Originally written for Exeunt
It seemed like rather a lot was at stake in LAS Theatre’s New Atlantis – there was much talk of water austerity, abandoned cities, the world in crisis etc, so I thought it would be sensible to bring a scientist. I’m also trying to bring along more friends who don’t usually go to the theatre; a] because they’re so much bloody fun to enjoy art with and b] because I feel I have a responsibility to do so with all my +1s.
So that’s why my friend V (BSc Computer Science, MSc Computer Science, former Climate Policy Analyst) and I (BSc Earth Science, glaciology nerd) arrive on a Tuesday night to save the world. Or something.
(So, here’s The Truth About ‘Immersive’ Theatre And Me™: I’ve made loads of it. Too much, in fact. I will always see the strings. I went to Punchdrunk’s The Crash of the Elysium a few years ago, and had this very endearing moment in the dark where a complete stranger grabbed my hand because all he could see was the vague shadowy outline of a weeping angel chasing us. All I could see were its wheels.
We’re read a news report in the atrium of The Crystal, a weirdly beautiful glass oddity on the bank of the Thames, about a world in which clean, accessible water is scarce, and climate change’s devastating effects have finally been taken seriously. We are, we learn, agents of New Atlantis; the successor to the UN and an organisation finding itself in need of new leadership. We have around 90 minutes to explore the building, meet the staff of the departments of Industry, Reform and Defence, and then cast our deciding vote for one of their leaders to take New Atlantis (and, by extension, humanity) safely through the troubling times ahead. So far, so unremarkable.
So, that aspect of performance holds no particular magic for me. But what it actually means is that I have no expectation of my relationship with it – so I’m going to be polite to the woman who comes over to tell me about the Department of Industry when I come in, I’m going to play along with the narrative, naturally, but I don’t really expect myself to commit to it. Consequently, I managed to completely avoid the problem some others seem to have had with New Atlantis – which is that they didn’t think it succeeded as theatre.
… Mmmm, and I have deep problems with how we approximate ‘success’ and ‘failure’, more on that later; but now, back to studio.)
But here’s where it gets interesting. We all get unleashed on this building, filled with scientists and actors, and devoid of specific instructions. We both head somewhat sceptically into a room about algae and spend the next 10 minutes watching things being set on fire. V grills a scientist about biofuel for a full 5 minutes (in detail!) and the guy answers every single question. The molecule diagrams stuck on the walls have the correct number of carbon bonds! The next room has robots. Robots! I’m feeling suddenly very pro- the Department of Industry. But wait! Reform are focussed on stopping the retreat of the ice sheets. I get to geek out about glacier calving. It transpires that Industry want to open up Antarctica to the highest corporate bidder. Then Defence, who I’m sure I’ll hate, turn out to be the only ones worrying about the oceans, and about actually effectively collaborating with other departments…
The beauty of what LAStheatre have done in mingling scientists with actors – in some cases more seamlessly than others – is that it makes you completely unafraid to be curious, to prod at what they’re doing and talking about, to explore. A couple of times, the actors stumble over someone’s left-field questions. The scientists never do. There isn’t really a fourth wall to break with them, there’s nothing particularly wrong you can do, short of physically damaging something. Which some audience members do, and it’s rapidly fixed; because scientists.
We became invested in the politics somewhat to our own surprise – the more we explored, the more real the science clearly was, the more obvious its effects on the world, the more we cared about the outcome of the decision we could make. Also; we could make a decision. I haven’t been asked to make one decision about an environmental issue at policy level since I moved to this country, because there are no referendums on those changes here. We don’t get asked; things just happen and we can either protest, petition or let them go.
Suddenly it mattered, and even though it’s difficult to take people seriously when their beautiful, pristine costumes wouldn’t look amiss on a Stargate set, and even though the three candidates are far more diametrically opposed than any we would ever see in an actual election in this country (though frankly, they quite perfectly embodied the ridiculousness of our politicians, and seemed far more qualified), and even though there’s a last minute Anonymous moment… it all worked for me. Regardless of whether or not I buy into the story being told, I’m being asked to make a stark choice and I have to look at my own very real personal politics to do so. V felt equally torn. We were both somewhat pissed off at the audience’s choice, then momentarily alarmed that perhaps the way people vote in a show isn’t entirely misaligned with the way they would vote in the general election. Our decisions weren’t. Though V is one of those filthy immigrants bringing their money and skills to this country, so he can’t actually vote in May anyway…
So does it ‘succeed’ as theatre? I can’t say; because I’m one of those knobs who’ll give you a rambling soliloquy about theatre being an individual experience and no one, least of all critics, being the universal arbiters of success or failure. But I have two personal criteria for pieces of performance; I want them to challenge me, and/or I want them to change me. That can be as simple as making me laugh – leaving with my ribs hurting is still a change in me. New Atlantis challenged my politics and it changed… well, two days later I stopped prevaricating and applied for my MSc.
Theatre as a framing device, a point of access for having a hell of a load of fun with science is great.
Theatre with friends who have no preconceptions about what theatre should be is fab and a reminder of who art is actually for (hint: everyone).
Theatre with robots: ALWAYS.