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30 June 2015

Up Close and Personal - You Are Here Immersive Theatre in Leeds

I’m on the bed in a Leeds city centre hotel room with a half-dressed girl I’ve just met.

We’re alone, surrounded by her intimate possessions – clothes, dressing gown, make up – and we’re talking about love, and life. She gently raises my fingers to her throat to feel the pulse in her neck.

A nymph, not unlike her bronze sisters I’ve just left behind in City Square, this girl is easily young enough to be my daughter. She strokes my arm as she talks and cajoles, and then plants a bright red lipstick kiss on the back of my hand.

It’s theatre. But Toto, in this piece I originally wrote for the Leeds Culture Vulture website, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the plush velvet stalls at The Grand anymore.

It's immersive theatre from the dynamic Leeds-based company Riptide.

Director Alexander Palmer was behind the dramatic elements of The Wood Beneath The World, a performance last Christmas where small groups ventured from the cells under Leeds Town Hall into a forest of dreams and nightmares in the cellars beyond. Now he’s taken the concept a stage further, using the entire city centre as his performance space which each audience member explores, one at a time.

What I’ve described is just one of the encounters in You Are Here. The fourth encounter, in fact. On the fourth floor of the Metropole Hotel, in room 404 which may or may not be an allusion to the web code for “Not Found”. I’m not going to give away any more, because even though this show has finished Riptide may be doing something similar in future and the essence of an experiential show is that you have to, well, experience it – ideally without preconceptions. So no more spoilers.

The concept is deceptively simple. After booking online and giving an email address someone from the company sends a message telling you where to meet at the time you booked for. The only other stipulations are that you must have a charged smartphone, and wear sensible shoes.

A big, red “You Are Here” pointer like you’d find on a tourist streetmap marks the starting point. A company member gives you a badge, you download an app onto your phone and, headphones on, you’re sent off walking in a given direction. Further instructions come from the app when the GPS confirms you’ve reached a particular spot, and all locations are within easy walking distance.

Think about it. The whole city is a stage. The city has a soundtrack. Anyone you meet could be an actor, identifying you from your badge. Everyday random encounters aren’t random any more. Except when they are.

The effect of this is to open an audience member’s eyes to see a familiar city in an unfamiliar way.

That homeless man just has to be out of Central Casting … but no, he’s just an unfortunate I wouldn’t have consciously acknowledged in my privileged world except in this special, theatrical hour.

Neither were the two drunk wedding guests who tried to engage me in banter as I left my hotel tryst part of the company – but they might have been. The random pedestrian who told me I’d dropped something was, however, an actor.  In ways I won’t reveal they gave a vital clue to my next encounter.

All in all the production was fascinating and deeply, deeply personal. For the next adventure (Riptide is  already planning a future Leeds “journey”) I’d like to see some older actors in the cast to increase the real sense of “it could be anyone”; I’ve never been the centre of attention for so many bright young graduates, to whom I'd be socially invisible in real life.

Some audience members found the app less than intuitive, including my companion who was following the show ten minutes behind me. Full disclosure?  As a technophobe I opted for the paper route map alternative, prefering simplicity over the element of adventure in not knowing where I was going next. By doing so I know I missed out on some brilliant atmospheric soundtracks.

I’d also like just a bit more gritty narrative to the linking story which, although always thought provoking, veered at times in the direction of “your hundred best inspirational quotes”.

That said I was moved by the experience, which included the chance to explore hidden corners of the city I’ve never seen before (not just Room 404 – far from it, much better than that) and the chance to experience theatre up close and personal.

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