Originally written for A Younger Theatre.
“There’s something particular about not being watched, not being seen,” muses Donnacadh O’Briain. The director of Natural Shocks, the theatre company behind unique Edinburgh Fringe project Peep, is discussing what he thinks gives this piece its impact. Placing its dramatic action within a sealed box, Peep invites a select audience of spectators into individual compartments, in which they watch the actors through two-way mirrors – peep-show style. They can see the performers, but the performers cannot see them, offering a distinctly voyeuristic experience.
“What’s interesting about the audience experience here is, because you’re unobserved, I feel like there’s an interesting lack of self-censorship happening,” says O’Briain. He insists, however, that his primary concern was always how to interrogate his chosen subject matter rather than how to create a novel experience for audiences. “Peep is really about the exploration of a subject and a theme more than it’s about putting people in private booths and having them watch a two-way mirror – that’s incredibly important and pivotal, but that’s not what it’s about, really, that’s just a means to engage an audience.”
Closely marrying form with content, the peep show set-up provides a space for exploring sex, relationships, intimacy and sexual politics. With a concept born from a conversation about male-female relationships and a desire to spark conversations around sex, O’Briain had already commissioned plays from Pamela Carter, Kefi Chadwick and Leo Butler before deciding to construct a purpose-built space in which these dramas would unfold.
“Peep changed around January last year as we were really looking at Edinburgh seriously,” O’Briain explains. “It changed from an idea for a play to an idea for a much bigger project. From there I began to think about it as a cross-art-form space, a space which was for the conversation about sex and about intimacy, and about what it is to be intimate with someone – our fears of that, our hopes for that – and then also a space for discussion of sexual politics and the body and objectification and voyeurism.”
Taking Peep and its three short plays to the Fringe last year, O’Briain certainly provoked the discussion he was hoping for, creating a buzz of conversation that he did not quite anticipate. “I think because they watch it completely alone, when they come out people tend to want to talk,” he says, “so I ended up having lots of conversations with people about the subject matter, which was great. That was a surprise, I didn’t expect that. Theatre doesn’t normally work like that.”
This year that conversation is being continued on a larger scale, as Peep moves from the Pleasance Courtyard to Assembly George Square Gardens – right at the heart of the Fringe – and opens with an expanded programme. All three plays from last year will be revived, alongside new plays, a dance piece, a spoken word performance, live art segments and a cabaret programme in the evenings. All in all, the space will play host to around seven-and-a-half hours of performance every day throughout the festival, all viewed through the venue’s intimate peep-holes.
“In order to talk about what we want to talk about, there are many, many ways of having that conversation other than text-based theatre,” O’Briain elaborates on his decision to widen the programme. “I wanted to free up the aesthetic this year and open myself as a programmer up to the whole bunch of possibilities for how we can have this conversation.”
O’Briain speaks excitedly about a “beautiful” dance piece by Argentine company Diego y Ulises, “about intimacy and about love and about a physical relationship”, which has been specially adapted for this space, and about Peep’s collaboration with renowned cabaret artist Empress Stah. “One of the things that’s fantastic about Stah is that she’s actually worked in a peep show for real and she works very much on the naughty end of performing arts,” he says. “The pieces that she’s making are really responding to the relationship between art and sex and where the lines are blurred and how that’s changed.”
The variety in the programming plays very much to the festival atmosphere, where visitors are looking to be surprised and are more willing to take a chance on new work than they would be elsewhere. O’Briain explains that he sees Peep as “fundamentally a festival piece”, adding, “I think people are at a festival to experience stuff and we’re offering that”. While he sees the Edinburgh Fringe as a great opportunity for a project like Peep, however, he suggests that it might not be the right destination for all work.
“I had no intention of going back to the Edinburgh Festival unless I had something that absolutely belonged at the Edinburgh Festival, because it’s silly otherwise,” he says. “Things die a death in Edinburgh because they’re not really right for it.” Peep, on the other hand, has been programmed with Edinburgh firmly in mind, and even includes a location-specific collaboration with a live art organisation based in the city.
Whether talking about the specific demands of the Festival or the unique opportunities of the venue he has built, O’Briain keeps coming back to the audience. Although there is a certain dialogue taking place between this year’s diverse range of different acts, he is keen to leave any interpretation of this programme to spectators. “For me those conversations are for the audience,” he says. “I think those conversations are going to be specific to people’s experiences of the programme, which again is really exciting. People will make their own meaning from those interactions. What we’re trying to do is stimulate a conversation in a whole bunch of different ways.”
And O’Briain hopes that festival-goers will come back again and again to continue that conversation, deliberately keeping ticket prices low in the hope of attracting return visitors. “It’s priced in such a way that it encourages people to come back for more – just like a peep show does.”