Features Festivals Published 10 March 2015

Sprint Festival: Adventures in Audience Participation

Alice Saville, who will be covering the Sprint Festival at Camden People's Theatre this month, on Simon Farid's Don't Hate The Rich, Be One Of Them, 2Magpies Theatre's The Litvinenko Project and Catherine Hoffman's Glory Days.
Alice Saville

Spring daffodils are out, coats are (almost) shed and the gloves are off for the second week of fearless performance at Sprint festival at the CPT. I’ve got an almost 100% success rate on being selected for audience participation, and my experiences at Sprint’s first few evenings have been no exception. I like to think it’s my engaged, open-minded demeanour that does it but strongly suspect it’s a mixture of always sitting in the front row and looking likely to add some extra comedy by completely misunderstanding the instructions given.

My historic lowlights to date have been going to see the (very lovely) Perle by Thomas Eccleshare, and repeating back “what’s your name?” instead of answering the question he was miming at me. Then doing the same to all his subsequent questions, until he wiped imaginary sweat from his brow with the air of exhaustion normally reserved for carrying invisible boxes. And a stand-up comedian once repeatedly called me “sulky face” because I didn’t enter into his swan-based jokes – I was pretty disappointed too, because I’d thought I was going to see Josie Long.

At Sprint festival getting involved is something of a given. You’re as likely to be sat upstairs in a cafe or sent on a trip round London’s financial heartlands as sat in the security of a padded seat, lights dimmed to preserve your modesty. Catherine Hoffman’s Glory Days might involve the latter format, but she’s still determined to rip the clothes off heartbreakers and get under the skin of love. She glows with life as she smashes her way through 140 interviews with people, possessed by their accents and energy into a singing, dancing fury. It’s similar territory to Bryony Kimmings Heartache. Heartbreak, where she uses stories gathered from Shepherd’s Bush to take herself on a messy journey of emotional recovery, shaving her legs with whipped cream and literally hitting the bottle with her despairing head.

But Hoffman’s work has a more unstructured feeling, stronger on conveying love’s multi-sensory overload than the quieter nuances behind it. She flashes with scarlet hair, dress, eyeshadow, and lipstick, then invites a few audience members to subsume their own heartbreak into her red room. We were each given three minutes to draw a red felt-tip picture of someone we used to love, bearing both their name and a fittingly witty caption.

On stage, I could hear her layering breaths and sung lines form a hymn to lost love. Temporarily, she lost me (or at least my attention) too…

A visual representation of my terrors. My actual portrait was still worse.

A visual representation of my terrors. My actual portrait was still worse.

My crime against felt tips was taped up on a long string of other drawings, and Hoffman used some pre-laminated ones she’d gathered earlier as the basis for micro-stories. It was a moment of participation that meant at least some of the audience were brought into her research process. But it also forced you to think about yourself. Maybe the other fast draw artists were fired up with pride in scoring a good likeness. Maybe they were gazing into the soulful red eyes of their lost flames as I burnt up with embarrassment. But something about the exercise felt like you were giving a bit of yourself up to the common good: an appropriately socialist feeling for an evening at the Camden’s People Theatre.

2Magpies Theatre’s The Litvinenko Project made the audience complicit in poisoning Alexander Litvinenko, but instead of drawing you into an emotional furnace, their approach was deliberately distancing.  The relentless burble of ragtime tunes and the clink of tea-cups meant that their spy stories never got elevated into sinister slickness or James Bond camp: instead, they traced an ingenious polonium trail between teatime tweeness and serious research. I was asked to tip sugar into a teapot for Litvinenko’s green tea with almost surgical dispassionateness. A woman two seats over got asked to look if she could read a fortune in the leaves at the bottom of a teacup.

Nope, no bad omens there.

Nope, no bad omens there.

I don’t know what she saw – she seemed embarrassed, and didn’t hazard a guess. It felt like there was the potential for her to go on some kind of Rorschachian flight of fancy, but the restrained atmosphere of 2Magpies’ performance meant that we were hired accomplices to a murder, not rogue agents.

We were forced to be unquestioningly complicit, whether we wielded the poison or held up your corner of a web of wool, tangling the whole room in a London-wide polonium trail.

Simon Farid’s Don’t Hate The Rich, Be One Of Them doesn’t trap you so physically. But he constantly makes you aware of how you’re interacting with his work. He’s an artist who commits completely, showing you a scan of his passport, his bank details, and even his internet passwords, as evidence in a fascinating examination which exposes online privacy and web security as so many comforting oxymorons. His way in is Tory MP and online wheeler dealer Grant Shapps, who’s trying his best to put his past as an internet shyster Michael Green firmly behind him.

Michael Green and Simon Farid definitely aren’t one and the same person. And Simon Farid made that abundantly clear, standing in front of screen with dreads, a beard and a frank smile completely at odds with the smooth-faced lizardoid figure projected onto the screen behind him. But he’s exploited a loophole in internet law to take possession of Michael Green and his identity, up to and including his webinars and get-rich-quick dotcom schemes.

Farid’s aesthetic style is a mix of one of those YouTube conspiracy videos (my favourite one claims Prince William is a reptile clone of Jesus, via the Shroud of Turin) and a slideshow presentation designed by a technophobe CEO. Big red arrows highlight points, and there’s the most spectacular use of stock imagery since Women Laughing Alone With Salad.

Simon Farid’s lecture slips neatly from Private Eye-style expose to a fascinating satire on internet surveillance. Just as Grant Shapps can’t shake off his shadow, so we can’t escape a dimly-lit world of collaboration between Facebook, Google and the American government. Wikileaks has taught us that the CIA might make appalling infographics, but they’re pretty good at dredging up ancient AIM conversations or tapping mobile phones, American or not.

A handy infographic which should clarify exactly what to expect from this performance.

A handy infographic which should clarify exactly what to expect from this performance.

At the close of Farid’s lecture, he takes questions. Next to me, smartly dressed gent with a natty scarf puts up his hand. Saying, word for word: “I don’t really understand how you made all this money. You said all this stuff about the CIA, what’s that got to do with internet marketing? I spent twelve pounds on this and I haven’t learnt anything.” I chatted to him as we walked into the bar, hearing that he’d found it on Hype, an app that aggregates local events. We waited for Simon Farid to emerge and make good on his promise to explain more.

The man’s presence added so much to the performance he might as well have been on the payroll. I’d wondered why anyone would go to a seminar on web marketing or fall for Michael Green’s crappy website. Here was living evidence. But Farid didn’t humiliate the unfortunate soul who’d got tangled in his web of artistic personas and bewildering narrative flow. No one laughed, no one called him “sulk face” (I’m totally not bearing a grudge here) and he got a private seminar on why you shouldn’t trust internet marketing impresarios.

The best audience participation isn’t a one off embarrassment to be dusted off in the pub. It’s a moment of engagement and dialogue. An opportunity for the authority of the performer to be reinforced, weakened or complicated by another voice, however timid. You can’t hope for a scarf-wearing sceptic at every performance, but there are plenty more chances for one-off encounters in Sprint Festival’s programme of short-stay wonders.

The Litvinenko Project runs from the 10-13th March.  You can see the full Sprint programme on the Camden People’s Theatre website

A People’s Theatre: Alice Saville speaks to CPT Artistic Director Brian Logan

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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