Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Toby Ealden: Gatecrashing

By | Published on Thursday 6 November 2014

When I heard about this production, I was intrigued – an immersive piece, delivered by the medium of silent disco and produced by Zest Theatre, a company who specialise in theatre for young people, created with help and input from young people. At a time when younger generations seem ever more alienated by traditional forms of theatre, it seems to me that this kind of work is essential to the future popularity of the genre.


I spoke to Toby Ealden, director of the play and artistic director of Zest, to find out more about ‘Gatecrash’ and the company behind it.

CM: Can you tell us the basic premise of the show? What is the storyline?
TE: ‘Gatecrash’ is set at Sam’s surprise 17th birthday party. The party has been organised by his sister Jazz, who hosts the night. All the action takes place inside our set, designed to look and feel like a real house.

Our audiences knock on the front door of our set where they are welcomed by Jazz. They then step inside the four walls of our enclosed set and spend the duration of the next hour taking on the role of party gatecrashers. The action takes place all around the space whilst the audience is free to watch, stand, sit, dance, play games, eat, drink and even rummage through drawers.

The arc of the story follows five of the party guests over the course of the night, from sober awkwardness, through to the drunken trashing of the house and the inevitable fights, fall outs and tears.

CM: What themes does it explore?
TE: We developed the show with over eighty young people from Lincolnshire where we are based. Over the course of the summer of 2013 they shared their thoughts, ideas and life stories to create the show. The production therefore explores key themes that were of the uppermost importance to our young participants. These also echo the lives of the people who this work is aimed at.

The overarching theme of the piece is of change – how do you make sense of the world and hold onto who you really are when you are growing up and everything seems to be changing so fast? Comic and tragic elements combine with intertwining plot lines that converge at the end as the alcohol fuelled night reaches its peak.

CM: Obviously, the play is a bit different from your standard performance, because of the immersive and Silent Disco element – can you explain how that works, for performers and for audience members?
TE: The immersive and technological aspects of this production create a range of challenges for all parts of the production team. For our audience this all comes together in a seamless performance, often they are completely unaware of all the elements we have to consider when putting the show together.

Firstly the headphones; if you’ve ever been to a Silent Disco event at a nightclub or party you’ll be familiar with the concept of using headphones to control the experience of your night out. At these events multiple DJs play simultaneously, on the dance floor party-goers use their headphones to pick and choose the music they want to dance to at a press of a button – they are controlling their own experience of their night out. We’ve taken the exact same technology and put it into a theatrical context. In our case we have two scenes played simultaneously for audiences to choose from. Actors wear radio mics that are then mixed on a digital sound desk and then transmitted through our two radio frequencies to our headphones. The characters continually cross between the two channels, sometimes mid scene. Ari, our sound engineer – who is a bit of a genius – listens to both sets of content at the same time and ensures the right people are heard on the right channel at the right time. Music and sound effects are also piped through the headphones too.

But it’s not just our technical staff who have a complicated job on their hands. Our actors have to be aware of all our pre programmed sound cues; if they speak too early or too late it could mean their voice is heard on a channel at the wrong time, and interrupt a scene on the other channel. The immersive nature of the show adds further complications. The cast have to be ready for anything as the audience can interact with them at any point, and this can mean they get sidelined whilst they have an improvised conversation with an audience member.

All our scenes are timed so that the characters seamlessly move between scenes and conversations at the right time; they cross across the room and come face to face with the person they are speaking to next. But if the actors are held up for any reason this then has a knock on effect on the flow of the following scenes, and this is where we really rely on our two stage managers to sometimes step in and manage the action. Our stage management team are in the space with the cast for the duration of the show, and they perform all the usual duties you’d expect of them: moving props, assisting with costume changes etc. But they also have to have a wide range of people skills as party starters, extras in scenes, bouncers to protect cast and audience from negative behaviour and cleaners that mop up spilt drinks to ensure no one slips and falls.

CM: How did you come up with this idea? What was the inspiration for it?
TE: Gatecrash came in response to a commission from Lincolnshire One Venues (LOV). LOV is a network of 10 arts venues across Lincolnshire who come together to develop the sector across the county. As part of this they have a vibrant youth engagement programme.

Zest were commissioned to create a production that fitted alongside their other work for young people in order to engage them as audience members. This was Zest’s first venture into national touring so we wanted to make a real statement of who we are and what we could do. We consulted a range of young people about their perceptions and experiences of theatre. Those who weren’t regular attenders felt that theatre was boring, irrelevant and stuffy. We therefore wanted to throw out this rulebook and create a show that embodied the exact opposite of these ideas. This is where the idea of a house party that they actively experience came from. The idea of the headphones came much later, as I tried to answer practical questions about how the audience would hear the cast’s dialogue.

I was keen to make sure the show was as realistic as possible so the music would have to be loud. But I wanted to avoid amplifying their voices over a PA system. This is where the idea of headphones came from. Not only would they help us create an intimate audio mix that allowed audiences to hear everything, but it would also allow us to experiment with this dual content approach.

CM: How did you go about writing it? Did you sit down and script it or is this a more devised piece? Is it something that the actors have helped you to develop?
TE: Creating the show started as a devised process. We knew it was going to be set in a house and would feature the silent disco headphones. We therefore had a set design and technology lined up before the content was developed. Armed with the concept we worked with the original cast to develop the basis of five characters, created through a mix of improvisation and writing tasks.

By this point we had the bare bones of these five party-goers but didn’t know a great deal about them or how they all related to each other. The flesh on the bones was created with 81 young people across Lincolnshire who took part in our summer outreach programme in August 2013. The responses those young people had to those characters led them to create reams of storylines and scenes that influenced the show we are now touring.

Then, like a creative relay race, the professional team took up the baton again, we waded through hours of material on video, picked out the best bits and workshopped the structure of the story arc. At this point it became a written piece, as I worked to this structure and wrote the script that we now tour. This involved writing scenes, reading content and timing it to ensure that everything would flow when we got into the rehearsal room.

The script is a complicated, colour coded document. The left hand pages show the content for audio channel 1 and the right hand side is channel 2. The dialogue is very conversational so the line between scripted and improvised content is very blurred. For this national tour we have 3 new actors who have joined us, we’ve therefore rewritten most of the dialogue to fit the actors’ new approaches to their characters – keeping the dialogue real, fresh and realistic.

It’s important for a piece like this that the entire team feel they have a sense of ownership of the show, they need to feel confident to make creative decisions mid show in response to the audience, this is what makes the show feel like a real party. It needs to feel that anything can happen at any time.

CM: How do you go about finding the right venues for a piece like this?
TE: Booking a national tour for ‘Gatecrash’ has given us more challenges. The show has a reduced capacity at only 60 per show, which means that some venues have their ticket sales reduced. The show is obviously geared towards young people, so we needed to secure venues who are firstly excited about the show’s innovations and concept as well as the potential of developing new young audiences. Practically we need to find venues that have a flexible space, and ideally we’d like this to be 10m x 10m, though we’ve fitted into areas much smaller than this. Our set has been designed to grow or shrink into venues and can be built in a variety of dimensions. Unusually, sound and lighting is less of a problem, we bring all our own sound equipment with us and have kept the lighting design very simple – the rest of the show is complicated enough as it is!

CM: The show is obviously designed with a youth market in mind. Is that the policy in general of Zest Theatre? Can you tell us more about the company?
TE: Zest’s work is all aimed at young people. This age range are included in the creative process of all our productions in some way. Youth culture moves at a rapid pace, and without the involvement of young people, our work can become quickly out of date. Consultation with young people is what keeps our work exciting, accessible and relevant.

‘Gatecrash’ is our first production to tour nationally to venues, and we will be following this up with a new touring show for theatre venues that goes into development in the spring. The new show will see us collaborate with psychologists to investigate how young people deal with trauma, and will again use Zest’s interactive approach and trademark humour to unpack this challenging topic.

Alongside this we’ve recently created a new smaller show called ‘Boy Meets Girl’ that uses the same audio technology to look at the joy, the hope and the heartbreak of looking for love. ‘Boy Meets Girl’ is performed in outdoor spaces and will be touring to a range of festivals across the country during Spring / Summer 2015.

In addition to this Zest produces a range of educational work in schools as well as a number of community youth theatre programmes for young people across Lincolnshire.

‘Gatecrash’ is on at Arts Depot on Friday 7 Nov. For more info and to book, see this page here.

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