In Frank the audience travelled, one at a time, every 5 minutes, through a large-scale installation made up of 10 rooms. They encountered performers and other audience members on the way. Nowadays it might be called “immersive theatre” – but we’re not sure that the term was coined back then…
Why we made Frank
We’ve always been interested in handing over power to the audience to be responsible for their experience of the event – physically, emotionally, intellectually. Frank is probably our most complete experiment in this territory. We saw it as an invitation to the audience to act and a chance to challenge themselves to engage, to question, to experience, to be. Somehow, the more open you are to your experience of Frank, the more doors unlock for you. This is both a personal journey of truth and self-discovery, and an examination of our social world. We wanted to explore shaping performance where narratives were shaped, contained or influenced by space and journey as much as or perhaps instead of time.
Frank helped us explore relational performance and also to see if we could make theatre that had no performers. We’ve worked with the idea of ‘invisible’ performers (ie where you don’t know who the performers are until they do or say something) in See-Saw, EatEat, White Trash and Rantsoen. In Frank we tried to go beyond invisibility to absence.
How we made Frank
“We worked with 10 performers from the Northern Stage ensemble and brought in 2 of our own. We built a large structure of 10 interconnecting rooms on the main stage at Newcastle Playhouse, plus a final turfed corridor, around a shallow pool of water, which led the audience back into the outside world, to collect their coats from an old wardrobe sited in the theatre car park.
The audience waited in a line of chairs in the wings of the stage, watching for a light on the side of the structure to turn green and signal their entry. They’d chat to a young woman with a baby, also waiting – and, unknown to them, a performer in Frank. Music was playing inside the installation – always Frank Sinatra, sometimes the same song. Once inside the structure, they’d find themselves on a dingy, ill-lit corridor – a sticky carpet reeking of its history. Renny made a smell design which included cigarette ash, beer and body fluids.
Each audience member was confronted by rows of locked doors, each with a peephole allowing you to glimpse or linger over what was inside. Eventually a door opens, and you find yourself inthe washroom. You can smell food, somewhere. You spend as long as you want in each room in Frank. Some people passed through the whole installation in 15 minutes. Some people stayed for two-and-a-half hours.
The rooms included the washroom with working sink, mirror and tiled floor – with a crack through which, if you noticed, you might watch a group of people sat around a circular table, eating soup; a room full of lavender bushes, their silhouettes traced on the wall; a party room, laid out with leaking balloons and folding chairs for a forlorn game of musical chairs; another with an unmade bed and a red telephone – if you pick it up you can hear a real live conversation (coming from the soup room); a room for dancing – a record player and a big pile of Frank Sinatra records – you can play whichever you choose and dance with whoever is there; a burned room – charred furniture and walls, a tv showing highlights from the 1970 World Cup Final and a crate with as much beer as you want to drink; finally, a room with a circular formica table and 6 chairs, a huge pan of soup in the centre, food and conversation to be had, if that’s what you fancy…
Frank was hugely flawed and very important and exciting for Quarantine. We explored ideas here that have filtered somehow into every subsequent project – the importance of intimate encounters, the actual acknowledgement of the agency of the audience, the use of food as a site for social encounter. Our performers struggled with what we were asking them to do – the basic task for them was to make sure that the installation could function without them, and then absent themselves from it: a big challenge for actors more used to inhabiting characters and telling stories.
We wanted the audience to have as much freedom of choice on their journey as possible. On the first two days of performance, the audience could choose to go in whatever direction they wanted in the installation and circulate back and forth from room to room as much as they wanted.
Fuelled by beer from the burned out room, Frank turned into a raucous party – we had to kick people out at midnight so that we could close the theatre and go home. It was a good party, but that was probably all it was. So we found that by literally blocking off a door and dictating the direction the audience moved around the space, we could affect both mood and, perhaps, the potential for meaning. We made a dramaturgical decision by changing the physical environment.
Some of the rooms worked well – familiar, practical, functioning environments. Others – the lavender room perhaps, or a room with a single chair and violin – just too considered, too abstract, too wrapped up in what they ‘meant’. The rooms that provoked a familiar response – a room with tv and beer (albeit burned) or the dancing room, were far more successful.
The soup room was wonderful – and what we learned there influenced the creation of EatEat, Rantsoen, Butterfly and Susan & Darren. A random collection of strangers would gather together having just made a journey with a common set of stimuli, sit and share food and talk.
We’d love to make a new version of Frank. And perhaps this time find a way and have the confidence to let the audience run riot.”
Richard Gregory, Director
This work will challenge your perceptions about where life ends and art begins… The lines between artist and art, between art and audience are blurred…The strange and compelling experience of Frank resonates as a metaphor for life itself. All the choices are your own, as are the consequences of those choices…. Not to be missed. Angela Dodson, Shields Gazette
Credits and performance details
Directed by Richard Gregory; design Simon Banham; journey dramaturgy & smell design Renny O’Shea; soundscape John Alder; video Alex Elliott. Performers: Francisco Alfonsin; Jane Arnfield; Mark Calvert; Alex Elliott; Rebecca Hollingsworth; Jim Kitson; Mark Lloyd; Tony Neilson; RennyO’Shea; Peter Peverley.
Commissioned by and co-produced with Northern Stage at Newcastle Playhouse in June 2002.