We’re taught in school that there are five main senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. So why the belief that only the first two count in theatre? Sascha Goslin argues that there are far more sensory possibilities to explore in the live experience
Traditionally, when we think of theatre and performance, we think of it as catering to sight and sound. If there is one thing watching theatre over Zoom and Youtube throughout most of the past year has made clear, it’s that this line of thought was wrong all along. Even watching some of our favourite works, we find ourselves missing something: the aroma of the popcorn in the foyer that you’ll still smell on the train home; the unique scent of the remnants from the smoke machine that fills the theatre, no matter how high up you may be; the feel of the seats, somehow never quiet comfortable enough; and the body heat from the rest of the audience.
Outside of theatres, in outdoor performances, or circus tents, the experiences are even more noticeable: the sun on the back of your neck, the once refreshing drink now disappointingly tepid, the traffic in the background barely audible over the sound of audiences chatting, the guy sat somewhere nearby still smelling of the cigarettes he’d finished only moments before joining the audience, the slight discomfort of the ground, always that little bit damp or too dry and scratchy, usually at some slightly awkward angle you only notice in your hips half way through the show and that awkward mound that always pops up just underneath your ankles or sit bones.
All of these sensory experiences are incidental to many works, but when they’re taken away, and we have no idea when we’ll be able to experience them again, we have a genuine sense that something is missing.
I hope that, as we’ve become hyper-aware of what we can taste and smell and of what we’ve touched in response to Covid-19, we as a sector start to experiment with these senses more; and that we start to weave them into our narratives as part of standard practice, along with other methods of access and inclusion, which although often overlooked by more traditional performances are staple to artists who make multi-sensory theatre, accessible theatre, young children’s theatre and some immersive theatre – some of which I will speak about here, and some of which I haven’t heard about yet.
Multi-sensory theatre companies, such as Frozen Light and Oily Cart, have weaved all the senses – along with sign language, and deep levels of audience interaction and engagement – into their narratives.
Frozen Light have been doing just this ever since they were founded in 2013. They are one of the few theatre companies in the country that tour multi-sensory theatre for adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) into theatres throughout the UK.
Their show The Isle of Brimsker was a masterclass in how to immerse an audience to such an extent that a scene change evokes the feeling of arriving into a cosy home after travelling through a storm without the audience ever leaving their seats. This is achieved through a combination of wonderful lighting, chilling the audience through blowing wind, and a light water mist sprayed at them during the storm; and immediately changing the setting by providing the audience with hot water bottles and the scent of slightly burnt toast when indoors, which combined with the cosy blankets we were handed at the start is enough to make most of us feel like we’ve been transported to an idyllic log cabin.
Often time this level of immersion is only found in shows for audiences with PMLD, or for young children and babies; but imagine if we included it in theatre shows aimed at everyone, and made those shows in a way that they were accessible to all. The Isle of Brimsker makes it clear that you can have both a sensory focus combined with excellent storytelling addressing social issues.
Outside of theatre, we can see that installations that transport the audience to another, futuristic world that they can play in and interact with, are immensely popular. During the 2019 Manchester International Festival, I saw many people of all ages enjoy Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Atmospheric Memory. After stepping through a polyphonic tunnel featuring thousands of separate sound channels, a unique and slightly disorientating experience, you walk into a space covered by 360-degree projections, which transforms the space into a futuristic digital landscape, where one minute you’re surrounded by abstract shapes, and the next you’re covered in CCTV cameras that are attracted by movement. Here, you can play games, intentionally or otherwise, with other attendees; or spend ages speaking into The Cloud to see your words appear briefly in vapour, until it transforms into a smokey vapour waterfall; or playing with the many other interactive pieces, easily losing the day.
Imagine if we could regularly just hang out in a theatre set, before watching the show, if we could engage with the props, not just for the few shows that include touch tours or occasional, expensive, immersive shows, but as standard, imagine how deeply connected we would feel to that world…
While I accept that this won’t always be possible for every performance – particularly where props are fragile, or equipment needs to be rigged, or mechanical elements could be damaged – for many shows there will be elements that the audience could explore and engage with, or safer/sturdier replicas that could be placed out. Certainly there are many puppet performances, including those aimed at adult audiences like Basil Twist’s shows, which regularly invite audiences onstage at the end to meet the puppets/see how the props work.
Some artists have already explored combining a performance with an installation where people have time to familiarise themselves with where they are and enjoy what is around them. Nwando Ebizie’s Distorted Constellations, for instance, fuses dance, live DJ sets, an opportunity to read some books, an installation, sitting by a (digital) fire and attend a scientific lecture and ASMR story-telling all in one evening. (Reviewed here by Dorothy Max Prior for Total Theatre Magazine, Brighton Festival 2019.)
For fans of horror, multi-sensory elements bring a whole new dimension, not just to the experience, but the suspense.The Tom Sawyer Effect’s Incubus (seen at Vaults Festival) combines virtual reality and real performance, where you, the only audience member, take the role of a volunteer test subject for a shady seeming corporation called The Foundation. The experience is relatively brief, so I won’t go into more detail about the set up, as I can’t without spoiling the scenario. However, I can say that scariest moments for me, as a desensitised horror film fan, were not the VR scenes, it was the moments when you could sense someone near you – a puff of air, the natural, slightly uncomfortable scent that accompanies The Vaults that I certainly did not notice before then.
Also in The Vaults, IT Chapter Two: The Vaults Experience transporting the audience to Derry, Maine, where we visited the fair, the old house, discovered what was behind either Not Scary, Scary or Very Scary Door, then met up with everyone at the Chinese restaurant, and traversed the sewers. These places all feature significant scenes in the movies in which The Vaults Experience used all of the senses to really create the feeling of being in those locations. I felt like I was transported back to the set we had walked through when watching the movie Chapter Two in the cinema. It was certainly an interesting marketing technique, and one I’d definitely like to see more of from other movies and TV series.
In addition to experimenting with taste, smell and touch, I’d really like to see theatre generally learn from the various productions using multi-sensory elements designed for adults and children, and start to recognise more, now especially, the importance of consent from the audience.
I know from my time working with Frozen Light, and reading reviews of shows such as Puppetship’s Sparkle and many others, each sensory element is an offering, not a requirement. There is no fear of responding the wrong way, or being seen as a spoilsport, as any participation is entirely option – which is something that many of us would like to see more in shows, including cabarets and immersive productions.
Certainly, while many cabarets and immersive productions give audiences a choice to engage, there are enough that pressure audience members or don’t give them an option, which is problematic on many levels, as not only can it mean that some audience members feel truly unsafe, as they experience something they haven’t consented to or are pressured to do so, it also means that some audiences may avoid such shows entirely, because of a concern that they may be subjected to such an experience.
While the examples I’ve brought up are all certainly unique productions, all trying to achieve different things for different audiences, I feel it must be stressed that this kind of work is not new. New developments are found and boundaries are pushed each year, however multi-sensory performances have been been around for decades. This year (2021) Oily Cart celebrates its fortieth birthday, and countless artists have been creating multi-sensory works for audiences of all ages in schools and care homes for years; and of course immersive companies have been incorporating some of these elements since the start, from pioneers like Punchdrunk to newer companies working on both large and smaller scales, like Secret Cinema and Hocus Pocus Theatre.
Despite how long it’s been happening, though, multi-sensory theatre remains niche; and while some elements are incorporated into what we consider, in the broadest possible sense, traditional theatre, many still associate it with children and care homes and not ‘proper theatre’ – while if they examined things more closely they would see the strength of the storytelling by Frozen Light; or that Oily Cart introduced Shakespeare to 0-4 year olds with In a Pickle, their version of The Winter’s Tale; or consider how much more immersed an audience would be if the pub scene set incorporated the smell of spilled beer, or how much more inclusive a theatre’s Christmas Pantomime could be if it incorporated sensory props to reach out to new audiences who are usually excluded.
Too many people assume that increasing accessibility, and providing meaningful inclusion, will somehow detract from the story being told, I feel the opposite is true, it is possible to tell a much more engaging, memorable story, where the audience truly get lost in what is happening, that will stay with them forever, regardless of how tired or distracted they were when arriving at the theatre, if sensory elements and access elements were built into the production from the start. It takes nothing away from the people who don’t require them, but opens it up to so many people who do.
It may be a wild dream that someday there will be shows designed to be truly inclusive for everyone are the norm, programmed every week in every venue and festival throughout the country, but I certainly hope that when theatres and companies can return to sold out, full houses, where we can sit together and touch something someone else has touched without worry again, that we remember how it felt when we couldn’t feel the theatre, we couldn’t touch the theatre, we couldn’t taste the theatre – and we use that awareness to take the first step into developing a whole new definition of ‘traditional’ theatre, which makes use of these senses, pushes boundaries and immerses us, all of us, in their world, even when we’re on raked seating behind the fourth wall.
Featured image (top): Frozen Light: The Isle of Brimsker. Photo by JMA Photography
For more information on Frozen Light, see https://www.frozenlighttheatre.com/
For more on Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Atmospheric Memory, commissioned by Manchester International Festival https://atmosphericmemory.com/
Nwando Ebizie’s Distorted Constellations: https://www.nwandoebizie.com/events2/distorted-constellations-exhibition-hy9m9
The Tom Sawyer Effect’s Incubus: https://tseffect.com/
For IT at the Vaults, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_FVeCr1Xq8
Oily Cart ‘Reimagining theatre to include all young audiences’: https://oilycart.org.uk/
Oily Cart’s version of The Winter’s Tale, In a Pickle: https://oilycart.org.uk/shows/in-a-pickle/
Sascha Goslin is a freelance producer and founder of the Norfolk Black & POC Creatives Network. Sascha took part in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers programme 2020. @saschagoslin