A Fortnight at Aldeburgh (Part 6): Immersive Theatre As Modern Ritual
Updated: Feb 27
This is the fifth in a seven-part sequence of blogs going into the work on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things done during my Creative Retreat at Aldeburgh (supported by the Britten Pears Foundation). You can read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh parts at the appropriate links.
This part draws towards the conclusion in tomorrow’s instalment, and so will begin with a quick refresher:
Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is an immersive interactive opera in which you can come and bargain with uncanny things. The audience are a local community, who have summoned a supernatural creature to help address local problems. They have received several petitions, and must decide which ones to answer and which ones to leave to one side.
The show aims to give the audience real freedom within a supernatural world built to guide them towards thinking about how we relate to one another and things that are other to us, especially things that are bigger than us and liable to make us feel our inherent weakness and mortality. Towards that end, I have written it an oral history, and a set of tools for the audience that will let them feel like they’re doing magic, but that magic will always have a price. In theory, this will push them to make weighty decisions about what to use that power for, and how they want to treat the Uncanny Thing.
One of my great loves is ritualistic theatre. That might be noh theatre, which has its roots in seasonal rituals, or operas like Akhnaten, or various forms of oral epic recitation. One of many things I like about it is how it creates a space of tranquility, often designed to aid reflection on certain topics, rather than sweep the audience away on a flood of uncritical emotion. Feelings are good, but in practice they’re often unearned.
(Bad practice: cookery shows using melodramatic music to heighten the emotional impact of somebody making a slightly inferior biscuit. Good practice: Operation Mincemeat, where every emotional hit is absolutely earned.)
Unearned feelings, or excessive content, stop people engaging except with their most immediate instincts. They have to digest the show later. I wanted to try something different with Come Bargain With Uncanny Things - to create a space for people to come together and be a community today.
That goal is why so many of the spells were removed. By shifting the focus from “we must unlock more rites” to “we must decide what to use these rites for”, the show became about 40 people talking together softly, rather than 20-odd groups all intensely focused on separate tasks. Indeed, some audience pathways are designed to encourage them to circulate, share information, and build the group's interrelations.
Now, the audience will split off into groups to develop solutions to specific problems the community are asked to deal with, and the musical style will encourage an attitude of fairly solemn reflection. Yes, there will be moments of drama and tension, but mostly we want people to come out feeling like they’ve been at a supernatural ritual for their community.
Music lets us bring in the supernatural in a way that we can understand, even if not necessarily in a direct, scientific way. It is something that, for most of us, we recognise as being somewhat beyond normal human existence. But the supernatural isn’t really about that in this piece - it’s about the things that are bigger than us, that we can’t ever fully comprehend. And so combining interactive theatre and opera lets us create a ritual to experience and consider what it is to be human, among other humans, in a world where some things are bigger than us. Given that, what should we do before the end?
We live in a world where there aren’t many places we actually can come together and work out what we want for the place we live. For many of us, the ‘place we live’ is far from permanent. But as humans, we want to do things with other humans. We usually want to do the right thing, unless the cost is too high or the reward too great. And we are very aware of the fact that we will die, even if our work, like the walled city of Uruk, may outlast us a little while.
And so, in a world with few shared rituals, this piece attempts to create one. A moment of tranquility, shared effort, and rites that give the chance to express and explore deeper questions of our relation as mortals to things and people around us.
Is that not a worthwhile end for a show?
This is part of a series reflecting on my time at Aldeburgh on a Creative Retreat. There will be seven parts in total.