Immersive theatre is “growing up” states Felix Barret of Punchdrunk, whose novel piece, A Drowned Man, shocked audiences over five years ago.
Since then, immersive theatre has moved into the mainstream, offering audiences an “experience” rather than just a performance. David Rosenburg, who has created immersive shows with Shunt believes that the popularity of the format lies with modern culture: “everyone consumes and creates so much content in so many different ways that we now expect choice to feed into live performance”. This obsession with consuming has led some theatre makers to believe that immersive theatre is now just an excuse to turn art into a product and by doing so, increase the price of a ticket.
However, the immersive production of Girl World, a two-woman musical recently returning from a successful run at Edinburgh Fringe, does everything to assuage these concerns. Moving away from consumer driven experience, Girl World transports its audience not into a prescribed fantasy world, but creates an atmosphere of highly personal nostalgia, allowing audiences to be part of, but still separate from, the narrative.
Each audience member donned a ‘girl-worldian name’, then decorated it wildly with sequins and pompoms. This invariably encouraged discussion of individual childhood imaginary universes as we entered the space (designed by Ranya El-Refaey) through a pink glittery tunnel and collapse on to cushions strewn with cuddly toys to watch the action.
The show follows the narrative of two best friends Tilly (Camille Dawson) and Inga (Serena Ramsey), who live in a world in which their every whim can materialise as they come to terms with their burgeoning sexuality by birthing octopuses and crafting “dick-whittlers”. As foul as it is charming, Girl World is a musical frenzy, an explosion of colour, light and music that leaves a long-lasting impression.
The idea of space is at the crux of Girl World. Dawson (performer and creator) has given physicality to the safe space of female imagination, allowing an arena much sought after and yet often denied in the real world. This world sprang from a series of drawings Dawson created with a childhood friend, each becoming lewder than before, with boys gyrating in cages and hot tubs with flaps which when opened, revealed the nefarious action beneath the water. The audience was in turn encouraged to create their own Girl World, communally drawing on a large piece of paper, joining in on the shared experience of giving space to your childhood fantasies.
Parts of the imagined set were also brought to life for the audience to interact with. The infamous “cage for boys” allowed male audience members to climb inside, realising the separation reiterated in the play: “no boys allowed!”.
The action itself also invited audience participation, starting off with a tour of Girl World, both Ramsey and Dawson used direct address to involve the audience in the tour group. This also acted as an invitation to the universe, the familiarity gained encouraged further submersion. We were further involved through the liminal presence of the two musicians (Franklin Dawson and Oscar Lane) who, dressed in drag and reacting superfluously to the narrative, further blurred the distinction between actors and audience. Even the aspect of the DJ, who came on after the play was finished, seemed to extend the action as people started dancing, echoing the hilarious clubbing scenes which occur in the play.
The narrative, while definitively bizarre, remains charmingly relatable as the each of the girls embodies character traits that are easily recognisable. Through inspired reminisces each audience member became a “Tilly” or an “Inga”, separate yet united by the feeling of coming to terms with something you can’t explain or understand.
This is one of Dawson’s favourite things about performing , she states: “I love how the audience, people I’ve never met before, often feel compelled to approach me afterwards and disclose all their darkest childhood truths, their imaginary friends and their outrageous secret bedroom games. I find it so moving to note that we all have these experiences, but we generally never talk about them. Sometimes after the show I feel like there is this sense of buzzing excitement as these long-buried moments pour out of people. It has inspired me to start developing an idea to create a Zine that engages in this. I want to gather people’s stories to celebrate and reveal this time for the bonkers and beautiful time that it was!”
Moving away from the potentially narcissistic trope of directing the action in immersive theatre, Girl World allows audience members a space in which to explore their own personal narratives, moving the action beyond the play to an all-encompassing event which left me, like Inga, wanting to stay in Girl World a little longer.
If you want to catch more of Girl World check out their performance coming up in Spring 2019 as part of the Albany’s ‘Rebels Season’.
Slow Tongue is a powerful collection, using language and design in an innovative way to create a new space for emerging voices. The title evokes the image of languid sexuality, a theme which pervades the collection, described by ripe fruit, “licking”, “sucking” and breathing heat. Douglass uses abstract imagery coupled with tangible language to beautifully depict love and sex. While this theme is an aspect which makes Slow Tongue such a valuable read, the collection ultimately showcases the struggle Douglass has faced as a woman of colour trying to explore and assert her identity and voice.
I have been lucky enough to see Douglass perform a few of these poems live. In one performance of ‘The Man Goes Bang continuously’, Douglass chose members of the audience to read parts in the poem, their freshness to the material adding to the pervading feeling of miscommunication and disorder. Poems that lend themselves so well to performance are sometimes in danger of falling flat when read. This is not the case with this collection however, as dynamic design allows this collection to become a work of art on the page.
Douglass visually represents struggle through misspellings, incongruous spacings and black boxes which obscure words, reminiscent of political censorship. Through this device the reader is constantly reminded of the effort that it has taken to put these words on the page. This is further emphasised by the editorial notes which litter the copy. As Douglass explains in her commentary, she left them in because: “finished collections should not be polished bodies of work, but instead service as evidence of the processes of writing and the analysis of the self”. The ‘run-on’ style of the publication helps the collection to be thought of as a whole, allowing new conversations to occur as the reader’s attention is drawn to the links between the poems.
As referenced in the title, Slow Tongue has been written in part as a response to M. Nourbese Philip’s collecton: She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Both NourbeSe and Douglass explore the challenges of using post-colonial language to question racial and gendered repression, and in doing so, create a new, separate lexicon. The explicit reference to other writers – NourbeSe is an active voice in one of Douglass’s poems – allows Slow Tongue to become part of a wider conversation. The author’s journey to find a voice becomes contextualised and layered when mixed with the voices of others.
She also weaves in historical narratives, like that of Sara Baartman, a South African woman who became a point of colonial fascination due to her ‘exotic’ body-type. Douglass tells her story in footnotes to give visualisation to the exploitation of black narratives. One of the most poignant phrases in the collection is Douglass’s editorial note: *write this again but instead Sara Baartman lives in a cottage in the country-side and has white skin*.
Douglass uses her position as the narrator to incredible effect. This ‘meta-narrative’ style guides our experience as a reader, as she voices the part of ‘audience’ while also challenging the reader through direct questions. In contrast, her narrative voice is deeply personal. She draws on real experiences: “I am twelve years old and my body has just learnt that the only safe way for me to command a room is when I am on stage”.
Slow Tongue brings together an impressive collection of poems, which can be read individually or holistically. Covering stunning narratives which expose important themes through new language and voice, Douglass has created an enriching read, both visually and otherwise. I highly recommend the collection, and look forward to seeing what this young poet does next.