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(Photo from Dwelling at University of Kent. This post is part of a series from the collaborators of Root Experience about interactive and immersive theatre in the U.K. If you’d like to participate, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

Badac Theatre’s Anna, Edinburgh Fringe 2013 – an intense, immersive portrayal of the assassination of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya

We were taken down to the basement of Summerhall in a small lift. The doors opened onto a freshly painted corridor, the crisp chemical smell overpowering. We were instructed to stand in the small space, facing other audience members, lining the confined rectangle. One audience member left the performance immediately, the claustrophobia too overwhelming.

The performers paced the corridor between us. Their physicality was intense and unrestrained, their vocalisation equally strong. The effect of the confinement and close attention to the performance was initially very powerful. I felt very moved by the injustice suffered by the journalist and the subject of her research.

However, after twenty minutes, the violence of the piece stepped up. The actress playing Anna began to be assaulted by two soldier characters. I had to remind myself that this was theatre – nobody would actually be allowed to get hurt. This self-reassurance took me out of the experience, out of the immersion. I then stood outside of the experience, protecting myself from it and shutting myself off. I was so upset by the form of the piece that I stopped focusing on the content. I just wished that it would end. I couldn’t leave the space for fear of bumping into a performer and causing hurt and embarrassment.

Other audience members dealt with the situation in different ways. A couple who had brought pints of beer into the performance began giggling half way through, struggling to stifle the need to use the toilet whilst standing up and being watched by thirty others. One man looked close to tears as an actor stood less than a metre away and let forth a tirade of swearing directly into his face which lasted for ten minutes.

I really wanted to leave.

When it was over we left back through the lift. I hung around, having gone to the performance alone, hoping maybe to catch someone’s eye and make a little sense of what had just happened. I spoke to another woman, walking with her through Edinburgh and discussing the experience. We decided it hadn’t been all that. We were angry that we lost the connection we had earlier to the piece. We had craved a moment of softness, stillness, relief.

But I can imagine the company arguing that Anna’s story is so upsetting that they had to represent it in such violent terms. And it’s true that I can recall the experience in vivid detail, tell you what happened moment by moment with a clarity usually reserved for car crashes and marriage proposals. Why should theatre be pretty, inviting, reaffirming?

Could Badac have done it better?

Can you present an equally extreme experience to an audience but still ‘risk assess’ their emotional well-being? How much is too much? Does the audience have a right to respond?

Glancing at Twitter reveals a mixed reaction to Anna, depending on whether the viewer thought that ‘uncomfortable’ is a plus-point in theatre.

Could the audience’s experience have been improved by giving a clearer briefing as to what to expect? An air steward-type of safety instruction: you will exit the lift and stand against the wall, you won’t be able to sit down, the actors will be very close, there is a lot of swearing, etc. Forewarned is forearmed.

Should there have been some form of de-briefing, whether this was theatrical or as a debate? Would that help the audience to make sense of their experience?

Is the ethical demand solely on the part of the performers? Do we have ethical responsibilities as an audience? I certainly wanted to intervene to help ‘Anna’ during the performance. She was being pushed from side to side by two soldiers with a bag over her head. What I was watching was no longer just performance, the actress was experiencing that.

Yet, I blocked myself off and repeatedly told myself it was only theatre. I was a bystander. Should the audience have stopped the performance? No, every socialization demands that we continue to watch unless invited to participate. Anna was immersive, not interactive. The audience shouldn’t be blamed.

But when Marina Ambramovich created her Rhythm series and lay down inside a burning star, she didn’t account for the lack of oxygen and passed out. Audience members saved her from her own performance.

Does a presenting extreme experience within a narrative create more danger for the performers? Did the audience only intervene for Ambramovich because as a performance artist everything she does is real?

If the actress playing Anna was in real danger – would the presentation as theatre always prevent the audience from intervening?

Please comment below or tweet to @rootexperience to share your extreme theatrical experiences.

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Jessica Cheetham & Simun Magnus, Root Experience: Root Experience explore audience interaction and play through theatrical performances. Based in the UK, the Company plays with the audience and performer relationships through improvisation, gaming techniques and compassionate interactive practices and have engaged in a number of cross-cultural projects in South Korea.

Our pieces investigate the world we have created around us from both a personal and social point of view. We are curious about people’s relationships with themselves, our direct neighbours and with society as a whole. The purpose of our performances isn’t to provide answers to any of these questions, but mealy to create a medium that opens up a creative space to our audience where discussion could occur.

Root Experience are currently exploring digital platforms and game mechanics to create playful spaces. Their current production The Rise and Fall of Geo Goynes keeps teams of participants immersed in a narrative across the streets of a city, connected via bluetooth headsets and performer interactions. The company have been commissioned for The Pink Fringe’s Performr that will engage audiences using a smart-phone app as a creative medium.