Operation Black Antler – HOME, Manchester

11 Jun

Operation Black Antler, HOME - Manchester, 7-17 June 2017

Operation Black Antler, HOME – Manchester, 7-17 June 2017

 

Friday night, 9.30pm. I’ve locked myself into a toilet cubicle. I’m sweating (a lot) and trying to swipe my phone unlocked, when the woman in the next cubicle asks if I have any toilet paper. I come out, get a fresh roll I’d noticed and pass it over the top of the toilet door.

Wait a few seconds before sitting back down and… Hang on, who’s that? Is she in on it? Is she testing me? Will she try and talk to me while we’re washing our hands? And – most importantly – will she hear me trying to send an important message to my handler on a phone I’ve just told somebody that I definitely don’t have?

God. It’s so hot in here. Any make-up I might have been wearing when I left the house has definitely slid off by now. My hair is drenched and -shit – I have to go out and start talking to people I don’t know. Not just idle chitchat either – I need specific detail about a person I haven’t even seen yet. I’m shy, very self-conscious, awkward having to approach strangers, and I don’t much like drawing attention to myself. This, for me, is a special kind of hell. But, just to be clear, this is a hell entirely of my own making because I jumped at the chance to be here tonight.

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This is Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s new production for HOME: Operation Black Antler. All I know in advance is that Operation Black Antler is immersive theatre, taking place at secret locations in Manchester city centre and involves the audience taking part in an undercover police surveillance operation. I don’t know what kind of characters we’ll be meeting or what murky worlds they inhabit, but I know that we will have to make important decisions, quickly. I know that every performance has a maximum audience of nine people. My group tonight comprises a group of six friends, and me.

Operation Black Antler, HOME - Manchester, 7-17 June 2017

Operation Black Antler, HOME – Manchester, 7-17 June 2017

 

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Friday night 7.40pm. I’m 20 minutes early to the meeting place and suspicious of every single person, including the multiple Deliveroo and taxi drivers, couples on their way out for Friday night, and a man who paces around one corner for a few minutes.

But, hey, I’ve been to immersive theatre before, and I feel quietly confident – maybe even a bit cocky – that I’ve got this. I’ve got in a stranger’s car on my own (Look Left, Look Right’s You Once Said Yes) and battled baddies for the Doctor (Punchdrunk’s The Crash of the Elysium, for Manchester International Festival 2013). I can go with the flow, offer suggestions, follow directions and pipe up as a volunteer if nobody else does. How hard can this be?

Operation Black Antler is a step – several leaps – beyond anything I’ve experienced before. If you’re going, you need to be prepared to get fully involved. Be proactive. It’s easy to say this, but you really do get out of the experience what you put into it. Sitting back won’t work; the story can’t just unfold around you without any ‘audience’ input. You get swept along with a story, because you are an integral part of it.

It’s the closest I’ve come to a living, breathing version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I loved so much as a child. I have few things on my theatrical bucket list, but feeling fear – real, blood chilling terror – is one of them. While I don’t quite feel fear for my life (as I did in Glen Neath and David Rosenberg’s stunning Séance), I’m still scared. Adrenalin pumps through my body from the second I’m in position, alert, mind racing, at my secret meeting place. I’m afraid of forgetting my cover story, letting my group down, missing an instruction and basically fucking up a theatre company’s entire show. Spoiler alert: I don’t do any of these things.

But the really fascinating, actually shocking, thing about Operation Black Antler is the depth of the immersion, and the things you as an audience participant can find yourself saying in order to get the information you need. And if this is something we are all willing to do, then the stress and strain of being an undercover officer can surely only ever be hinted at. I find myself agreeing with, even offering up, views which are entirely different from my own; views that I hope nobody thinks, “Blimey, it didn’t take her long to get into character!”

What then does Operation Black Antler achieve? While it’s obviously an artificial scenario, I think you do get an idea of how easy it might be to become disenfranchised from parts of society, and how attractive it can be to go with the flow and take part in conversations and events which might have once been out of your comfort zone or experience. The cast are excellent, and just as good are all the members of the community cast – in what must be an exhausting day for all of them, with as many as 10 audience groups joining the secret location over the course of several hours. They maintain a brilliant and believable atmosphere, and the logistics of getting each group through, with a story successfully emerging each time, are pretty staggering.

Don’t turn up expecting an easy ride. Don’t take a back seat, even if you’re tempted. Don’t be scared off. Book a ticket and take a chance on the other people in your audience. Book a group of tickets and get your friends along. Participate. Enjoy being part of a unique performance which nobody else will experience – not even the people you arrive with. And be very, very glad that you get to emerge the other side and go home as yourself.

Operation Black Antler runs from 7 – 17 June, 2017 for HOME, Manchester. Find out more and book tickets.

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