METRO Birmingham 2004
The Other Way Works is part of the growing number of Theatre Companies who devise their work instead of script it… For its latest show, Homing Instinct, the focus remains on telling women’s stories, but has shifted to a more personal, intimate arena: the company members’ own homes and backgrounds.
By placing the audience at the centre of the performance, and involving them actively rather than as passive observers, The Other Way Works is seeking to break down traditional barriers between performers and audience, making theatre something you go to do, not just see.
Trying to classify the productions of The Other Way Works is rather like attempting to wrestle a grown adult into a cardboard box (although, incidentally, if you do ever need to know how to do this, their current production ‘Homing Instinct’ includes a helpful demonstration…) Fiona Ferguson caught up with founding members Jane Packman and Katie Day to investigate that indefinable quality…
For Birmingham-based theatre company The Other Way Works, all the world’s a stage. Or at least, all the world’s on the stage. A performance of their interactive theatre generally involves more audience members treading the boards than actors, as they take on the roles of guests, participants and explorers in a genre-defying mix of installation art, storytelling, movement and soundscapes. In a nutshell, it’s not exactly your average theatre experience, but that was never their intention. The company met whilst studying drama at Birmingham University, and even amidst the safe confines of these traditional redbrick walls they started to veer off from the norm, as Jane explains: “The university was limited in what they accepted as theatre; it was all traditional, old plays; ‘proper’ drama. At the end of our degrees we got together in a group we enjoyed working with and decided that we wanted to do something different.”
Thinking outside of the box
Something very different… “We could have put on Shakespeare, but that’s not what we’re passionate about. I’m passionate about creating a different experience for theatre-goers. I find that a lot of theatre doesn’t engage me. As a medium, its role has been taken over by film or TV, so this is a new way of challenging the role of the audience. I like a certain amount of challenging…” Challenge, however, always meets resistance, and the current culture of documentary and reality TV accustomises us to sitting back and switching off, rather than participating. The idea of getting bums off the seats is a theatrical contradiction, and rather like trying to pick up a sleeping cat contentedly snoozing in its interval ice-cream. But a little shaking-up can be invigorating: “There’s a real buzz there, unlike when you just sit back and that wall comes down.” Katie agrees: “There’s this exciting live relationship between the performer and the audience; part of what we want to do is to re-invigorate this relationship.”
Getting lost along the Way..
I put it to the girls that to be actively involved as an audience member might break that all-important spell of escapist engagement. It’s a bit difficult to lose yourself in a story when you’re consciously aware of trying to find your place in it. Jane sees no contradiction, however: “It’s losing yourself in a different way. You are still definitely caught up in the moment. Initially perhaps there’s the ‘Aaargh! What are they going to make me do?’ but our desire is never to intimidate; we want to give the audience an enjoyable experience, and open things out for them rather than shut things off. You lose yourself, and find something else.”
Feeling at home
They have found that most resistance doesn’t come from the audience, therefore, but from the venues hosting the productions. Theatres just aren’t built for The Other Way Works and it’s been tricky finding a comfortable space for their Homing Instincts to nest, as Katie explains: “The problem isn’t who to take it to, but where to take it. You phone up a venue and they’re like ‘What?! How many people in two hours?! … One at a time?!… Uuurgh! That’s not going to work!’” But it does. Just in another way… “I genuinely feel it’s a unique experience for audience members,” asserts Jane, “It’s just a question of making it viable for the venue.”
There’s a place for us …
They do admit that they are only side of the story; ” I would personally never advocate the obliteration of traditional theatre,” reveals Katie, “There’s certainly a place for that. I just think that there’s also a place for people who want to explore the performance medium a bit more; who want to be more active, and engage with the performance in a different way.” So it’s not a better but simply an Other way, and the value of such alternative approaches is starting to be recognised. Following productions at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre, The Rep and Stratford’s Summer House, the company proved themselves worthy of Arts Council funding, with which they devised and toured ‘Homing Instincts’, highlights of which included performances at the Greenbelt Festival and the MAC. “We seem to be doing OK at pushing doors at the moment,” suggests Katie. “I think we’re pretty fortunate. Or talented!” I’d say both. And as long as the latter continues to be recognised in British theatre, The Other Way Works should be home to roost.