There is a theatre work so famous in New York City that it has inspired plots on both Law & Order: SVU and Gossip Girl. It's not a Broadway show full of catchy songs and film stars. In fact, it's pretty experimental. The work, Sleep No More, is the most well known example of a medium known as immersive theatre, and it's been running in a disused warehouse in Chelsea for three-and-a-half solid sold-out years.
Immersive theatre is having a moment in the world's cultural capitals, but we've seen little of it in Sydney (or Australia, for that matter). Out to change that is Mongrel Mouth, a production company whose second show, The Age of Entitlement, is taking over a 166-year-old mansion in The Rocks. It will be the most ambitious and whole immersive work in this city to date; a show about love, growing up and political corruption that audiences explore and influence through their own actions.
"I've worked in festivals and things for quite a while as well as theatre, and what always excited me is the way that people move freely throughout a festival," says Mongrel Mouth director Duncan Maurice. "They go to this tent and that tent, and though they have a program, which you don't have in our show, it's up to you. It's your responsibility to see, to walk out, to leave whenever you want."
But for Maurice and his collaborators, there's more to the form than just injecting some fun and spontaneity into your night. It's about speaking up, if that's what you want to do, or choosing another part of the performance to watch, or Instagramming that irresistible slice of mise en scene. It's about not sitting passively, in the theatre or otherwise.
"Metaphorically what it says is we are not bystanders in our life," he says. "That's why I want to make theatre where the audience is in control, to a certain extent. Essentially [proscenium arch theatre] is a really tyrannical form. You're told when to sit, you're told when to clap, you're told when to laugh, and I think that the way that we make entertainment now is much more dynamic than that."
As well as taking inspiration from the active and interactive spirit of social media, Maurice is driven to immersive theatre by something quite different: the participatory theatre culture of Latin America. Having spent years working in Peru and Argentina documenting the biographies of political refugees and dissidents, he saw that theatre there was integral to people's lives, forwarding public discourse and dealing with trauma. "The art is in the street, the protest is the celebration, it is the fiesta," he says. "It's very different."
Australia is not lacking for trauma — just perhaps the will to talk about it. Maurice and The Age of Entitlement writer Saman Shad, who when she's not writing plays is a columnist for the Guardian and SBS, were united by the desire to put politics front and centre. They do it through the character of Lara, a 20-year-old, left-wing activist who's also a 40-year-old conservative party leader with good intentions that have fallen by the wayside. The 19-member cast acts out Lara's journey across two levels of the historic mansion. It's a space that has become deeply ingrained in the work following the team's three-month residency.
"There's a dark energy there I think, in terms of if you look at what was going on in Australia when that was built [in 1848]," says Maurice. "The house represents a time when white people weren't doing such great things in this country, and I think that has informed our work."
Mongrel Mouth's last work, The Silence Came, which told the inter-connected stories of the residents in an other-worldly apartment building, was set across several floors of atmospheric Darlinghurst bar The Commons. It sold out almost before the season had even started — sure evidence of the appetite for this kind of unusual theatre experience in Sydney (several nights of The Age of Entitlement are also fully booked). Immersive theatre already has its committed fans (we at Concrete Playground among them), but Maurice has his eyes on the newcomers.
"I think the ideal [experience] would be to know very little about the content, to be dragged along by a friend," he says. "Maybe your friend's read something about it, and you just turn up at this address that you've never even known about before, and you find a doorway that's got some lights in it, and you allow yourself to not fully understand everything."
So having read all this information, you know your duty: bring along an unsuspecting friend and pull them down the rabbit hole.