New play a moving feast

By Barney McDonald

The audience is in the middle of the stage action, finds Barney McDonald.

Olivia Tennet plays the young sister in the family. Photo / Robert Catto
Olivia Tennet plays the young sister in the family. Photo / Robert Catto

With theatre competing with the plethora of entertainment options and mediums available to the public, some weird and wonderful plays are popping up, sometimes all around you.

The success of Live At Six at Auckland's Aotea Centre recently is followed by an equally ambitious production, technically and in audience interaction. Live At Six featured multiple forms of technology and an "incident" in the foyer before the play started. A new dual production by Nightsong and Theatre Stampede, simply titled 360, arguably ups the ante by placing the audience in the middle of the action, living up to its name by surrounding them with a live performance that makes it hard to know just where to look.

"It is a bit of a behemoth," laughs co-creator Ben Crowder. "The audience is seated in the centre, all with their own swivel seat and also their own mini aisle so that at any time they can choose to watch different aspects of the show, though most of the time they swivel together in some form of group experience."

The memory of a prodigal son provides the platform for the depiction of a series of events that explore the nature of a family that leaves ample room for striking imagery, surreal situations and larger-than-life characters.

"It's a play that appears as much circus as cathartic story-telling, dropping the audience in the midst of a physically and emotionally engaging experience like no other.

"It's a show that reveals its story over time," explains Crowder. "The circular nature lent itself to playing with time so the story jumps in time. As it unfolds, clues are left that perhaps only become fully understood at the end of the play.

"Primarily, it's the story of a young man who chooses to abandon his family to go off and make his mark on the world. We see this same character played by an older actor as he finally decides to go back and see them now he has succeeded. On his journey home, he reflects on the path he's taken, with the aid of memories and the familiar characters he meets.

"Thrown into the mix we also have this character no longer mid-life, but played by an actor portraying his later years. The story is constantly surprising, moving and highly entertaining, with a seal, human cannon balls and plenty of humour."

Olivia Tennet plays the young sister in the family, also named Olivia, an animal-lover whose best friend is the family's pet seal. She is the youngest in the family and spends a lot of time in the play trying to make sense of the big life events taking place around her.

All of the family possess clown-like sensibilities, which it turns out wasn't the least of her worries working on the play.

"Rehearsing and devising the show was more like learning a long, choreographed piece than a play, and it can be quite a discombobulating experience," she laughs.

"Our entrances and exits are all located around the circular stage rather than just being on two sides. Logistically it's a tricky proposition, but it's also a very exciting challenge. 360 is an absolute dream to perform in front of an audience."

As for the audience's seating arrangements, this problem was happily solved with the industrial magic of swivel chairs, easily allowing people to turn in whichever direction they desire, though it isn't always easy deciding where that might be at certain times.

"For this show, functionality is key," says Crowder. "We bolt all the chairs to the ground. At one point we explored old metal typing chairs but chose something that was uniform and also didn't scream office."

Live At Six actively encouraged people to keep mobile phones on during the show, but 360 clearly wants people to constantly shift around in their seat, something that would trouble most actors. Not Tennet and her co-stars.

"It's really enjoyable to watch the audience find their own way around the action," she says.

"Everyone gets a different experience depending on where they're seated. I love interacting with the audience in such close proximity."

Let's simply hope the chairs are well oiled before the curtain goes up. If there is a curtain, that is.

360, January 13-25, Aotea Centre, Auckland.

- Herald on Sunday

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