The salon has a proud tradition of immersive theatre and events performance. As salon:events opens its books for the summer festival season, why not get involved? What might you be doing, and how can it help your acting? Geraldine Brennan remembers her first year of head-first immersion
New Year’s Day, 2013
I’m doing one of those brisk hungover country walks in which you traditionally mull over where you are and where you’re going (in a freezing muddy field in North Yorkshire, and hopefully soon, very soon, please, back to my friend’s cozy cottage for a hair of the dog and a roast).
I feel even more than the usual seasonal ration of angst. New Year’s Eve is my wedding anniversary but December 31 2012 marks my first end-of-year spent estranged from my husband and I had other family concerns). This marks three years trying to be an actor full time and I’m busy agonising about my depth of emotional prep and rigour of text analysis. I’ve written and self-produced my first solo show in 2012 but feel unconfident about pulling it out of the bag single-handed. The classical roles I’ve doggedly worked on in class seem far out of reach. My friends from my old life are creating terraces and gazebos in their gardens, flying to Rio on business for their proper jobs and having grandchildren. That doesn’t rock my boat, but what am I doing instead?
It feels hard to claw any time for performing out of family responsibilities. As a goal for 2013 I need to re-find the pleasure in the life I’ve chosen, or what’s the point?
Spring, I think: wake-up call
5.30am at Liverpool Street with a Primark business suit in a bag, dodging hail and looking for an address in Shoreditch. I don’t know what month it is, but it feels like February at this hour. When did I last get up so early without a passport?
As usual, it’s all Dominic Kelly’s idea. A hardy gang from the salon:collective has been booked to provide the immersive actors for what will become the global breakfast rave brand called Morning Gloryville. We arrive at a nightclub shortly after its normal closing time, put on our corporate-casting jackets and ties over pyjama bottoms and furry slippers, add strange 70s blond ‘bed hair’ wigs, gyrate like crazy, bellow ‘Good Morning!’ as the sun finally comes up and persuade City folk that they really need a few hours’ dancing to warm up for their first meeting.
It works: we do this once a month for the rest of the year and beyond, sharing a glitterbombed green room with a troupe of dancing unicorns. The Daily Mail turns up at the second gig and being interviewed by international TV crews become commonplace.
Today our Morning Angels act has metamorphosed into a different theme each month. Dajana, one of the first angels, became the salon’s head of events, produced the original Morning Gloryville in East London and now sources new immersive opportunities for salon actors, including with the Barcelona-born club night, Elrow.
May: All Third Eyes on deck
Sunset on a boat in the middle of the Thames, preparing for a ritual sacrifice of a baguette. It’s my first Pirate Radio Party. This time the salon actors have devised a more complex immersive theatre piece, as officers of the ‘Bureau of Awakingment and Enlightingment’. We’ve spent days in workshops creating situations and characters that will encourage the party guests to connect with us and feel comfortable and inspired to contribute in return. Many of our apparently spontaneous happenings are tightly choreographed but there is room to play within them. As a senior BEA officer called Myrtle, I am in charge of Third Eye Testing, engaging guests one to one, while another salon creative has written a questionnaire to share with the cloakroom queue (‘Are you aware?’ ‘Is the moon a garden?’ ‘Are you feeling awkward?’).
Meanwhile we’re searching for the ‘chosen ones’ from the crowd who will join us in our bizarre ritual on deck. My sacrificial companion is Shelton, whose life is a performance with a thin line between being and imagining and whose costume is a work of art. The partygoers love the experience we have created, and nobody asks about our emotional prep.
The challenge is in judging the right moment and not letting it pass: the guests’ attention span is tiny. You may have heard Lawrence Carmichael say in class that the audience only pays attention for six seconds – well, this lot haven’t got time for that, they’re at a party. Any moment spent hovering, guessing or worrying is a moment lost. Pirate Radio Party was where I started to learn to stop worrying, have a clear character in my head and let it loose. That spirit of adventure underpinned by solid preparation goes a long way in events.
June: Sonnet Sonatas
Shakespeare’s sonnets spoken one-to-one in a penthouse corporate suite in Mayfair. It’s the 40th birthday of a literacy charity I used to write about in my previous life. We’ve got full-on Tudor costumes (my skirt barely fits in the lift) and we sing an Elizabethan-style round to conclude the Sonnet Sonatas programme compiled by Lizzie Conrad Hughes. This crowd is more formal, charity volunteers enjoying a stately afternoon tea, and there is more potential for awkward moments. Are they open to Sonnet 123 spoken over their scones? Again, shilly-shallying won’t help, just shove that skirt under the table and crack on. The characters we create (The Professor, The Incurable Romantic, The Eternally Optimistic Soul – that’s me, of course) translate smoothly into the 1920s Grand Hotel setting for Laura Marling’s Secret Music event from the Secret Cinema team (14 of us whispering Secret Sonnets over 10 nights).
July: enter the Wildlings
Two hot weekends spent ‘creative flyering’ for Wilderness Festival, drifting through London’s scorched parks and squares in rainbow tribal gear with a ukulele, collapsing round barbecue pits at night. We’re raising the budget for the salon’s debut Wilderness walkabout act, the Dandy Animals Radical Intelligentsia Tea Salon, with me as Badger plus Cat, Wolf and Damselfly. Festivals now make up a large part of salon:events work and Dajana has recently put together teams for How the Light Gets In in Hay-on-Wye, Standon Calling in Hertfordshire and Lovebox in London.
August: birth of the Badger
I’ve made it to Wilderness with Badger’s tail and ears, a basket of vintage china, a selection of diarrhoea remedies and a baffling tent I haven’t put up for 20 years.Wilderness does not permit underground shelters and Badgers are not natural campers but the Damselfly creates a spare festival home with a flick of the wings – apparently these new-fangled tents don’t have poles, who knew?
I am also equipped with lovingly crafted theories about the badgers’ place in world civilisation. Why do you never see badgers on a Noah’s Ark? It’s a conspiracy by the giraffes. Our tea salon (a folding table with a handy stove and kettle) is based on philosophical debate and we wonder how we will entice the fickle Wilderness crowd on their way to Ottolenghi banquets, cricket matches, gigs, naked sock wrestling and al fresco cocktail bars. We might need more than text analysis for this.
After a river swim and a dirty burger to brace ourselves, we achieve spectacular costume and make-up in campsite conditions. At Wilderness everyone looks extraordinary and there are astonishing happenings everywhere, so you have to go many extra miles to pull focus and make the initial connection that we are well trained to build on.
The Wolf’ Shakespeare lecture (with much reference to the Moon he is always howling at) draws a crowd, and we’re off for the next three days. My housemate walks past and doesn’t recognise me. I pour tea and explain the Badger conspiracy theory of the universe to a succession of delightful Dandy acolytes and the BBC, then bare my soul in the late night storytelling tent. I’ve been at Wilderness every year since and the Dandy Animals have found new audiences: this year we’ll be at Citadel festival. The early character work we put in (we exchanged 1-minute films and spent a day with Lawrence in Ally Pally working on our physicality) has stood us in good stead.
Later in August, I join another salon gang to try out Random Acts of Shakespeare (the salon’s new street theatre package) on the streets of Marylebone and the Embankment. I realise that there is a way into every audience at a craft fair in Marylebone Church gardens: a starchy couple are unimpressed by my sonnet ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’ even when I show them a pocket photo album of long lost loves, but they crack a smile at a photo of my cat, Soggy (RIP). Previously outside a Church Street pub I’d found a perfect John Falstaff for my Merry Wife, who looked like he’d been immersing himself in the role for days. Another insight: you have to have a plan (again, the so-called Random Acts were meticulously rehearsed) to leave room for nothing to go as planned.
I still haven’t played Gertrude or Mrs Alving this year but I’ve said yes to everything for the past eight months and rediscovered joy in performance.
December: oh yes it is
The autumn has turned non-immersive and glitter-free with the second season of salon:lab (I also created and produced our writer development programme throughout 2013). It’s all been a bit serious and I am ready to finish off the year with a blast of salon:panto. Panto is the most traditional of theatre forms but many of the same principles of immersive theatre apply: make a fool of yourself, feel free to eat too many sweets and embarrass your nearest and dearest, but never lose sight of the audience. As at festivals, it might be behind you.
If you’re interested in joining some of the salon’s 2016 immersive projects (we’re currently working a lot with Elrow, the club night from Barcelona, plus various summer festivals), send your Spotlight link or CV plus headshot to firstname.lastname@example.org Don’t forget to highlight any special skills/musical instruments played (your skills could inspire a new walkabout act). Most jobs are paid but for some we offer payment in kind such as festival entry. The deal varies for each job but we make sure performers are well looked after. You’re likely to get some great photography and media coverage.