On arrival to Camden People’s Theatre, I shyly sidestepped someone to get to the box office, and later someone else awkwardly asked if ‘I was using that chair’. This all sounds pretty standard for a London evening. You don’t tend to interact with the people around you much, and when you are forced to, it always seems to be uncomfortable and wooden.
But ‘Black Box’ changed all that. Less than half an hour later, the same group of people who were so unwilling to talk to each other, were creating a piece of theatre together. We were singing, drawing and sharing quite intimate details about ourselves. Sounds pretentiously theatrical? Well, surprisingly, it isn’t.
A photocopy of a two-page short story is on each seat as you come into the space, which looks just like an ordinary end-on black box theatre. You have five minutes to read the story before the compères, the welcoming Jon Lee and Georgina Sowerby, explain how the evening is going to work.
The audience has one hour to play a theatrical game based loosely around the short story. There are three decks of custom-made cards around the room. When you feel the urge, you take a card from the top of a pack, read it and follow the instructions. The first pile is for those who are willing to perform. I won’t spoil it for you by being too specific, but they feature some fun things that get you to draw on the walls, applaud randomly and even move the furniture around. The second pile is for the people who have been involved on social media prior to the performance and have developed a lose narrative together. The third and final pile is for those of us who are more introverted. I started with these, and found that they subtly get you to engage in exercises such as recalling a rousing song or challenging you to change your perspective. The beauty being that the card doesn’t specify what exactly it wants you to change your perspective of.
This is exactly what theatre company Dirty Market are trying to achieve: a change in theatrical perspective. The game allows the audience to step over the boundary that separates them from the stage and actually become part of the performance. Yet the magic of the evening is that, despite becoming a performer, a part of you remains an audience member. I spent half the time just watching other people playing while the calming sounds of Philip Glass softly played.
Originally for their company’s workshops, this was the first time the cards were used for a one-off performance. The evening, for the majority of the time, still felt like a workshop, but seeing as it took place outside of any rehearsal space, with a group of strangers, it is a lot more challenging and scary as a result. There was a long pause before the first brave audience member ventured to take a card. Then within seconds everyone followed. At the end of the hour, the walls were covered with chalk etchings full of witches, personal secrets and symbols to hoard off the devil.
The evening allowed (or rather forced) you to explore things about yourself that you would generally leave untouched, things that the short story addressed that may have seemed abstract or barely relatable. The hour feels more like a therapy session than anything else. I went from feeling extremely shy, to paranoid, to giggly, to scared, to upset and finally to calm. It was a pretty unique experience to share with a bunch of strangers, who probably all have their own version of the evening to tell. Rather than watching other people experience things on stage, you do it yourself. The result is quite amazing.
Dirty Market are part of a group of companies getting involved in DIY Theatre. To follow what they do next, check out: www.dirtymarket.co.uk