War of the Dungeon: Part 1

My somewhat absence from all things blogacious is down to five straight days in the Dungeon! Now, going a-Dungeoning is exhausting at the best of times – but come the tempestuous summer season, the pressure cranks up a notch. In torture terms, the thumbscrews tighten; the tongue tearers twist; the chappy is chopped (the whole inch of it). Our opening times expand to 10am till 5:30pm; allowing for preparation time either side of those figures, that can mean upwards of eight hours clapped in the dark. Once amiable guests tumble into relentless and impersonal masses. Normally, the Dungeon works to a seven-minute ‘fill ‘n’ spill’ system: one minute to get the audience in, five minutes to perform your show, one minute to get ’em out – and repeat. The shock of summer is that, for once, the crowds really do come at this unreasonable pace. What’s more, they’ll sometimes come at an even faster clip, for whatever erratic reason: an error at cash desk, perhaps, or an unreceptive and rowdy lot, for whom surrounding actors have condensed their shows – most inexcusably, guests taking an age on an unnecessary toilet trip.

In light of the above, you inevitably view shows as fragments in a larger war between actors and audience. Generally, that’s not a mode of thought that I’m happy to endorse. When I picked Simon Callow’s brains on the theatrical gods of the past, he described Olivier in just such terms (roughly the 21:30 mark in that clip):

There was nothing quite like that experience. It was like total war on the audience. It was so brilliant, everything, every aspect of an actor’s armoury – you see, you use military metaphors with Olivier…

I dislike theatre that seeks to tame an audience. Perhaps because I’m aware I lack the raw masculine drive to manage such a thing, or to delude myself that I have sufficient resources at my disposal (ninety-nine percent of the battle). But even removed from this gladiatorial arena, I know that there’s always the potential for bad power in my more grotesque personal niche. That which is heightened can seem ostentatious. That which is ostentatious risks managing audience response: death! It’s that dagger-edge boundary between making a joke and recognising you’re making a joke. Imperceptible on the surface, maybe, but it’s the comedic equivalent of ice-cold water.  There are other dodgy manifestations of power. There’s the spontaneous round of applause and the standing ovation. Did your work bewitch an audience to movement? Or are people only reminding themselves that they’re witnessing a live event? (The uncanny inconsistency with which this moment in Guido! curried applause – 0:47:05 – is without doubt a case of the latter.) Most dangerous for me is the lure of the Victorian theatre of ‘effect’ without basis or point. (A quite different thing to effects which are justified  – indeed, demanded! – by the substance of the piece.)

How best to harness dramatic power is a problem with which I’ll continue to wrestle. If the actor-audience relationship is one of consent, of expectations delivered – people went to Olivier for precisely that militaristic thrill – then perhaps it needn’t matter. The Dungeon is a special case; a theatrical form with no immediate precedent. It’s the combined anarchy of high melodrama, Grand Guignol, children’s television, Mystery Plays, music hall, Commedia and pantomime. As such, concessions must be made; the notion of power slightly endorsed. To get the shows clear in my head – and allow you lot to peer into the manic schedule – I’ve prepared an overview of the battlefield. I’ve charted the ways in which I’ve been negotiating the anomalous summer audiences. Through it all, I’m hoping to clarify how best to juggle crowd control with a more nourishing audience contact.

1. Plague: In an earlier entry, I described the new shadows that had fallen on Plague: those of whispered subtleties and pervasive darkness. Well, come the very first day of summer, and we revert to old scare tactics. Now the show starts with a whooshing of smoke, a crashing through doors and a screaming of ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ Cynically, you could dismiss this as the first in a line of very cheap jump scares. I’m inclined to be more charitable. From the actor’s perspective, it sets an instant good pace, making it a little easier to meet the seven-minute deadline. It also makes it that bit easier to engage with the audience. Overwrought barnstorming means they know where to have you straight off in a way that tantalising ambiguities simply don’t. Feeling before thought. So, the opening appoints the audience to their place at the get-go – but, more than that, it’s representative of the experience to come (what Merlin calls selling ‘The Brand’). It’s both startling and silly, it becomes more disturbing with scrutiny – the thought of a devil in delirious orbit – but it’s one hell of a fun ride. Nourishing ham if ever there was some.

2. Ghosts of York: The bugger with this one is the timing. Unlike Plague, it’s a show that requires a measure of grace, rooted as it is in traditional storytelling. A challenge: how to fast-track slow-burn creepiness? A few things have proven helpful so far. We’ve been issued with abridged scripts for one. There are some poorly placed toilets just before the Ghosts show, so it’s imperative that you rush out before people drift within. Waiting even a few minutes for these troublemakers to emerge can spoil your next few hours. Besides, I’m of the firm belief that most guests really don’t need the toilet, going instead for novelty value. And if they really do need it (slim chance), they’ll go (entitlement!) – regardless of their interactions with a pasty-faced mugger like myself. As well as time considerations, cramming the tiny pub with twenty-odd bodies has its disadvantages. On the plus side, the crowding is nicely claustrophobic for an audience; in the best cases, it can trigger a strain of mass hysteria. Personally, though, I think it reduces the potential for a direct attack on audience members: the ghost story is a porridge of revenge on various individuals, so it’s a shame to compensate this in the telling. And, disappointingly, it’s nigh-on impossible to rush in during the final blackout for a parting jump scare: a bravado shout from behind the audience, the actor having materialised unexpectedly. No matter how beguilingly you coax them forward, people insist on gluing themselves to the back wall once you’re out of the room. A few days back, this led to an awkward moment when I rushed back in and found myself, post-blackout, fondling one gentleman’s knee. Against all warnings, the group had sat down the instant I’d left the room. The perils of live theatre; the perks of the job.

3. Labyrinth of the Lost: Blimey, I’ve had adventures with this one lately! Principally, the horrible morning when the mirror maze door got jammed. On the very first show of the day, I ushered the group inside, bracing myself to close the door. This completes the illusion of confinement: the door is itself a mirror, which blends in perfectly with the others in the maze. Alas – the door was stuck. And the twitchy and agitated school group within would not be tamed. The situation was worsened by virtue of my hearty, Seaward-esque bellowings of ‘FIND THE EXIT, CITIZENS!’ only a few seconds earlier. The school’s penetration of the labyrinth – those capricious, winding tunnels in which a Roman Legion became irretrievably lost – proved the easiest imaginable. I learned to live with this damnsome limitation across the next few hours. The sight of a tall-ish actor looming after completing a circuit of the maze was intense for some, producing a good few shrieks. Called to emergency service, a carpenter worked behind the wall to get the door fixed. I had to speak (extra) loudly to distract from the noises; flail and gesticulate a little (more) to distract from the torchlight. By my afternoon shift on Labyrinth, all was resolved. I look forward to more relaxing stints in the near future! The main difficulty with the Labyrinth playing area is its incredible length. The space through which you marshal an audience is almost as long as the three prior shows put together. Exactly how this’ll work at the height of summer will be curious indeed.

4. Judgement of Sinners: If there’s an argument that, in The York Dungeon, the actors have become the whole show, then this is surely it. ‘Words, words, words!’ to quote Drac’s boy, Renfield (and Shakey’s boy, Hamlet): Judges demands vocal precision from its actor and pliability from its participants. If people get on board with the joke straight off, it’s a merry toboggan ride powered by a sure-thing script. But with an anarchist in the dock, you’ve got your work cut out. Two years ago, the Dungeon received a jolly nice email from a visitor, who commended me on dealing with one such guest:

He may recall the day. He offers three punishments to the ‘convicted’ in the dock – and one guy in our crowd (convicted of theft, I think) opted for his fingers to be chopped off – as opposed to the obvious most lenient punishment offered. We, the audience, thought – what a prat – but your Judge didn’t belittle him, but cleverly got him out of his embarrassment with his honour almost intact, whilst we all sniggered.

An interesting development in my hypothesis of the Dungeon as war! An audience member on the actor’s side! Given the time lapse, I don’t remember what I did exactly for that show. Recently, I’ve found it really pays to embarrass the offending party as much as ever you can, labelling them ‘the punchline ruiner’ and humiliating them at sporadic moments through the rest of the show. Never try to wallpaper over the creases; make a virtue of them – always, always! Abjecting polish is a sure way of escaping bad power. It’s a kind of vulnerability – an openness that promotes togetherness! It cashes in on that peculiarly British love of when things going wrong. We’re a nation fond of trouble. Anyhow. Judges has largely been great this summer. Some of the nicest groups I’ve had in four seasons. The foreign groups I’m sure have potential for niceness, but given that they understand one in ten words that dribble from my mouth, it’s understandable that they talk over me instead.

I’ll report on the other four actor-led shows – Torture, Turpin, Execution and Witches – in a future entry.

The only frustration of this intense regime is that it affords precious little time to work on my one-man Dracula – let alone Frankenstein, the source novel of which I’m yet to finish re-reading (I’m making decent progress). I have, however, finished Barbara Belford’s splendid biography Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (that ‘Man’ being Henry Irving), which I can uncomplicatedly celebrate. Fine, fine book. In other news, I’m now heading to Edinburgh Festival on the thirteenth and the fourteenth of August! Pip Utton’s one-man productions of Adolf and Churchill are at the tippity-top of my list, as well as a long-stalled trip to The Edinburgh Dungeon. But aside from those golden tickets, my calendar’s very much open. Suggestions for further viewing would be welcome! Or, better yet, a place to stay…

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon

One response to “War of the Dungeon: Part 1

  1. Pingback: War of the Dungeon: Part 2 | Bottled Lightning

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