A theatre play - all to yourself

By Maria Byrne
BBC News

  • Published

Theatre-goers have been enjoying performances with a difference during a new festival in London - interactive plays, performed by solitary actors to a single audience member.

It's Saturday night and you're off to the theatre. You're not really sure what the performance is.

At the entrance you are met by a 10-year-old. He leads you down a dark alleyway and into a car. You get in and you meet Shlomo. He's the performer. You are his audience. This is a beat box session especially for you.

Welcome to the One-On-One Festival. One space, one performer and you.

Thirty-five artists in 35 different spaces. That's 600 different performances per night and 10,000 across the whole festival. All crammed into the shabby chic surroundings of the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in south-west London.

The result is a bespoke theatre experience. The cost is £17.50. You choose the shows you want to see - at least three. Each act has just one performer and you are the sole audience member. Oh, just one more thing - they like you to take part.

This is audience participation at its very highest level. If being intimate with a stranger scares you, then this isn't for you. Or maybe it is. The whole idea behind the festival is to face your fears.

Image caption,
Traditional theatre offers a more passive experience for the audience, says David Jubb

"Come inside and play," suggest the promotional posters.

Sheila Ghelani, the star of Nurse Knows Best - which involves the audience member being put to bed and treated as a patient, says she can get a "beautiful connection" with her audience of one.

"It allows you to pay attention to them and adjust what you're doing to suit them and what they need. Some people are terrified, but some people push you to go further."

Other theatrical adventures involve entering a wardrobe to find a secret room where an actor will dress you up in odd clothes, entering a 15-minute relationship or taking the chance to interrogate characters taken from the morning's newspapers about their role in the story.

David Jubb hates audience participation, which is not really what you expect to hear from one of BAC's artistic directors. But luckily for him, other people do enjoy it.

"In the last five years there has been an increase in focus on artists making one-on-one work," he says.

Companies like Punch Drunk and Stan's Cafe have been interacting with their audiences for years. David says people are increasingly hungry for interaction.

"Sometimes it (traditional theatre) does feel passive - like it doesn't matter if I'm here or not," he says.

Sophisticated consumers

One-on-one theatre is all about individual experience.

We live in a world filled with stuff, spending our birthdays and Christmas unwrapping things which often we have no need for.

It has perhaps contributed to the trend of giving each other "experiences"; flying lessons for your dad, a spa break for your girlfriend. It's what has become known as the "experience economy", dealing in value-added sensations, rather than products.

It's all about creating meaning in our often dull and dreary lives, according to Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University.

"We all crave experiences that are challenging and emotive because they get our adrenaline going," he says.

Image caption,
Gift experiences, like hot air balloon rides, have proved a hit

Working a nine-to-five desk job, people often don't have much stimulation, Prof Cooper says.

People want to take risks and be stimulated. And although these bespoke experiences often involve just one person, he adds, they give us something to talk about and to share - such as diving off the Great Barrier Reef or driving a really fast car around Silverstone.

Indications are that there is a lot of money to be made in these bespoke experiences.

Chris Voss, professor of operations management at London Business School, says the experience is a key innovation in today's business world.

"With ever more sophisticated consumers, those who deliver memorable customer experiences create superior value and competitive advantage," he says.

It is all about the emotional involvement that goes with it. People will pay big money for the right experience.

But how does this transfer to theatre?

David Jubb says the whole festival is an experiment in whether something like this is financially viable.

The challenge is to ensure not only that the ticket price pays for the artists and costs but to make sure the audience gets enough experiences for their money, he admits.

"We have to sell a lot of tickets in order to do that but it's surprising how possible it is to make it work."

Asked if the festival has made money, he replies: "Ask me next week."

Even if One-on-One doesn't bring in the big bucks, it's still a novel idea that people seem to really enjoy.

And, with a capacity crowd of one, it's not too hard to guarantee your show will be a sell-out.

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