Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


“This may be the first show of its kind”

Theatre-makers Dean Rodgers and Neil Connolly are pushing the immersive medium to the next level – back into a traditional theatre!

Dean Rodgers, founder of Rogue productions, and actor Neil Connolly have been pioneers of the immersive movement in London since its inception. They’ve had their fingers in some of the greatest hits of the genre, such as the award winning interactive robbery game HEIST and the Crystal Maze Live Experinece. After huge and ambitious, logistically challenging shows, they are now bringing the genre back to basics – and back into the setting of a traditional theatre. ‘Lamplighters’ is a loving spoof of the John le Carré spy novels, part game, part interactive theatre, part improv spymaster comedy. After winning the audience choice award at this year’s Vault festival ‘Lamplighters’ is now playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

London Calling: What is a lamplighter? It’s proper spy jargon!
Neil Connolly: A lamplighter is a spy who goes to a location ahead of an operation to ensure that location is safe and secure for a meeting, and if it is, they leave a mark in some kind of way, such as drawing a chalk X on the wall or leaving a particular window open or closed or leaving a light on or off.
Dean Rodgers: As spy words go, we thought it’s just really cool and unusual and that’s genuinely the reason it’s the name of the show!
LC: Lamplighters is a one-man-show in a traditional theatre, a very tiny one as well, the Old Red Lion is a real matchbox theatre. That’s technically everything immersive theatre shouldn’t be …
DR: We have made a lot of strange immersive shows over the years, taken over some massive buildings. The amount of shows we’ve aborted because we couldn’t find the right building for them is genuinely huge, and we just got sick of that. We wanted to develop a show that could be done with the bare minimum and would fit in a black-box, theatre. What we ended up with is a fun show that we really love.
NC: The Old Red Lion has a seat capacity of 60.  We are invited to a couple of festivals over this summer and as a festival show it will be really rocking.

LC: Is this a response to immersive theatre being so expensive and so risky, to just strip it down to the basics?
DR: A lot of the shows we made were so massive, they can’t be moved. We really wanted a show we could put in the back of a van and take anywhere.
NC: It’s a personal reaction from seeing so much work over the last few years. It’s mostly immersing people in a room that is visually and aesthetically arresting or appealing or unusual, with people just being in a different space. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see and experience those things, but quite often they are afraid to get into an audience’s head. Not me. It’s more of an experience when you have some kind of human connection rather than just being in an unusual space.
DR: The big sets are not what excites us about the medium. Don’t get me wrong, an X-man flying over your head is amazing, but the big set pieces and getting into costumes that seem to excite a lot of people about immersive theatre, it’s not really what we find interesting about it. What we find interesting is power and giving power to an audience, inviting them into this world that we built to mess with it and do whatever they want.  There’s also a lot of potential for comedy in that, and that’s what this show really embraces. A lot of immersive theatre isn’t comedic. In fact, I am really struggling to remember a single immersive comedic show. So this may be the first show of its kind.

LC: The word immersive is a very fashionable term right now that gets attached to anything these days, from exhibitions to bars to shops. Do you think it’s getting a bit misused?
NC: I’ve always had a bit of a kneejerk reaction with regards to the word. I personally have never described any show I’ve made or been a part of as an immersive piece of theatre. I have always said it’s an interactive show. Everybody wants to do it but nobody can really pinpoint what ‘immersive’ is. But if you say ‘interactive’ that’s specific and clear and people know what they are turning up to.
DR: As a word, it certainly has lost a lot of its meaning lately. Nowadays, a lot of immersive works don’t even have an active audience, they are spectators, it’s site-specific or promenade theatre and just got a better word for it. And that’s not fair, it’s our word, we’ve been doing this for years. To a certain extent, I wish we had a new word now.
NC: Interactive! It’s clear, it’s specific! Lamplighters is a one-man show, but I am the least important part of the show. I can’t do it unless I have an audience and it’s my job to make them incredible and do incredible things and go to incredible places in their minds and on stage. They’re the real stars of the show. 
DR: There are 35 parts in the show, Neil only plays one of them. We need the audience to play the other 34.

LC: What is the basic storyline?
NC: The audience are my network of spies and I am the spymaster, a Whitehall bureaucrat named George Sneezy. I essentially run this entire operation. But now there’s been a problem within the network, somebody in the audience is a mole and has betrayed everybody else, so I’ve brought them all in, in very heightened and unusual circumstances, in order to solve the problem.  We then go off on many different missions and operations and the story begins to unravel and become more clear  - or less clear, depending on the audience.
Through the entire evening I am asking for suggestions from the audience about different operations or where we are going to go next in the story and it’s my job to then facilitate that and tease out a bit more of the narrative from the audience. The audience has control over where the story will go, it’s my job to make sure that we are all on top of the narrative and keep moving it forward so they don’t descend down too many rabbit holes.
LC: That’s a lot to ask of one guy, no?
DR: This show is a product of Neil’s very unique talents. This is Neil’s first big solo show and we wanted to show off what he can do as an actor. Neil’s great talent is to navigate through the chaos. He is most happy when anyone else would panic. You can put Neil in a room with 20 people for half an hour with no concept, no script, nothing, and those people will come out with a standing ovation, because he is a master of audience interaction and a master of making people have fun.
LC: Are people quite eager to participate?
DR: There is a technique to make people want to take part and we do build that through the show. The interactions we ask of people get progressively bigger over the show. The first question is really simple and everyone will answer happily. That’s a lesson we learned from previous shows, you initially make people comfortable, and gradually hold their hand until they are able to fly by themselves. Something else that I think is quite important is we work very hard to create a safe space for the audience in our performances. Sometimes comedians are sort of belittling the audience and make fun of them, and that’s not what this is about at all.  We want to make the audience feel powerful within the context of the show. If they do something funny, it’s them choosing to be funny, which people are always innately capable of.
Lamplighters is at The Old Red Lion 24 July – 18 August.