Kill The Cat theatre found themselves at the vanguard of virtual theatre with their show The House Never Wins. It wasn’t part of their initial plan – the online world was thrust upon them. But as is their agile creative curiosity, they fashioned a ground-breaking, immersive, multi-channel performance.
Dylan Frankland and Madeleine Allardice arrived at MakeTank in Exeter to begin their residency on March 16, the day the closedown of theatres was announced.
“That announcement didn’t come out till 5pm, we had arrived in the morning,” Dylan told ArtsCulture.
With a sense of the news to come, MakeTank primed the Kill The Cat-ters.
“We had a full day before everything went nuclear,” said Dylan, “thinking how we can we adapt to the scary reality in a positive way. We got back to where we were staying, turned on the news to hear the announcement that all theatres were closing.”
They decamped to Madeline’s parents’ house.
“It was strange to work in house rather than have the luxury of rehearsal studios – being able to put on music as loud as you want and leave the place in complete disarray,” admitted Dylan.
And got to grips with the technicalities of Zoom as they went along.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” said Dylan. “We were lucky to have an amazing designer, Erin Guan. She created a space that didn’t look like a virtual background on Zoom that changed over the course of the show.”
The House Never Wins is a piece of interactive performance with a subtle environmental message. Members of the audience play BlackJack against each other, while trying to stop The House (the casino/ performance space) from burning down. There’s even a cash prize incentive.
Dylan and Madeleine also faced new technical restrictions.
Dylan said: “You don’t have the normal tool kit, so you can’t steer focus in the same way. That was one of the harder elements. It was just us and a webcam. Trying to work out how to make that theatrical was a major learning curve.”
Originally this piece was commissioned by Upstart Theatre.
“We had a conversation with Upstart Theatre’s artistic director Tom Mansfield about going online. He astutely reminded us that on Zoom you don’t have a monopoly on people’s focus. We tried to work with that sense of distraction and turn it to our advantage so that it didn’t break the show.”
That control of the distraction took the form of WhatsApp messages. The interactiveness and subtlety could have added an extra nuance to the environmental message as opposed to being in the theatre.
“I hope so, but that’s for an audience to decide. The piece was in such early stages when shifted it to online, there’s not an easy comparison.
“From the feedback, I think people are getting what we wanted them to. There’s no point in just saying this is really terrifying, but it’s worth exploring economic growth and the climate crisis. The most effective way to do that online was to layer everything.”
The show went on a virtual tour.
“It was the easiest tour I’ve ever booked! All the venues that we partnered with came on board quickly and were very supportive. Because we are an emerging company gave us a legitimacy and an expanded reach. Their marketing support was incredibly useful and it gave a narrative to the tour. It meant that each night was a bit different.”
The tour added to the sense of going to the theatre. As did limiting the number of tickets.
“That helped with a sense of excitement. It’s not like Netflix when you can access it whenever you want. That’s what the joy of theatre is – it’s an event and it should feel like an event. Being hosted by a theatre helps that. “
The approach also lent itself to cross-promotion. As Dylan said: “Anything people can do to support theatres is really useful.”
Pay What You Decide
For their House Never Wins shows Kill the Cat followed the Pay What You Decide model, something they’d used with their Pint Sized Conversations, which they toured in non-traditional performance spaces.
“Right now it should be about trying to get people to experience art and culture rather than putting up barriers. No one knows what virtual theatre is – you want people to be able to take a risk on it, which Pay What You Decide allows. I think we surprised lots of people because they were very generous.”
How does it feel, being at the vanguard of virtual theatre?
“It’s been nice being slightly ahead of the curve,” said Dylan. “I’ve learnt a lot, and there’s a lot to take forward. We’re looking ways we can keep the project going. It’s been interesting being at the start of something new.”
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