show – what challenges does that bring?
There’s a whole load of challenges but it’s really central to the experience. Just like a real party, there is a lot going on. If we both attended the same party tonight we’d leave with different experiences of the same event, having seen different things and had different conversations. We wanted to emulate that and the headphones allow us to do that.
Challenges affect every area of the production. For the writing, we had to be quite methodical in how we laid the script out for all the storylines. When one character leaves on channel 1 and walks across the room, the opposing scene on the other side of the room finishes at exactly the same time so those two characters can meet at exactly the same time to begin the next scene. It is also a challenge for our stage management team who not only have to do the usual stage manage things but they also have to be party goers, to be the first people to join in games and break the ice and also have to help manage behaviour to maintain safety.
Does the technology help a young audience engage in the production?
Silent disco technology is often used in a nightclub environment, where two opposing DJs play different types of music and those having their night out can choose what they listen to. We wanted to try and see if audiences could have that same level of control in the show. Young people, in particular, are digital natives and are used to controlling the world around them through handheld technology. Ari, our sound designer, listens to both channels at the same time, and through methods that only he understands, manages to get the content on the right channel at the right time so we don’t hear things we shouldn’t.
As awriter, does the interactive element mean the story is a headache to plot?
There are sections we’ve put in where everyone hears the same thing and it happens two or three times, so we can kind of catch up with each other. That’s a few logistics to ensure everyone catches up and knows what’s gone on and, at the end of the show, all the story lines again converge.
By the time everyone leaves, they will have the gist of what has happened but what is quite exciting for me is if they don’t see and hear absolutely everything. If they come with groups or friends, we hope they’d all seen slightly different things and the conversation can continue on the way home, filling in the gaps of what the others saw.
Within the set, we’ve a downstairs toilet set that only fits two or three people in and over the show there are three or four scenes that take place in that toilet so only about seven people will see the content that goes on in there and get let into secrets that nobody else knows. They get to choose what to do with that – do they share it and spread it as rumours or keep it to themselves. It means this show feels very personal and immediate and for audiences who have not been in a show like this before it feels very special for them.
What do want the audience to take away from Gatecrash?
With this tour we’ve received strategic funding from the Arts Council; the show finishes with everyone dancing and the police arriving to shut down the party. Everyone runs into the foyer and they leave with a lot of excitement and euphoria, but we didn’t want it to just end then. So it’s about plugging them into the life of the venue, so these guys come back and see future programming. For this tour, we are working really closely with the venues to see how they capture data from young people, how they can get these people engaged and joined up with their social media – so that when we leave, and our residency at the venue finishes, our audiences can get plugged into the life of that venue.
As part of that, we’re working with each venue to produce young producers groups in each location. The idea being that they create a group of young people who are excited and passionate about the venue and who can use Gatecrash as the first project to get their teeth into and, beyond that, what we are challenging the venues to do is keep hold of that group and use them to shape future programming.
What do you think the current state is like in the industry for younger audiences?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we engage with young people and how the sector does it, and I guess my passion, and it may be a pipedream, is that young people have art and culture so intertwined in their lives that it becomes as natural to attend an art event as it would say Star Wars or a band who may be playing.
I guess for us, and most companies, the first port of call to get an audience is to go to schools as there is a captive audience there, and while that’s a natural thing to do but then you often here venues getting frustrated as schools haven’t been forthcoming and, therefore, they haven’t been successful in attracting young people to the show. I just think there must be something beyond just targeting schools to attract young people. It’s not just about putting the show in your brochure or on your website and hope for an audience to turn up – especially when dealing with young people. Alot of the time it’s meeting them face to face, finding out where they hang out and what they are doing. We’ve found when you do that that they can put a face to the name and they feel a bit more reassured in walking into what can be quite intimidating buildings, where they feel,potentially, that they don’t belong.
I don’t think we’ve found the answers but I think we’re in a place where it feels that this is our best way at the moment to get young audiences into our show but beyond that, is it fair for us to be getting frustrated with teachers, who already have enough work already and under a lot of pressure.
Gatecrash tours the UK from 23 February to 18 March 2016.
For more information visit www.zesttheatre.com| Image:Scott Murray