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Artistic director shares story of new show where you decide what happens

The cost of living is dominating the news and our lives and there is this sense of frustration because it is out of our control.

So what if you could steer the ship and have a say yourself and guarantee that your voice was heard?

This is the intriguing premise for a new game with a difference that you can watch at the Lowry or take part in the comfort of your own home.

The show’s writer and Artistic Director for Hidden Track Theatre – Elliot Hughes tells us more The Cost of Everything which arrives at the Lowry or your home towards the end of this month.

The Cost of Everything has an intriguing premise. How did you come up with the idea for this new production?

We started developing this show during lockdown when more live events were experimenting with live streaming while audiences couldn’t attend in person.

We’d started doing our own remote engagement work with projects like our online game How to Win, and we enjoyed being able to reach new audiences and create a unique kind of online community that was able to reach past a lot of the barriers that stop people from attending a traditional theatre show.

Live interaction has always been at the core of the work we make, and we missed that immediate connection with an in-person audience, but it was great being able to take online contributions from people who lived further afield, or who couldn’t previously attend live theatre for practical access reasons.

However, when all the theatres opened again, it felt like things swung firmly back in the other direction, and a lot of the very interesting and accessible online work being played with by theatre makers and venues started to disappear in favour of returning to traditional live work.

We wanted to make a show that could bridge that gap.

A show that embraces the unpredictability of a live audience, while still remaining open and accessible to people who can’t join us in person.

We want to get live and online audiences playing together and make one shared community for all of our audiences whether with us at The Lowry or playing from home.

What do you want audiences to get from this experience?

First and foremost – a really good laugh. This is a show about the Cost of Living crisis, which is depressing, using a huge amount of audience participation, which can be absolutely terrifying.

These are the two feelings we will actively fight against.

This show makes you leave feeling joyous, cared for and celebrated.

What about the tone of the show?

We will be taking a proper good look at the crisis, its causes, and some of the potential ways out of it.

But we’ll be doing that by building things on stage, shouting out, throwing things at each other, and generally causing a bit of theatrical chaos. Sometimes it gets a bit heavy, but mostly it is very, very silly.

Also, crucially, all audience interaction is voluntary.

You will never be asked to do anything you don’t want to do, and anything you choose to do will be celebrated – whether that’s playing games on stage, voting on what we should do from home, or just sitting quietly and watching it all unfold around you.

When you join us for a show, we want you to feel like you’re part of the gang, all working together to make something new, and never taking any of it too seriously.

Working with Tech Live is great when it works well. If audience members at home ‘drop out’ – can they get back in the game?

Everyone loves live tech!! It never goes wrong at all!!!!!!!

Haha, no but seriously.

We’ve got a great team who are working as hard as we can to try and make the tech side of things as smooth and approachable as possible – but in the event, you have problems with the internet or getting things to work, you can always jump back into the game.

We’ll have someone on hand in the online Zoom to help out with technical questions, and if worse comes to worst, the full recording of the show will be available to all participants shortly after the show has finished, so you can catch up on any bits that you missed.

As we watch the cost of living crisis unfold, we seem to have very little control. Here, the participants do have the power, how does that work?

 The cost of living crisis has continued to unfold even as we develop this show.

Fun fact, we actually started development of this show more than two years ago.

At that point, it was a show about ‘The Cost of Living’, a slightly vague concept that not many people were talking about.

Imagine our surprise when this turned into a full-blown crisis and we got more and more relevant by the day!

(Feels like a bit of a monkey’s paw wishes gone wrong that one…)

As you say, it does feel like something monstrous that we have no control over, and with this show giving our participants back a bit of power really is our core objective as we ask our audience to help us build a brand new city live on stage.

So online, the audience has a role to play?

In the most direct way, our audience really do have the power to shape which direction the show takes, what we build on stage, and how we try to tackle the cost of living crisis.

Our online audience are our remote workers, and through online polls and chat they will be able to make a huge amount of decisions which immediately and directly affect the action on stage.

From big decisions such as where we invest money (Should we build more houses? Provide cheaper food? Invest in renewable or nuclear energy?) to smaller decisions such as deciding what background music is played or messing around with the theatre lights.

And what about those in the theatre?

Our live audience are our key workers, who will be putting in the manual labour required by playing games with us on stage, physically building new structures, and deciding exactly where their household is going to live in our new model city.

Every city we make with each performance will be totally unique, and will absolutely be created by our audience.

But we also want to empower our audience in a wider way.

We’ve been speaking to a lot of economists, city planners and activists about the core causes behind the cost of living crisis, and what the actual practical solutions are that we can take to make things better.

We want to really lay the crisis bare, warts and all, but ultimately we want to give a message of hope. There are things we can do.

Also, no spoilers, but there’s a bit where the audience can make all the actors do a funny dance and none of us can dance so please don’t abuse your power. Please????

This is brave and innovative theatre. Most productions are rehearsed, how do you rehearse something like this? 

Brave is one word for it! So we do have a core script and an overall structure.

But that script has a lot of branching paths, caveats, and bits that go [then react to what the audience do].

(It reads a bit like one of those old choose-your-own-adventure books, but where sometimes it says ‘If the audience do x go to page 34, if they do y go to page 51, if they don’t do x or y… make something up.)

There are some parts of the show that will always happen, some entire scenes that may happen or not depending on audience choices, and some sections that are largely improvised with our audience and we will have no idea what’s going to happen until it happens.

There will always be a beginning, a middle and an end. But there are lots of different paths we can take on that journey, and lots of opportunities for temporary derailment.

In rehearsal, we basically try and imagine as many different scenarios as we can for what an audience might do to get us roughly prepared for how we might react.

Inevitably our audiences will then do something none of us would have thought of in a million years, but as long as all of our actors have each other’s back, know the sort of things to watch for, and we’ve got that core show structure to fall back on, we always manage to get through (so far!).

We never let the audience take 100% control, as ultimately it’s still our job to deliver a complete experience for everyone who’s watching – not just the ones who are most vocal and active in the games.

It’s finding that balance of taking what the audience offers, celebrating it, but also allowing that to push us through the overall message and story we’re telling.

If someone is keen to ‘attend’ but fears audience participation, how would you sell this to them because it is not quite what they are used to?

If you fear audience participation, don’t worry, I am right there with you. There is nothing more heart-wrenching than the moment someone says ‘I am going to pick a volunteer from the audience!’, I immediately shrink into my seat.

Our responsibility as interactive theatre makers is to make every member of our audience feel comfortable and cared for. We want you to join in of your own volition because you think it looks fun, and you know there’s no way you can get it wrong or be made to look stupid.

Can they opt out of the participation stuff if they wish to or dip in and out?

Every member of our live audience is given their own little personal ‘No, thank you’ card. A card that you can show to us at any time, and our actors will look to someone else, no questions asked. You can play as much or as little as you want, and you can always change your mind about how much you want to get involved.

You can go hell for leather in the first game and then decide that actually you’re knackered now and bow out for the rest.

You can sit in total silence and just watch in unharassed like you’re watching proper theatre.

There’s nothing we love more than an audience member who comes in thinking they hate audience interaction but then decides to do one little tiny thing right at the end.

For our online audience, you’re not required to turn on your video or microphone at any point.

You can stay completely anonymous if you want to, with absolutely zero pressure.

One thing that really excites us about offering the livestream is we hope that people who do fear audience participation can see this as an incredibly safe way to engage with our work, and hopefully see that our approach to it isn’t too scary.

The Cost of Everything is at the Lowry or your own home from 21st – 22nd September and you can find out more about the show here and you can book your tickets here.

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