After their initial sold-out season at Vivid Sydney in 2016, bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company will re-present a newer version of their immersive theatre production, Visiting Hours.
From Feb 7th – 17th 2018, the Kings Cross Hotel will stand looming as an unsanctioned medical facility – under the radar, and under the ever-watchful experimental eye of The Doctor. Audiences are invited to attend an appointment – to sit, wait, watch, inhabit – to experience and participate.
Enveloped in a myriad of actors and singers and musicians – and exposed to a theatrical spewing of music, performance, lighting, and sound… Calling all patients!
Today, we chat with John Harrison of bAKEHOUSE Theatre – one of two-heads-combined, along with Michael Dean, that are the mad conjoined mastermind directors behind this wild undertaking:
Revisiting past successes – excitement? Or trepidation?
A bit of both to be honest! It was such a brilliant season the first-time round (Vivid 2016) and sold out within 24 hours of the first performance: we know there were a lot of people that missed seeing the show, so we’re excited to bring it to a new audience. And we’re excited for them to see this incredible ensemble – of 29 performers – doing something entirely surprising and unexpected. But we didn’t want to just restage the show, so set about extending and upgrading: we’ve added in 2 levels, a bunch more actors, and designers, musicians… that’s where the trepidation sets in! Its more than a restaging, it’s a re-imagining.
Can you talk us through what was the initial impetus, the original inspiration, for the 2016 production?
Vivid approached us to stage something that spoke of the Cross and its history. We had done a fair bit of research when we first moved into the neighbourhood back in 2015 and were blown away by the wonderfully diverse and interesting history of the area – so much more than the newspaper stories and tv shows – and we decided we wanted to show that unexpected part of the area. Co-creator Suzanne Millar discovered a brass plaque with the story of the Gun Doctor, a fearless and compassionate man who would go anywhere at any time to treat and care for anyone. This seemed to us to speak of the area and of it’s big heart and the larger than life characters that have lived here. Our doctor is not this man. And Visiting Hours is certainly not his story. But he was the stepping off point: someone with a passion and heart for people, fearless and brave, perhaps foolishly so.
And what has driven this 2018 re-vision?
bAKEHOUSE and KXT have been here in the Cross for a couple of years now. As things change in the area, we hope that the theatre can find a place in the local community. Visiting Hours is a lot of things: an exploration of a sort of immersive theatre that is not really a play or a performance, but an experience; a revelation of the hotel with rarely used floors and rooms opened to audience; a great night out. But it’s also a nod to the history of the area, and the show has grown out of this iconic building and its own history and we hope that the local community see it as a sort of tribute. Admittedly a peculiar and unexpected one! But Visiting Hours is like the Cross: its full of characters and culture and surprises, and there’s the old smashed up against the new, all with an air of mystery. Visiting Hours gives the audience a chance to play. To enter new worlds created from old, and to have fun in them.
2016 to 2018 – what has the transition and adaptation process been like?
(Hard, different, easy, fulfilling?)
Busy. So busy. There are 29 performers in rehearsals, 6 scripts, 3 writers, 2 directors, musicians and singers and operators, an incredible design team led by Ben Brockman (lighting), Anna Gardiner (set and costume), and Tegan Nicholls (sound). It’s been a very big bump in. But it’s also incredibly satisfying. When it all starts to come together, and the images in my head appear inside the hotel – well there’s really nothing quite like it.
“Updated and Extended” – part of your show promo – how so exactly? Better, Worse, Different?
We certainly hope it’s better! If you saw it the first time then expect there to be some extra surprises, some changes, a little bit more of everything. For a start there are 2 more rooms in the experience. We’ve had a few cast changes – our actors are in high demand and not all the original cast was available. We’ve also worked on the script some more to make sure the grand ideas at the heart of the show are clearer.
‘The Doctor’ – what is his objective – his motivation? – why does he exist?
His is a life in service of humanity. He wants to help, to heal and to offer hope. His quest to improve the lives of others has led him down some pretty strange and dark paths and he’s often misunderstood, but he’s unquestionably a titan of medicine and science … and he can help you.
Real Life counterparts?
I think that a lot of us are The Doctor. We’re searching for something wonderful in our lives, driven perhaps by a great love or passion, pursuing happiness. For meaning and sense in a chaotic world.
The patients – who are they, and what are their desires?
In Visiting Hours, the audience take the role of the patient: they’re invited to join in the Doctors testing to see if they are eligible for his exciting and new methods. And if they really want to commit to those methods, they may find themselves at the gateway to eternity. I think that’s hidden in all of us really isn’t it? We’re trying to find the key to something bigger in our lives, wanting to understand the world we find ourselves in, to make sense of seemingly senseless things.
‘Immersive Theatre’ – this term gets thrown around a lot these days.
What does it mean to you? What does it encapsulate?
Immersive theatre covers a multiple of performance styles: there’s the work of Punchdrunk (Sleep No More) and those like it, where a lot of money and time is used to build an entirely new and self-contained world, where the audience enters and moves through, with freedom to explore and experience as they choose, but where their interaction is with the space and not the performers. Then there’s movement or dance styles of immersive theatre, that may be more esoteric and open to interpretation, more like an art installation. Performances that are a little like escape room experiences. We wanted to develop an experience where the audience could be guided through, at times interacting with performers, at other times just being in the space, following a story, all the while looking for meaning. And the challenge was how do you do that and control the focus and atmosphere in the room? What can we do to leave clues for the audience, yet still give them room to arrive at their own understanding of the experience. And we wanted it all to be underpinned with a sense of playfulness.
What benefits do you see immersive theatre may have over ‘traditional theatre’ forms?
There is so much to distract us in our lives! So much stimulus and entertainment. Virtual Reality games and CGI movies and even our phones keep us entertained. Audience needs a reason to come the theatre, and something like the adventure of Visiting Hours makes it easier to leave the house. And when you’re there, you’re inside the world. The world of the play surrounds you and you become a part of it, so the messages at the heart of the show sit closer.
But don’t worry – audience are not being asked to perform. We’re not putting you in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation. Everyone is in it together, and mostly we just want you to enjoy yourself!
What makes good immersive theatre, to you?
The story. All good theatre starts with story. Then the performance becomes how that story is delivered. So, the hope is that the audience are swept up into the world of that story and get excited about the magical way its told. While it may not be a linear retelling, the intention is to engage with the audience in a way that allows them to find their own version of the story.
Also, the people. You need to work with a great team of designers and actors who are flexible enough to adapt the script or character or scene work: in development and rehearsal, but then in performance also, when the audience can ever so slightly impact on their delivery.
Visiting Hours comprises of a large cast – a LARGE cast – especially within the realms of Sydney indie theatre. How do you find working with such a scale of ensemble?
We love it! bAKEHOUSE often works with large ensembles: in 2017 we staged 2 shows, one with 12 in the cast and the other with 11. This is next level, but if you put that many creative people in a room you’re increasing your creative output. Admittedly there are all the usual challenges of indie theatre: getting a rehearsal schedule that works for everyone, shoestring budgets, finding rehearsal space, finding your audience, and in this show, that’s all steroids! But likewise, there are the unique rewards of indie theatre: the camaraderie of making art against the odds, the bond that comes from the shared commitment and inconvenience of an indie show, the thrill at making something wonderful out of almost nothing. That’s multiplied too.
Do you wish we could more often encounter such numbers of bodies in live performance spaces?
Yes. I completely understand the impracticalities of budgets that this presents. But we should make room for the big risky ideas – the thing that might fail. If we’re not taking risks like that then our art becomes safe and predictable, and people stay at home watching Netflix.
Adding to the numbers, you’ve also applied dual directing duties on this project – yourself and Michael Dean. What was the thinking behind this?
The job’s just too big for one person. There are 5 casts on this show, all working on 5 separate performances, and working around the actors’ availability meant that there were numerous rehearsals throughout the week. Its just not humanly possible for one person to get it done.
Could you describe what the dual directing experience has been like?
For you as directors? And for the cast?
I’m sure there were moments of mixed messages! When the cast were told entirely different things by each of us! But Michael and I have worked closely together on many projects since 2012, and we each of us have strengths that balance out our weaknesses. There’s a lot of planning and discussion on a project like this, and we spent many hours in coffee shops putting it all together – that can be lonely work if you’re doing it on your own. And mostly, with two artistic minds on the job, you’re increasing the likelihood of maximum creative output.
The audience – your patients – leave. In one word – what diagnosis do you hope to have identified for them?
Make your appointment. Come get you medicine, people.
7th – 17th Feb
Thur – Sat (Wed 7th Preview)
7pm, 7,30pm, 8pm, 8.30pm & 9pm
Theatre Company: 75 mins
The Doctor will see you now.
An old-school Sanitorium. A revolutionary new pharmaceutical. And a quest for eternal life.
A doctor’s work is never done.
The surprise sold-out hit of Vivid 2016 returns, updated and extended in a New and Improved Formula! Visiting Hours is a mind-bending immersive experience that sees the Kings Cross Hotel re-imagined as an off the grid medical facility run by an enigmatic and dangerously obsessed doctor. The Doctor is back, and he has the cure for all ills.
It’s time to book in for your appointment. ENTRY through the back door, after dark …
guests enter the experience in groups of not more than 20, at 30 minute intervals.
To book your tickets, select the date you wish to attend and choose your preferred entry time.
Bring proof of concession status.