Sloss Furnaces Immersive Shakespeare Tour

In many ways, this experiment launched my interest in the performative relations that digital culture exposes and remediates.

In 2006, I started the first-ever theatre company at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, a 20-acre campus of restored blast furnaces, smokestacks, and other twisted, multi-story machinery. On the opening day of our first season’s first production-a guided walking tour showcase, with short Shakespearean scenes tucked under train bridges and in Sloss’ underground tunnel-something unexpected happened.

I had set Henry V’s Act 3, Scene 1, the “Once more into the breach” monologue, in one of Sloss’ more arresting vistas-a long straightaway. The actor playing Henry, naked to the waist in a green 1950s flight suit and carrying a forged iron staff from Sloss’ metal artists, performed the monologue as direct address. With freight trains blasting past fifteen feet away, he wove through the small audience as if they were his bedraggled English army, shaking the staff, clapping people on the back, and paying extra attention to the children in attendance. Upon his closing “Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” he sprinted down the straightaway, howling a war cry. In the first show, a young boy in the audience took off running after him, shrieking “SAINT GEORGE!” This impromptu participation delighted my tour guide ushers so much they did it themselves for the rest of the run, with audiences following suit, all shouting and cheering as they dashed to their next location.

As my dissertation discusses, theories of audience participation have thus far measured meaning by the audience’s ability to affect a given story’s outcome. But on this day and across our productions, audience feedback suggested folks felt themselves meaningful participants in a Shakespearean play. And not once did anyone at Sloss note an expectation of or behave mid-show as if they could impact the outcome. In fact, as I found while researching the dissertation, many productions rely on the relationship between audience interactivity and an authentic staging of a well-known work.

When considered according to conventional critical perspectives, such productions create a paradox: a production’s claim to authenticity should be in conflict with meaningful audience participation. Received theory connects this meaningfulness with impact on the narrative outcome-and an audience who could change the narrative outcome of a production of canonical text would disrupt its authenticity. Macbeth is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth if the audience can intervene and save Banquo. So how can there be interactivity that is both meaningful and authentic to the canonical work a production purports to stage? What constitutes a sense of “meaningfulness” for participatory audiences who cannot change the story? What production choices encourage, and even demand, that audiences respond like the young boy at Sloss who ran after King Henry, shrieking?

 

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