The writer and director spoke to Love London Love Culture about his latest work For King & Country coming to the Colab Factory from 18th April – 10th June.
Hi Owen, could you tell me a bit more about what For King and Country is about? For King and Country is an opportunity to be a hero. It’s a highly interactive piece of game theatre, where the audience have to direct the defence of wartime Britain against a Nazi invasion. The audience find themselves in the role of the war cabinet in an alternate-history version of the Second World War. Our actors are the military officers and civilian advisors who facilitate the decisions made by the war cabinet and feed back to them on the progress of Britain’s desperate struggle for survival through her darkest hour.
How did the idea and concept for the show come about? The idea came about when packing up a different show in the COLAB Factory basement. The building is from the wartime era, and it occurred to us that the basement felt a lot like the cabinet war rooms. I’d recently seen some inspirational game theatre (Exit Productions’ Revolution), and had been keen to try and develop an immersive gaming experience, where strategic decisions made by the audience affected the outcome of the story. Looking at strategy games, alternative history has become quite a popular theme recently. I’d also been thinking a lot about Brexit and the isolationist attitudes behind it. It had occurred to me that Britain’s experience of the war was distinct from every other major country in Europe in that we had never had to fight a ground war on our own mainland. This isolationist island mentality certainly feeds into the pro-Brexit narrative very strongly. I had begun to wonder whether our national approach to the EU might be different if we had been successfully invaded also. All of these things converged in my head in a ‘Eureka’ moment while driving the van full of set and props back to our storage facility. I decided I wanted to make a show about Operation Sealion – the invasion of Britain that the Nazis had planned and never executed – only this time the plan was going ahead. We would create an alternate-reality game where the audience had to try and save the UK from invasion.
Without (obviously) giving too much away what can audiences expect from the experience? Although we never planned to co-incide with the release of the Darkest Hour movie (I’d not even heard of it when we started work on the show), the co-incidence has been remarkably helpful for us. Our experience is a lot like living through the movie. Our audiences find themselves wrestling with a lot of the same decisions that Churchill and the war cabinet had to make. Although there are many excellent participatory games where audiences can make strategic decisions, we go out of our way to make our experience feel very real and not like a game at all. All of the game mechanics are hidden away. We never roll dice or talk about moves or turns. We behave as if the pins on the map represent real divisions of British and German troops, and all orders are issued via the radio or telephone systems (all of which are fully-functioning props). We aim to immerse our audiences in the period and the detail of our alternate history, and we encourage people to dress up and get into the spirit of things. While audiences can determine how much they want to interact, and it’s perfectly possible to sit and watch everything happen around you, the best experience is definitely had by fully throwing yourself into the scenario and getting stuck in.
I have heard that the actors don’t have a script to learn – how difficult does that make putting the show together? We wanted to make the experience feel as realistic as possible, and we wanted the audience to be firmly in the driving seat. Our audience become the war cabinet each night, so they are the ones giving the orders. We wanted them to feel as though they were in charge and we wanted their decisions and suggestions to really matter, but to achieve that the story needs to be adaptable and the actors need to be able to respond appropriately to things that are asked of them. Even though there is no script, the show is structured around the turns of the strategy game (which could also equate to the acts of a play). We know what the German objectives are for each game turn, and we know that there are certain events that will fire off at certain times – the rest is up to the audience to decide. For our actors, the challenge is to stay in-character and in-world, and improvise intelligent responses to any reasonable request. We have five actors in the room with the audience, and two outside manning the phones and radio. If the audience give orders for something to happen, even if we’ve not prepared for it we try and make it happen. Some of the best moments in shows have been prompted by an audience suggestion that we’d never anticipated, allowing our actors to improvise some beautiful theatrical moments. Obviously this can be very challenging for our actors, but they have all put a lot of work into immersing themselves in the period and fleshing out the lives of their characters. It is that work which really brings the wartime narrative alive.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from their experience? The biggest thing we want audiences to take away from the show is that they can make a difference. The show is an opportunity to be a hero, and in the modern world this is a rare thing. The reality of modern living is that heroism tends to be discouraged, but in the world of our show the audience are literally the last line of defence against the forces of evil – the stakes couldn’t be higher. The decisions they take during the show have real consequences, and defeat is unthinkable. The story requires them to step up and do the best they can.
How has it been for you to see For King and Country develop the way it has? One of the best things about the development of the show for me has been the way audiences have made it their own. Every show is different, and we are constantly being surprised by the inventiveness and imagination of our audiences. Some of the best parts of the show have grown out of audience suggestions – someone has come up with a cool idea one night, and we’ve run with it, and then we’ve instigated it again the following night because it was so much fun. The show keeps growing and growing in this way, and we already have way too much content to jam into a single performance. For King and Country showcases the very best of what immersive/interactive performance can be: an endless world of possibility.
For King & Country will play at the Colab Factory from the 18th April until the 10th June. For more information visit: https://www.colabfactory.co.uk/