Edinburgh Fringe People

The Site-Specific Show: Alison Pollard-Mansergh from Interactive Theatre International

Published on Monday 13 August 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time Alison Pollard-Mansergh, founder and Artist Director of Interactive Theatre International.

All of Edinburgh becomes a stage during the Festival, and that is particularly true with the site-specific shows that are staged each August, where performances take place outside of traditional theatre spaces. ITI have been bringing their ‘Faulty Towers The Dining Experience’ show to the Fringe for over a decade, staging that experience – based around characters from the BBC TV show – in different restaurants and hotels.

The company has also developed a number of other similarly site-specific and interactive works which they stage at the Fringe and all over the world. This year they have four shows at the Festival and have set up base in one of the city’s hotels to make it all happen. We spoke to Alison about the excitement and challenges of staging this kind of theatre.

TW: When and why did you first start creating site-specific shows?
APM: I have always liked doing theatre that is not the norm. And I really enjoy creating theatre that makes people feel like they aren’t actually at the theatre. During my university years I played a lot with these ideas, though I never thought this would be what I ended up doing for the majority of my career!

TW: Talk us through the shows you have at this year’s Fringe and what they involve.
APM: ‘Faulty Towers The Dining Experience’ is our very popular two hour show where Basil, Sybil and Manuel meet, greet, seat and serve the audience as though they were at the hotel from the famous TV series. The aim is to have people feel, by the end of the show, that they have been on the set of that television programme. It’s mayhem, and very very funny, and you do actually get to eat a three-course meal during the show.

‘The Wedding Reception’ centres on a surprise wedding reception for bride and groom Stacey and Will, as organised by the bride’s mother Lynn. The audience are the guests at that reception and some are appointed as members of the family or bridal party. During the two-and-half hour show there are surprise guests, chaos involving some narcotics, and a whole lot of revelations that just about cause the couple to break up. The audience become very invested in the proceedings and there is plenty of laughter, and some tears too.

‘Signor Baffo’s Restaurant’ – specifically for children but very suitable for adults as well – is a fabulous interactive clowning show where the dishwasher ends up trying to cook pancakes! With a shorter run time of 45 minutes, there is chaos, laughter, pancakes for the children, and tea and coffee for the adults.

And finally, ‘Pamela’s Palace’ is the newest addition to our roster of shows and is set in a hairdressing salon. The audience are the models for the ‘Salon Of The Year’ competition. Pamela has created a perfect world which gradually falls apart. It is hilarious and features three very talented and very funny women. It’s an hour long and includes a glass of prosecco and some nibbles in the ticket price.

TW: Most of these shows couldn’t be performed in traditional theatre spaces. How do you go about selecting venues, in Edinburgh and beyond?
APM: The reason we have ended up creating our own venue at Edinburgh is for that very reason. We need specific types of spaces, mainly restaurants and hotels. When touring the world we have a variety of venues we work with. That includes hotel restaurants and function rooms, though we have also created a restaurant on the main stage of big theatres.

With ‘Pamela’, we’d love to find a hairdressing salon big enough to run the show, but this year we have created a salon in a hotel function room and hope to start touring theatres with movable seating so that we can play the show in traverse. There are a lot of black box spaces that will fit the bill for this I think, but we have to do our research!

TW: With the shows where dinner is served, how important is the quality of the food when picking venue partners?
APM: Great question! The food is really only a prop, but of course it is included in the ticket price so people are expecting it to be edible. The venues also have a reputation to uphold, so with those two key considerations, it is important that the food is good.

We provide a fairly strict set of guidelines to the host venue as to what we want served and how it is to be served, and within those guidelines most of our venues do a really good job.

We only allow 20 minutes for all the main courses to be served and cleared, and when an audience is at capacity – so 120 people – that is really asking something! It can be done, however, and the world record stands at four mins seventeen seconds to serve 120 guests. That was in the Netherlands in 2013!

TW: Are hotels and restaurants often interested in these kinds of projects or does finding willing hosts involve quite a lot of research?
APM: There is definitely interest out there. In fact, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants who approach us, particularly for ‘Faulty Towers’ and ‘The Wedding Reception’.

TW: This approach means that you are often both venue manager and show producer, especially her in Edinburgh. What challenges does that create? Are there benefits?
APM: When it comes to challenges – there is the task of teaching hotels and restaurants that they can only do certain things in a certain way. That can be a challenge! For example, event managers at hotels find it particularly difficult when we mess with the cutlery or remove a chair from a table of ten and so on.

As for the benefits, we have much more flexibility, especially regarding timings. Most of our shows do not have the standard run time of, say, the Edinburgh Fringe, and we can’t get in and get out in fifteen minutes. By having our own spaces, that problem is solved.

TW: This Fringe you are presenting a number of shows all in the same hotel. Does this simplify things?
APM: This is our first year with four shows and so running them all at the same venue has really helped. It may not be what we do in the future, as new shows may require a different sort of space. But it has meant that we are all together this year, all the staff and all the actors, and we have really developed some great procedures. Next year we will be adding a second hotel into the mix, so we will be spread between two venues and possibly have some shows in other areas of the Festival as well.

TW: You have been producing ‘Faulty Towers The Dining Experience’ at the Edinburgh Fringe for over a decade. How has the show and the company evolved in that time?
APM: Our ‘Faulty Towers’ script is incredibly strong and so that part of it has only been tweaked slightly over time. We had been performing the show for ten years before we even brought it to Edinburgh in 2008, so we had something very slick and well-rehearsed from the off.

Since that first year, we have grown as a company and the show that everyone in the company has in common is ‘Faulty’. I am really lucky to have so many incredibly talented actors in the company and they all bring their own skills to the show. ‘Faulty’ is really the show that allows us as a company to develop our other pieces – ‘The Wedding Reception’, ‘Pamela’s Palace’ and so on.

TW: What have your learned along the way?
APM: Identify the skills of each individual and give them roles in the company that suit those skills. Don’t try and fit a square peg into a round hole! In this way, we have a number of the performers in the company who also work on the admin side doing marketing, show booking, training other actors and so on. That approach keeps everyone invested in the longevity of the company.

TW: What tips would you have for anyone considering staging site-specific shows, especially those involving a food element?
APM: I would say only include food if it has a natural reason to be there. If you want to create a restaurant piece based around being in the trenches of World War One, for example, it’s not going to really work. But if you have a great reason for having a show that includes food, make sure you have someone with hospitality experience working with you on timelines, menus and so on, so that the meal is an element of the show, not the other way around.

TW: What questions should producers of shows like yours be asking possible host venues?
APM: Key things here are sight-lines and sound bleeding from other parts of the venue. Working a theatre piece in a building that is not designed for theatre can be challenging if you have a rock-band in the room next door and all your guests are straining to hear what is happening. Also, hotels and restaurants are great at marketing hotels and restaurants, but not necessarily theatre shows. So that is a massive conversation you need to have early on.

TW: And on a more general level – what tips have you got for people producing at the Fringe for the first time?
APM: Prepare as much as you can before you get here, because when you arrive, there’s always loads more to do. Ask for help. There are many many people here who are more than willing to give advice. And remember to eat, drink and sleep! But most of all, enjoy it!

LINKS: interactivetheatre.com.au