Agency or Entrapment? Audience Interaction & Shunt’s The Architects

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In Shunt’s labyrinthine new show, the visible maze is just a warm-up. After navigating our way through a bewildering mass of MDF corridors, all chillingly kitted out with surveillance cameras and television monitors, we emerge into what appears to be the monochrome belly of a luxury cruise liner, where we obediently sit at tables and chairs while our bumbling Danish (0r are they?) guides jolt us through a disorientating litany of escalating crises. The heating is broken, someone’s taken a shit by the barbecue and a beast appears to be on the loose, as all the while the band plays frantically on. This ship is going down and there’s nothing we can do about it. But despite this sense of immobile powerlessness, this feeling that we are at the mercy of our none too trustworthy hosts, there is an atmosphere of consent. As one character acknowledges, “we’re all adults here”.

Meatier than it appears at first glance, there’s plenty to dissect in The Architects: the mutation of the central Minotaur myth, the structures and exercising of power, the very nature of spectacle. But as a spectator of Shunt’s latest offering, it was this positioning of the audience that I found myself repeatedly returning to – no doubt coloured by the preoccupations that I brought into the space. When speaking to company member David Rosenberg for Exeunt a few weeks ago, one frank admission of his intrigued me: “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”. He went on to describe spectators as being “imprisoned” within the world of Shunt’s creation, be it a conference, a tennis pitch or, in the case of The Architects, the cruise of a lifetime. We have little to no real agency and the company are not shy of acknowledging that fact.

This way of speaking about the work startled me because it was so divorced from the rhetoric surrounding the majority of theatre that falls within the broad brackets of “immersive” and “interactive” (two slippery, problematic and not necessarily interchangeable terms). This kind of work usually invokes a discourse of action, empowerment and choice; audiences are granted freedom, the accompanying material typically states, given a space in which to play and explore. Though, as one of my fellow MA students pointed out in a recent seminar discussing spectatorship and audiences, having to be told that you are free is something of a paradox. Surely audiences already are active and empowered – a starting assumption much like that suggested by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator – and do not need to be granted agency.

Far from the patronising provision of a freedom that should not need to be “allowed”, the knowingly problematic role in which Shunt casts its spectators, particularly in The Architects, presents a far more fascinating, knotty proposition. Within the scenario created by Shunt, there are three hierarchical levels of power: the leering, TOWIE-esque overlords at the top, appearing as a distant video-projected presence that conjures and collides the fickle gods of myth and the grotesquely guzzling modern day elite; our slyly manoeuvring but essentially powerless hosts, positioned as an opportunistic political go-between; and us, the audience, on the bottom rung. Not for the first time, a ship comes to represent a nation, and our role within that sinking nation is all too clear. Seen as part of this rigidly structured and depressingly resonant power dynamic, the imposed powerlessness of spectators is integral to the theatrical metaphor.

While Shunt can to an extent trade on the desirably experiential nature of their performance events, which now inevitably have a currency born from reputation, their very calculated and inherently problematised form of audience restriction seems to present a contrast with the kind of falsely empowering interaction discussed in a recent essay on Culturebot. Discussing the work of Punchdrunk, whose brand of immersive theatre has now become a lucratively sought-after commodity, Agnès Silvestre analyses the hypocritical illusion of agency that the work cultivates, painting its model of spectatorship as one designed to maximise profit rather than to test the boundaries between performance and audience.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that many people find Punchdrunk’s shows an exhilarating experience, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that in itself. What grates is the promise of freedom in which it is framed, with marketing material that speaks of “roaming audiences” who are free to explore. Audience members might be encouraged to move around more than in “traditional” theatre settings, but as Silvestre points out, they are only “free” so long as they play within Punchdrunk’s set of rules. Those who transgress are silenced or removed.

The Architects also has unspoken rules of engagement, ones subtly laid out by the structure of the piece from the off and obediently adhered to by the spectators around me. But this restrictive framework is engaged in an implicit dialogue with the piece itself, a dialogue that asks us to look at these power relationships from a critical perspective. As already identified, there is inherent consent, making us complicit in our own inactivity. Just as the cruise promises us the opportunity, should we so wish, for a romantic encounter with a dolphin (or other beast of our choice) on the basis that we are consenting adults, we have chosen to be here and it is our choice to get meekly tugged along by this spiralling disaster. And not just to passively endure it, but to actively enjoy the hilarity of the destruction that steadily engulfs us.

After playing along with this power game, the final big reveal – that element of surprise or unveiling that all Shunt fans are eagerly waiting for – has a tinge of disappointment. The concluding image, framed within a raised box, is painful to watch yet loudly demanding of our attention, cultivating the same kind of morbid fascination that compels passersby to crane their necks to look at car crashes. It is repulsive yet disappointing because it simply shows to us what was there all along and what we as good theatrical citizens decided to happily accept. The big reveal is not really a big reveal at all, in that it turns the mirror on something we already half knew about our place within this constructed scenario and within the wider world to which it metaphorically refers.

It’s all there in the name: Shunt build the accepted architectures of power and sculpt our place within those. The realisation, and perhaps from that the resistance, are down to us.

Shunt’s The Architects

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Shunt have always nurtured an unusual and striking relationship with space. From the theatre company’s initial base in Bethnal Green Arches to their residency in the vaults under London Bridge Station, the site of performance has been integral to their work.

There is something deeply appropriate, then, about the title of Shunt’s new piece. The Architects, a disorientating riff on the Minotaur myth, is the first of their shows to be staged in a space that is not their own, but its name immediately conjures the role that the company have previously taken in constructing the environments in which audiences experience their work. Shunt embrace theatre as event, building entire worlds into which spectators are “immersed” – a term that has since become a fashionable and problematic tag for the kind of work that the company have always been interested in producing.

Central to these precisely assembled fictional worlds is the element of surprise, which makes writing about Shunt’s work a delicate activity. Perched at the edge of their rehearsal room in Marylebone, I feel a slight illicit thrill at peeking inside a process cloaked with secrecy, an outsider flicking through the embryonic blueprints. Later, speaking to company member David Rosenberg during the rehearsal lunch break, it is made clear that the less I reveal about the show the better. The journey that audiences are guided on by Shunt hinges on the unexpected and on knowing as little as possible prior to the event.

“We’re always looking for ways in our work to bring people very much into the moment of where they are in a performance,” says Rosenberg, reaching for adequate words to describe this element of the work. Shunt want audiences fully inside their pieces, fighting the conditioned impulse to be constantly drawing cerebral connections between the performance and the world outside, and encouraging audience members to feel “something that isn’t part of the suspension of disbelief”.

This displacement of the usual relationship between audience and performance relies heavily on moments of surprise and disorientation, moments that shift the atmosphere of the piece and create something from the resulting discomfort. “Points of surprise are points where you begin to imagine that you know the architecture of the space or understand the logic of the space and then that logic changes,” Rosenberg explains. “In that brief period when you’re trying to adjust, that’s a very exciting state to be experiencing a show in.”

For all the care taken over the audience experience, however, there is an intriguing tension in Shunt’s work between a level of freedom not normally enjoyed by audiences and the very orchestrated nature of the experiences they craft. Shattering the usual rhetoric that surrounds this type of work, Rosenberg freely admits that “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”, going on to describe audience members as being “imprisoned” in the worlds that the company create. At the same time, however, he is intent on giving audiences as little instruction as possible, insisting during rehearsals that the performers should not be telling the audience what to do, but instead the shape of the piece should guide their behaviour and interaction. In this way, paradoxically, the more controlled the environment, the freer the audience feel.

This tension between agency and entrapment is likely to also be key to The Architects. Writing about Shunt’s new piece without dropping several clunking spoilers is a problematic task, so my conversation with Rosenberg – at least outside the rehearsal room – remains largely in the realm of the vague. As loudly announced by the bull emblazoned on their marketing material, the show’s basis in the Minotaur myth, a myth that Rosenberg tells me they have been interested in exploring for several years, is no secret. Unsurprisingly, it was the room for interpretation that appealed to the company. “We were interested in taking as a starting point a very short and well known story,” says Rosenberg. “Whatever account you read is barely more than a page, so there are a limited number of elements within it; we could extrapolate a lot from something very simple.”

I wonder whether the unique nature of the myth as a mode of storytelling and its role in the formation and communication of cultures and ideas is significant to Shunt’s appropriation of this form. As acknowledged by Rosenberg, this inspirational springboard marks a departure from the historical starting points of most of the company’s previous work and is thus being utilised and interpreted in a different way. “The fact that this is a myth brings in interesting ideas about the creation of myths and how they can continue to be useful in contemporary narratives.”

Rosenberg’s mention of the contemporary brings us onto the real world resonance that Shunt’s work attempts to achieve even within its sealed-off theatrical worlds. Despite engaging with historical or fictional narratives, the company’s shows are typically informed by the social and political climate of both their conception and their subsequent development throughout performance. Money, performed in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, refracted the financial crisis of that specific moment through a tale of past financial failure; the inspiration of the gunpowder plot was married with the anxieties of a post-9/11 world in Dance Bear Dance.

“There is an idea for a show and then there is the current climate in which that show is being made,” Rosenberg makes the distinction. “There are events unfolding throughout the whole time we’ll be making a show, so we try to be a bit permeable to those events.” As for the current significance of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, Rosenberg is more elusive, but it is clear that the piece is heavily coloured by the present moment, with the company hinting at metaphorical links between the audience’s experience and the wider political and economic landscape.

Equipped with only partial information, the glimpse I witness of the rehearsal room is often as disorientating as the finished experience is engineered to be, but one thing I do get a clear sense of is Shunt’s collective method of working. One performer leads an improvisation, to be replaced the next moment by someone else; any hierarchy that might briefly emerge is fluid and ever-shifting. Likewise, while individuals inevitably take on different roles within the company, everything is conceived and credited collectively. As Rosenberg puts it, “when we make the work we aren’t fulfilling the vision of one person. We are all the authors of that work.”

This notion of collective authorship steers the conversation into ideas of legacy. With no sole author, how can a textual trace of the work remain? This question of documentation is one that intrigues Rosenberg, but one that he admits the company have not been particularly good at addressing. Despite the existence of a Shunt archive, the collective are unsure how these documents might translate into a record of the shows they create.

“It’s very difficult to document an audience experience, and that’s the point of the work,” Rosenberg pins down the central problem. “What lingers around afterwards is a mess of different images and snippets of things.” Precisely because of their idiosyncratic melding of history, fiction and the present moment, together with the particular combination of artists who make their work possible, Shunt’s shows exist very much in the moment of their performance. As such, any form of documentation must recognise this.

“The archive could become something that exists in its own right,” Rosenberg muses, “something that isn’t just about a record.”  This too, perhaps, could become a new space, an area carved out by Shunt to offer their audiences yet another way of experiencing their work. As Rosenberg speaks about the possibility of touring next year, a departure from previous ways of working that once again shifts the company’s relationship with the space of performance, Shunt leave the impression that they are still far from finished with manipulating the architecture of theatre.

Photo: Susanne Dietz