'We will leave drunks or troublemakers to the bar staff but there are lots of other situations that can develop.' Accidental Theatre Company invite audiences to their newest immersive production in a Belfast office building
Immersive theatre is a flexible, interactive theatrical form which offers the audience a chance to genuinely get involved in, and influence, a production. As spectators, we do this by creating our own ad hoc roles, by interrupting and by generally joining in. We've all done it before, as children, at panto.
Accidental Theatre are encouraging the theatre-going public to get involved in their new production, The Lost Martini, which will be staged in a temporary jazz café positioned four floors up in one of the city centre's empty office blocks.
The ambience may help those audience members who might initially feel a little nervous about joining the cast in a space where there is, according to actress Megan Armitage, 'no backstage'.
The Lost Martini is, potentially, a risky enterprise, as Accidental Theatre director Richard Lavery admits: 'It's very difficult to do well, a real challenge. Unlike a promenade performance, where the audience is made to go in a particular direction, the audience has free control.'
The play features five characters whose stories we follow at intervals and who slot into different parts of the jazz café world: the Upstart (played by Megan Armitage), the Newcomer (Christopher Grant), the Founder, the Singer-Diva and so on. The play is set, appropriately enough, in a rediscovered jazz café high above the Belfast streets, with a distinct London or Paris vibe.
The idea, says Lavery, is to create a fluid setting where almost anything can happen and the theme is pleasingly idealistic. As the show's blurb has it: 'Friendship and connection are what (the characters) treasure. It's what gives their lives meaning. They sometimes speak out against a brash world, often they stay silent – but not tonight.'
'We wanted an engaging story and you have to be both rigid in a sense and flexible in that regard,' adds Lavery. 'We will leave drunks or troublemakers to the real bar staff but there are lots of other situations that can develop in this living environment. You might leave the show and say to somebody, "Did you see the guy who grabbed the table?", and ask was it meant to be in the show. It's a unique story every night.'
Accidental Theatre is a new(ish) company that has achieved some notable successes in recent years with productions like Death (on a Shoestring), which played at the Belfast Festival at Queen's in 2012, a black comedy exploring the afterlife through the eyes of a political correctness officer.
Established actors like Maggie Cronin, who played alongside Noel McGee in Accidental's The Kitchen, the Bedroom and the Grave to critical acclaim last year, have performed for the company alongside rising new talent. Megan Armitage, who plays the Upstart in their newest production, 'can't wait' for audiences to experience The Lost Martini.
'It's always fun to be the Upstart, the person who comes in and sees the place in a new light. To be honest, I have never played a part like this.'
A Queen's University graduate in English and French, Armitage spent a couple of years at the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr and three months in Dublin working under renowned teacher, David Scott. She has been involved in devised theatrical pieces and improvisation before – good training for her dip in immersive theatre. 'You have to be prepared for these encounters.'
Lavery, meanwhile, believes that local audiences will be able to cope with the demands of The Lost Martini. 'A Belfast audience is a lively theatre crowd even though they may not be as familiar with this as a London audience. But people who come to The Lost Martini won't feel thrown on stage, just free to explore and maybe add their own story and perspective.'
There is a teasing nature about Accidental, who parade their European influence. For example, the full cast list for The Lost Martini isn't being released until nearer the performance.
Christopher Grant, a 24-year-old graduate of the Lyric Theatre's drama studio and the University of Queen's drama course, has been confirmed, however. 'It's an exciting approach, rarely seen over here, and the idea of having a skeleton of a show and being in the middle of it is interesting.'
Grant has form in this regard, having performed in Big Telly's production of I Spy, which over a two-year period provided families and individuals with a chance to participate in a semi-dramatised covert operation involving one of our favourite genres: the spy thriller. This interactive game contained some of the surprises that we may discover in The Lost Martini, although, as Grant says, it was on a smaller scale. 'I Spy was an immersive show and the audience got to be spies for about an hour but it wasn't as full on as this production.'
As Grant notes, his role in The Lost Martini could be a hero or villain. 'As the Newcomer, I come in and have some ideas about how to change the bar, for good or ill. I represent the new generation with new ideas. I don't go out with preconceived ideas and am interested in what's happening. I shall deal with events as my character would.'
Reactions from Grant's circle have been encouraging and friends and family will be coming along to taste the show. 'I've been telling my mother about it – who is in some ways is the same age as me – as well as the guy I live with. We'll have good representation in the audience, quite a variety of people, I think.'
The question for those brave enough to purchase tickets is just how far off piste the show will go. There are six different types of ticket available, so potential audience members can mull this over before booking. Talented musicians can apply to join the band; wouldbe bar keeps can apply to man (or woman) the bar; and then there is a secret ticket for people who want the full experience, and so on.
That said, in talking to the Accidental team, I am advised that it is also possible simply to sit back, drink (shaken not stirred, obviously) in hand and enjoy the show, with maybe the odd foray into interaction. But that would be no fun at all.
The Lost Martini runs in Wellington Buildings, 2-4 Wellington Street, Belfast from March 10-14. Tickets are available via the Accidental Theatre website.