Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Owen Kingston: Crisis? What Crisis?

By | Published on Friday 8 November 2019

Fans of immersive and interactive theatre may well be aware of the work of Parabolic Theatre, a company that – despite its relative youth – has made a significant impact on the landscape of that particular field.

Their latest show ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ harks back to the political events of 1979, a year that people my age tend to have pretty vivid memories of, despite the fact that we were quite small back then.

To find out more about the show and the company I spoke to artistic director Owen Kingston.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the format of the show? It’s described as a “live-action board game”, which sounds interesting!
OK: The starting premise of the show is that a vote of no confidence has been called in the government which is due to take place that evening, and the government has a working majority of zero. This means that everyone in the Labour party must vote against the motion of no-confidence, or the government will fall.

Leading up to this vote, the country has been through a hellish winter filled with strikes, power cuts, and all manner of economic chaos. While the MPs are debating and voting in parliament, their parliamentary advisors – the audience – must try and prevent any serious crisis from taking hold that might affect the outcome of the vote.

The show actually started life as a pitch for a board game. Tom, the writer, had this idea that the political crisis of 1979 would be a great concept for a game, balancing the various challenges the government at that time faced, and allowing players various routes to success by adopting different courses of action.

It was talking about this pitch, coupled with the growing contemporary political crisis over Brexit, that led us to think that maybe we could make a great piece of interactive political theatre that examined how governments handle a major national crisis. When we pitched it to the Croydonites Festival late last year, they were very keen to commission it.

From the beginning, as with all Parabolic shows, we were keen to put the audience in the driving seat. We were not content with merely examining and presenting the issues to an audience, we wanted to offer them real and meaningful opportunities to resolve those problems, and not just with our own pre-determined solutions, but in a way that would encourage and reward their creativity.

Therefore, the show presents the audience with an array of problems and a series of tools to address those problems – our actors then facilitate the audience’s response to those problems, feeding back the consequences of their actions. While the same problems will arise each show, the collective response of every audience is unique, which in turn makes each show unique.

CM: Are there any narrative elements?
OK: Absolutely there are, and these range from the epic and political to the small and personal. Each show is one big narrative – the story of the last days of the Callaghan government in 1979 – that the audience has the power to affect and change for the better or worse.

The opportunity is there to attempt to re-write history, although there is no guarantee that the outcome will be any better. We’ve done our best to create an accurate political simulator that will give realistic outcomes to ideas that the audience present and enact, based on the history of the time. This makes it very difficult to achieve a highly favourable outcome for the Labour party, as the odds are stacked against them in 1979, but does reward audiences who come up with creative solutions appropriate to the era.

On the personal side of things, each character that the audience encounters has their own goals and aspirations and as the audience shape the show with their decisions, so these characters’ lives will also be affected.

There is Jennie Wright, aide to Anne Taylor – the first female MP to be a party whip, who has only been in her job for two days and is freaking out in case the government falls and she finds herself suddenly unemployed.

There is David Fargill, the deputy press secretary who has been benched for referring to Thatcher as “that effing woman” live on air and desperately needs to redeem himself and get back in the game.

And then there’s Reg and Trevor, local activists with a struggling rock band for whom a mention in the Evening Standard could be life changing, even if it does come at the expense of a good news story for the party.

Finally there is the story of the country itself. Britain in the late 1970s was a deeply divided nation, much like it is now. Small political decisions can have big consequences for people’s lives, and we try and model those narratives in the game, feeding back to the audience the consequences of their actions through the personal stories of the lives they are affecting.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
OK: Primarily the show is about politics – specifically about the complexity of governing a country, and how unintended consequences of simple actions can spiral into huge problems.

It is also about realising one’s potential. For many of the characters, this is their chance for a moment of greatness – some will rise to it, and some will refuse it. This is also the case for the audience. We wanted to give people the opportunity to test the theory that they could do a better job than our current politicians, and the show offers audiences the opportunity to step up and tackle the challenge of government in a very difficult set of adverse historical circumstances.

It is just as possible to do very well and improve upon the outcomes of history, as it is to do very badly and arrive at some extreme theoretical scenarios. Regardless, by stepping up to the challenge, audiences step into the role of hero in a way that is rarely possible in everyday life.

Underpinning all of that, the show is about empathy, and this is something that immersive theatre facilitates very well.

When you step into the historical world of the story and take on the role of the protagonist for yourself, you are also stepping into the shoes of politicians who trod that path in the real world, which is very similar to the path that politicians are treading now. The British public is keen to attack politicians for all manner of reasons, but if you walk a mile in their shoes it just might shift your perspective.

CM: What made the events of 1979 the best basis for it?
OK: It is rare in this country to have a political crisis on the scale of Brexit, and the last comparable set of events were in the late 70s which, at the time, was described as the worst political crisis since the war.

We felt it would be too raw and polarising to try and make a show about the Brexit crisis while the country is still in the thick of it and it is unresolved, but by setting the show during the events of 1979 we are able to address a lot of the same issues without it feeling too ‘on the nose’.

It is also a really fascinating period in its own right, and one that both Tom and I have a particular fondness for.

CM: Does it have a political agenda? What do you want people to take away from it?
OK: Although the show is specifically about the Labour Party trying to stay in power, we have tried to be as unpartisan as possible in how we present the story, to the point where we encourage audiences to actively consider potential solutions to the various problems they are faced with that would not be a natural fit for a left wing government.

This allows us to explore the very modern issue of polarisation in politics – will you adopt a centre-ground approach or push the party to the right – New Labour 20 years early? – or further to the left. Each approach has its own challenges, some of which may be very unexpected.

At the heart of the show is a responsiveness to the audience that makes every show unique. In the run we had at the Croydonites Festival, we saw audiences who would privatise everything they could get their hands on, and by contrast on one quite extreme occasion, an audience that attempted to join the Soviet bloc.

The show does not try to push a particular political viewpoint. Instead we want to encourage and empower the audience to make their own decisions. There are many paths to success and many paths to failure, but the joy of the show is the journey itself and what we hope audiences will discover about the British political process, and themselves, along the way.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Parabolic Theatre and the work it does? How long has it been up and running and how did it come together?
OK: We’ve existed as a company since 2016, so we are relatively new kids on the block. The seeds of the company were planted a couple of years before that, however, through the influence of Punchdrunk and their show ‘The Drowned Man’. It was in that show that I decided to turn my back on the conventional theatre work I’d been doing and start a company that would solely produce immersive and interactive theatre.

Despite being heavily inspired by the work of Punchdrunk, our work is actually quite different. We have experimented a lot with interactivity and giving the audience as much agency as possible. We like to try and eliminate the ‘edges’ of our worlds as far as possible. To hit the boundary of the show is always an anti-immersive jolt that can be very jarring. We also like to explore historical settings and, where we can, alternate history possibilities. Tom has been a key player in driving this within the company – he also runs the alternate-history publishing company Sea Lion Press and has done a lot of stellar work in this field outside of Parabolic projects.

CM: What would you say have been your highlights, since its creation?
Our most popular shows to date have been the ‘For King And Country’ series. These shows are set in an alternate history second world war where Britain gets invaded by the Nazis. The current Parabolic team was forged through the collaboration of putting those shows together, and there is something very special about them – the original ‘For King And Country’ in particular. We are hoping to resurrect them again at some point.

I also have a particular fondness for the first show we made, ‘Morningstar’. It was simple, and quite different to some of our later work, but it also has many special memories attached to it and started something that has since snowballed into an avalanche of new immersive content.

All of the shows we make are connected – they are all set in the same ‘universe, and there are little references to other shows in every new show we make. They are there as much for our own amusement as anything, but we’ve developed quite a loyal following who actively look for these connections. They even have their own Facebook group! The show ‘Morningstar’ has planted many seeds in other shows that we have made.

CM: What aims does the company have for the future?
We want to keep making new work – lots of it. We are not content to make one or two shows a year and take a back seat the rest of the time. We also want to scale up and create bigger shows, though hopefully preserve the interactivity and attention to detail that our audiences have come to expect.

We would also like to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing things. We have got quite good at making ‘Crisis Management’ shows, and there is still plenty of material that suits that model, but we would like to make more different things.

We are keen to revisit the style and atmosphere of ‘Morningstar’, and I’m personally quite interested in adapting existing conventional theatre texts. We have just such an adaptation that we’ve been working on since we formed the company. Maybe this year will be the year to bring that project to fruition.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
OK: We have our ongoing production ‘Bridge Command’ in which audiences become the bridge crew of a starship.

It started as a left-field R&D project that was only supposed to run for a week, and it is now entering its fourth consecutive month. Pretty soon it will overtake ‘For King And Country’ as the longest consecutively running Parabolic show. It’s a marvellous vehicle for telling stories as it works episodically, a bit like a sci-fi TV show. It is also a great way to explore high-concept ideas within an immersive context and we’ve had an absolute blast making it.

Following that there are a few potential projects, but nothing firmly nailed down as yet. With our sort of work, a lot depends on the spaces you have available to perform in – we shall see what the future holds for us in due course, but you can be sure there will be something new and exciting coming soon.

‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ is on at The Colab Factory from 12 Nov-8 Dec, find info and tickets right about here.

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Photo: Owen Kingston