Niall Griffin and Nicola Mayer, two of the creative minds behind the highly anticipated and covertly conceived Immortal, greet me with a friendly, “Hello, sorry for how we look” outside the Castle of Good Hope. “We’ve just been digging around in the dirt for some show elements.” With that abstract statement I realise that as much as Immortal is definitely not going to be a normal theatre production; this was not going to be a normal Spotlight interview either.
Walking across the grounds, I take in the magnitude of the heritage site that Griffin and Mayer are tasked with transforming. This transformation must happen skilfully, and possibly magically, without any alteration of the structural character of the building. No nuts, bolts, or attached riggings of any kind may be used when the team install all things Immortal mid-November for the public opening on 7 December 2017.
As I enter the marvellous, old stone rooms where Griffin and Mayer’s creative expression will be on display, I start subtly (or so I thought) prodding my companions about the production’s concept, process, and design. Observing the exchange of glances between the two before either responds, it dawns on me that the magic of this interview will not be found in what is said, but rather in what my interviewees let linger in the creative silences and elusive hints between responses … So I caution myself: If I pick up on anything too revealing, I can’t give too much away here. If I do, there is a very good chance that the Theatre Fates may just turn me into an immortal prop, too.
So, I can confirm that I got to walk through some historic rooms —that are soon to see on average 50 audiences members roaming around at a time— and that I got to sit down for this Immortal interview in a lavish space that radiates the lingering energy of the stories of those who passed through it before, but I can’t reveal much more. Once I had been given the grand tour of the performance space, we got down to talking about this different kind of theatre.
Immersed in the future of theatre
Immersive theatre is just entirely different, Griffin ensures me; it’s something unique. “It’s a phenomenon that has grown exponentially in recent years. It’s a full sensory experience. To quote Indiewire, it’s the ‘future of entertainment’. The concept came to the public’s attention thanks to a punchdrunk produced New York production, Sleep No More. It’s a completely new vibe. What is so different with immersive theatre —as opposed to ‘traditional’ theatre— is that immersive theatre is all about the individual’s experience.” Griffin says, however, that audiences should not expect a carbon copy of a punchdrunk immersive theatre production. Immortal is similar to something like Sleep No More in its immersive approach to theatre, but that is where the comparison stops. “What Niki [Mayer] and I have been speaking about a lot is that punchdrunk has a very specific style with Sleep No More, as Les Enfants Terribles had a very specific style with Alice's Adventures Underground, but this is not a replication of any of those US and UK productions. It is an entirely South African production presented by Standing O, and it is quite deliciously, and on purpose, a completely different experience to any of those. We are really pushing the boundaries on some stuff that is completely different to what has been done already oversees.”
Griffin emphasises that audiences should leave their understanding of theatre as they know it at the Castle gates. “We all have our individual experiences of a show when we see it, but to some extent we are guided by the director’s vision and shown, almost prompted, what to expect and what to feel. Immersive theatre is a very, very different animal. Every individual’s experience of the space is completely different, and will be completely different. Each night will be different depending on the personalities of the audience, the route you take, whether you choose to follow one actor through the ‘story’, whether you choose to interact with the performers or the scenic elements or both, or whether you just want to meander through the space if you are not a fan of audience participation.”
A story, without and within a story
Griffin and Mayer, as Immortal's Costume and Scenic Designers, respectively, are also very cautious to even confirm that there is a ‘story’ to follow as the audience travels through fourteen rooms in the space of one hour. They share that there are so many elements at play that they cannot truly say that this production is narrative-driven.
Yes, there was an initial concept of “an old family mansion lost in time”, Griffin admits, but Mayer is quick to add that “it started there”, but she doesn’t think it’s totally a mansion anymore. “It’s worlds … levels of how one experiences being in time. Also not necessarily lost in time, though sometimes trapped, sometimes questioning both the future and the past. How one looks at time nowadays is very different, because there is a massive mindfulness movement. The world we live in is in the now, in social media. Everything is fast paced, yet we are still thinking about our past baggage, so often we are not ready for an actual moment in time when it occurs. On a psychological level, Immortal addresses some of those (timeless) things. I think each world that we have created has certain connections to the future, and to the past, and to the now. Those are the major foundations for everything: From performance, to how we dress the set and the performers.”
Griffin and Mayer caution that people should not expect a haunted house. “This is not a horror story,” Mayer explains. “You are not coming here to get scared. You are coming in here to challenge your belief of what time really is.”
Considering how to describe Immortal in terms of theatrical genres, Griffin confesses that “the bizarre thing about why we are so vague about this, is it is so much of so many things, and so not anything either”. According to him, this production is “an incredibly difficult thing to box”. At best, Mayer says, one can see it as a drama with a bit of suspense, but even that will depend on your experience on any given night.
Creative collaboration at its best
The concept’s evolution from “mansion” to “time(less) worlds” is clearly a result of the fact that this production is strongly driven by its creative team. Although Standing O is a new theatre company, it’s not new in the sense of industry experience; in fact, Griffin points out that Standing O brings together “a collection of creatives with a wealth of experience —an amazing mix of professionals from the film, theatre, contemporary dance, and music industries.” Mayer agrees that this feeds into what will ultimately be the production’s charm and appeal, as every creative brings “something unique” to the show. “I think,” Mayer continues, “because of that mix, it’s not something you can label ‘oh, I’ve seen that’, because you could not have.” The different design teams (and the elements within their control, whether those are scenic props, costumes, sound or choreography) cannot function disjointedly. This both inspires and challenges the designers.
Griffin emphasises that this production is very much a team effort. “We are permanently on each other’s cases about what the other is doing. But not in a way that anyone’s ideas or contributions are ever squashed. The collaboration allows ideas to morph into something that feeds into the immersive experience.” Mayer brings this back to the on-site implementation: “Because it’s basically fourteen rooms, you’ve got fourteen performances happening at any given time. It is really quite complex. Anything from actor to wardrobe to dance to wording has to stand on its own, while also speaking to each other in the environment. If one element on its own does not mean anything it should not be there, and if it doesn’t add to the experience as a whole, it should also not be there.”
“Everything, everything, has been painstakingly chosen —down to colour tones, textures, and the dyeing and ageing of (in some instances imported and vintage) fabrics,” Griffin elaborates. “From a costume perspective, what has been amazing for me is that these costumes are not what you would see on a commercial theatre stage. They really push boundaries in terms of concept. They are not what is expected. I get to create living art on these performers in an interconnected way. I cannot make a choice regarding the colour of a fabric without impacting on what Niki is doing, and Niki cannot choose a certain prop or a piece of furniture without having that affect the costume.”
Mayer explains that this interconnectedness even spills over to Alice Kok’s choreography, because “one has to make choices based on how [a particular element] is going to be used in terms of movement”. And that, Griffin admits, is both exciting and tricky. “Every now and then we come up with an amazing visual and put it to the choreographer, then —without ever shooting an idea down— she’ll subtly remind us to keep in mind that we’re talking about a dancer, so we can’t put anything on certain parts of the body.”
A never-ending experience
This unique approach to creative collaboration, and the absence of a set narrative, allows Immortal to morph into an immersive theatre environment that is not simple or linear, like something that would allow you simply to follow a "stage act” through the rooms from point A to point B. Mayer likens the concept of Immortal to that of The Never Ending Story:
“The way The Never Ending Story works is by drawing you into an imaginary realm, and the way that you see that realm is different to how every other person reading the book sees it, because you are not Sebastian. So with Immortal, every person is ‘reading’ their own never-ending story within layers of possible meanings.” It gives you what TV, Film and Theatre cannot give you; it breaks the disconnect, the fourth wall, between audience and performance. “So you choose your own path, and because of it, we’ve had to challenge ourselves to think out of the box and think outside the normal narrative.”
So, Griffin and Mayer admit, Immortal is going to be a challenge for the actors on a performance and emotional level, as the story never truly ends or begins. Even on a psychological level, Griffin says, “it’s going to be unbelievably hard on those performers to literally turn back the clock on that hour call, disengage while not disengaging, and revert back to the starting point of the process for the next audience that enters without really breaking character in the time-loop”. Because of that, audiences will want to experience Immortal more than once, as every performance will be different. That difference is again informed by the fact that there are no lead actors or characters; this is very much an ensemble piece.
There are eight characters, but with the creative team also transforming the rooms into entire worlds, the environment becomes the ninth performer with whom the audience can interact. Then, as soon as you step into the space, you as an audience member become the tenth performer in Immortal, as dictated by your own subjective intuition and choices.
For that reason, each audience member is given a mask, which is an intentional choice, Mayer reveals. “The moment you put on a mask you are no longer looking at the person next to you as someone you need to compare your thoughts with. You become neutral.” Griffin adds, “there is also something absolutely bizarre about masks. Putting on a mask gives instant confidence to people to a degree that they may not necessarily normally have.” As the masked tenth performer in your unique audience experience you can then choose to interact with the environment as you like, picking up props, moving between rooms, even going back to rooms if you want to retrace your steps. “It’s simply otherworldly,” Mayer contextualises.
Everything and everyone is a ‘story’
When it comes to cast members, Griffin admits that he is particularly excited about one performer, as he thinks he is perfect for this experience. “No showing favourites on any level”, he promises, “because the cast really is superb overall, but I am absolutely thrilled that Glenn Swart has joined the show.”
“He is a great theatre veteran,” Griffin continues. “Back in the day, he was the golden boy, the lead in virtually everything. I was heavily involved in the casting process, so when Josh [Ackerman, the Director] sent me the character brief, I knew instantly in my gut that this would fit him perfectly. I was on the phone, like, ‘Glenn, get your butt to these auditions’. I am so thrilled he’s back, I really am. Glenn’s actually our poster boy.”
Looking at the poster, I comment that Glenn’s character to me resembles a watchmaker slightly removed from reality. Mayer joins in on my musings: “He almost looks like a Geppetto”. We left our observations there so as not to impact on my, her, or any other tenth character’s subjective Immortal experience.
Departing from the character for a moment, Griffin goes on to say that “there is some stuff that you just cannot fake, and Glenn’s experience as reflected in his expression, his glance, his body language, is just that: You can’t fake that sense of personality and presence infused with life experience.” So a story —whatever you decide that may be— is already spun just by looking at Glenn Swart on the poster. He is his own story. Mayer agrees: “That’s why I keep saying that everything, in its quietness, as well as in the dance and in its particular world, says something at any moment.”
The theatre must of the season (and sundowners)
You can witness and participate in these immersive moments at the Castle of Good Hope, from 7 December 2017 to 14 January 2018. Three audiences will be accommodated each night at 7:30pm, 8:30pm and 9:30pm, respectively, and the run will include a New Year’s Eve performance. Plus, Griffin excitedly adds, “there is a pop-up bar courtesy of Thirst Bar Services, with custom-designed Immortal cocktails”. The bar will be open throughout the duration of the show and the public will have access to it even if they are not immersing themselves in Immortal’s time(less) experience on that night. So make a note and get a taste of some theatre sundowners at the Castle too!
Just from the hints revealed here (and from those still kept as a close secret), I can predict that the immersive experience that is Immortal will be the must-“see” show of the holiday season. Advance booking through Computicket is definitely advisable! Once you have suspended reality and time, remember to share your experience on social media by using the hashtag #ImmortalCapeTown. In keeping with the spirit of this production, I’m fairly certain no two tweeted reactions will be the same.