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Interview: Jack Aldisert on The Manikins: a work in progress

Following on from our five-star review of The Manikins: a work in progress, we sat down with writer/director Jack Aldisert to discuss the show’s inspiration, development, and why there will never truly be a final version of the script.

Our interview with Jack Aldisert has been split into two parts. The first half is below, while the second half, which contains spoilers for the show's major plot points, will be released in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on ImmersiveRumours.com for the conclusion of our discussion.


A participant at The Manikins: a work in progress

Photo: Marc Tsang

This interview contains reference to several moments within The Manikins: a work in progress. 

We would recommend those with tickets to attend avoid reading until after their visit.

Immersive Rumours: Hi Jack. Thanks for speaking to us today. We're currently sat in Crypt where The Manikins: a work in progress is being performed, and to be honest with you, it's a disconcerting feeling to be back here after experiencing the show for ourselves. How have the last few weeks of performances been and what has the audience reaction been like?


Jack Aldisert: Everyone's really loved it. It's been really nice, especially because with the way the show works you're immediately talking to them about it at the end. It’s been a relief that everyone has loved it so far, and to not have been in a close quarters situation talking to them afterwards and they're not satisfied. 


In terms of reactions and what people take away from it, the show's so open to interpretation. There have been a few people who have taken away what I feel like I would take away from it, which is a sense of being totally overwhelmed by choice and possibility and having to make a decision amongst chaos. That’s the feeling I wanted to give people - total unreality and chaos and the idea of having to choose the right path forward when there are many paths and no one will tell you which one is right. You have to figure out what to do. 


I think when I feel most satisfied at the end of a show is when the person feels like they don't know what's real anymore and they feel like their own reality has been fully enmeshed with the visions of reality that the show presents.


IR: You've previously cited several writers of weird fiction for the inspiration behind the show. Can you tell us about how you came across this kind of work and the impact it had on the show's creation?


Jack: I was reading a lot of the philosopher theorist Mark Fisher, he has mostly written political and cultural theory, but he has one book called The Weird and the Eerie. In that book, he dives deeply into the genre of weird fiction. He referenced so many different pieces of media in that book, and it was my first time hearing about weird fiction as a genre.


Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have an edited volume called The Weird and in it, he references Thomas Ligotti, who I'd never heard of and calls him something like an ‘undisputed modern master of the weird’.. He's one of the handful of authors who have gotten a Penguin Classics collection of their books while they were still alive - it's a huge deal, but I'd never heard of him, and he's so obscure, no one knows who he is.


He has this style of writing that is like nothing else I've ever read. It's this crazy mix of Edgar Allan Poe-style Baroque prose mixed with super modernist experimental writing and metafiction like [Jorge Luis] Borges or [Vladimir] Nabokov. He creates these stories where a character experiences a breakdown in reality and where their reality is invaded by other horrific realities - the seemingly unreal. He uses metafictional devices to make the reader feel like their own reality is being pulled into that. For example, he has this fantastic story called Notes on the Writing of Horror: a story. It’s written as an essay about how to write horror, but then it turns into a horror story, the centre of which is the writer of the essay. That inspired the title of the show as well - The Manikins: a work in progress. 


As I was reading those stories, I just kept thinking that the thing he's trying to do here in a literary form of using metafiction is to reach out and pull you into it. In interactive theatre, you can actually do that. You could take some of the techniques that he uses in a literary form and actualise them, making it so that they are actually happening to the audience member. 

If it's done right - a piece of immersive theatre can take the audience member's own sense of reality and make it one of those layers within the fiction. That is a success to me when the participant feels like their reality has just become one of the many layers of reality that are part of the show.


Jack Aldisert in The Manikins: a work in progress

Photo: Rebecca J. Windsor.


IR: Can you talk us through your experience of studying at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and how The Manikins first began as part of your time there? 


Jack: At the end of lockdown I was trying to choose between two Master's programmes. One was at Royal Holloway, and the other course was at Central. The course at Central is all about experimental devising, collaborative work and avant-garde stuff. It was a really, really difficult choice, but I’d had a lot of ideas about immersive and interactive theatre that I wanted to explore, so in the end that's why I chose the Central programme - I knew I would be allowed to experiment with that stuff. They encourage everybody in the last few months of the first year, to form companies on the course and then create a piece together - that's how Deadweight Theatre formed. The second year of the MFA I did was an independent project where you could really do anything you wanted, which is when I decided to do The Manikins. Really it was my MFA project, and you have to frame it as a research question, really.


IR: What was the research question?


Jack: Well, the thing I kept running into with immersive theatre was audience participation. In interactive work, there's always this level of disconnection because of the layer of artifice of characters being played. If you're an audience member and you're interacting with an actor who's in character, there's always a level of, for lack of a better word, embarrassment and confusion in the situation. A big part of that is that you've got a large group of people, usually other audience members, watching you interact. This factor of being perceived by a group of people is going to limit what you're comfortable doing in the interaction. 


Let's say there’s a wizard, I know when I'm talking to this wizard that the actor playing them sees me as an audience member who's come to the show. I don't know who the wizard sees me as, standing here in my modern clothes with a weird name suddenly appearing in this environment. It creates this two-directional pull - do I respond as a character that I'm somehow making up on the spot right now?, or do I respond as myself, which doesn't make sense because it sort of breaks the world?


That plus the factor of being watched felt like the barriers to truly immersive interaction in my mind. So my research question - which I thought was an impossible question - was about overcoming those barriers. It was about how to create a method for writing, rehearsing, and performing scene work in which one of the scene partners is inherently totally unpredictable because they're an audience member. Those were the questions I was trying to approach and The Manikins formed around answering those questions.


IR: When you began to explore if you could break down those barriers, what were you drawing from to begin with, and how did that help the development of the show?


Jack: There's a fantastic essay by academic and author Sophie Nield, who I believe is at Royal Holloway, that's from when Punchdrunk was first doing their masked shows. She talks about that quote-unquote identity crisis that's created in the situation I described. It's a fantastic essay. The masks that Punchdrunk use - that's one solution to that problem. If the rest of the audience is masked and you're masked, the embarrassment factor goes way down. I thought, okay, how do we create a controlled environment to study that effect? Well, just get rid of the rest of the audience entirely so it's just the one participant. Remove the being watched by an audience factor entirely. Initially, I was using sources like the Ligotti stories, which are about the breakdown of reality and the breakdown of identity as content for the experiments we did as we were devising together in the room, workshopping stuff.


I took a month off from the work, and during that time I had this dream. I woke up from it with a realisation - the way that you get around the identity crisis isn't by eliminating it, it's by incorporating it. You take the identity crisis inherent in immersive and interactive theatre, and you make it the core of the dramaturgy of the piece. You make the piece about the participant experiencing that identity crisis and you build the piece around that. Before that, I’d been trying to eliminate the problems.


When I had this realisation about the identity crisis, it was that when we’d been testing the early fragments of the show, I had naturally found myself talking to people about the piece. 'Here's what we're trying to do. Here's my goal with the piece. This is what we're working on. This is what I'm hoping to get out of it.' At the end of what they were trying - which were the first scenes with the doctor and the secretary - I would ask them questions about how it was going. 


I realised that the extra meta layer I'd been saying to participants to frame the show had to be part of the show, and we use that as a device to heighten the audience's experience of the identity crisis, which will now be the core of the piece. That was the moment everything came together. From that point on, it just felt like a refinement process.


Promo image for The Manikins: a work in progress

Photo: Rebecca J. Windsor.


IR: How different is the version of the show that existed when you were at Central to the version running now at Crypt?


Jack: There's been three significant versions of the show. The first one I did as the culmination of the programme in May of last year - I didn't think there would be a life for the show beyond Central, but we got such encouraging feedback. I thought 'Okay, let's keep going with this'. One of the tutors from Central who saw that show in May very kindly offered us a space to do the show at Central for five participants over two days in November, alongside me teaching a workshop to that Master's program on making interactive work. 


When you're more deeply into the dream space, that has been very different each time we've done the show, but it has always ended in the spotlight in one way or another. It’s so hard to take plot threads in a show like this and tie them together effectively. All of the changes have really been about how do we make the experience more exciting and trippier for the audience member in the second half of the show, and also do that in a way that makes sense dramaturgically to tie any possible narrative threads together. I worked extensively with a couple of great dramaturgs, Harley Winzenried and Audrey Regan, over the first few months of this year leading up to the Crypt run to improve the text. 


IR: Do you think this version of the show is the final one, or are there still things that you would like to try and tweak as time goes on? 


Jack: I’ve got two answers to that. The first answer is that it's almost the final version... We've been tweaking it a little bit even as we've been running it so far in Crypt. I think there's still room for improvements in the finale section, and also in the section that comes afterwards when we're talking to the participant about the show. The second answer is, once you get into the dream zone, anything can really happen. There are so many exciting things we could pursue, and actually several of the most important and exciting moments in the second half of the show came from improvs that we did because of an unexpected audience choice in an earlier version of the show, which I then incorporated into the text. 


We had one participant, back when there was still a physical mannequin in the show, take the lab coat off the mannequin, put it on, and then enter the next scene as the doctor. That resulted in us doing three scenes in a row that were completely made up, including one of my favourite moments, which is when there were two doctors confronting each other, trying to figure out who was the real one. I was then looking for a way to incorporate that moment because I thought it was so much fun. The show can never really be 100% completed because there's always going to be the possibility that an audience member will do something so interesting that we then want to use it. 


When I was first thinking about what kind of immersive theatre I would like to make, I was reading a lot of books on dramaturgy and narrative structure in media. I was looking into classical music structure and at the idea of a cadenza in a classical concerto - where the music in the concerto is written and you're playing it note for note, but then there's a blank section of two minutes or so where the soloist plays a full improvisation, which is incorporated into the non-improvised structure of the piece. I got really into the idea of 'How do you do a cadenza in an immersive theatre piece?' and that's what I'm trying to approach with the finale.

Promo image for The Manikins: a work in progress

Photo: Rebecca J. Windsor.

Those are the most powerful and exciting moments for me as a performer - when it feels like the performers and the participants are equally together in what's happening and are equally inside the dream space that's been created. 

IR: Has performing a show that plays with reality and dreams so much affected you and the other cast members as you’ve been performing it?


Jack: Yeah. You totally slip into the headspace of the show. I've had moments where I'm playing myself or I'm playing the doctor, and I'm legitimately feeling like I'm in a dream. Because the last couple scenes of the show are so open to the audience member doing, trying, saying anything, some people stay really passive in that situation and some people try some crazy stuff. We had a situation the other day, where we had a participant try something really different. We were in a situation we'd never been in before, I was playing the scene, and then the show stopped and I felt very confused, very overwhelmed, and when it stopped I felt like it was still happening. I said to the other actor and the participant after the show, 'Wow, I just had the participants experience for like a good five minutes'. I was feeling what the participant must be feeling during that section of the show normally.


The show, I think, has that element of a spell being cast, and there have been certain situations where the spell gets cast on the casters as well. Everybody gets pulled into this dream together, and those are the most powerful and exciting moments for me as a performer - when it feels like the performers and the participants are equally together in what's happening and are equally inside the dream space that's been created. 


Serena Lehman and Jack Aldisert in The Manikins: a work in progress

Photo: Marc Tsang


IR: We need to ask you about the set design for the show. It's basically made up of a curtain and two sets of chairs. Did it go through several different iterations during its development before you landed on this design?


Jack: We’ve tried to free it entirely from naturalism. A big part of the development process has been working with the designers and collaborators to rid the show of set pieces, props, anything that was a direct, mimetic, naturalistic representation of reality so that the participant is fully creating the whole world in their own mind as they go along with it. The possibilities are limitless when you approach it that way. 


It was a hilarious process with the scenographer, Min Feng, who's an incredible designer. We started off looking at making walls and doors and an office. Each time I'd meet with her, we ended up taking something else out. This is definitely the best version of the set. It's so simple, it leaves everything else to the imagination. It's just light, darkness, and the curtain. I also think that the red curtain is very powerful as a symbol. It's great because it's in the space as a symbol of theatre, and the imagination element of theatre. It also provides the very satisfying action of parting the curtain and passing through it as a threshold - it's sort of a palate cleanser. Each time you go through it, it’s as if we have 30 different rooms that you're going into when really it's just one room. The curtain makes it feel like you're imagining a whole new space each time you pass through it. Even if we got a bunch of money all of a sudden, we would just stick with that one single red curtain hanging in the space.


IR: We’re in a venue run by Parabolic Theatre. Similarly to The Manikins, Crypt hosted another immersive show last year that was born out of someone's studies - Bacchanalia by Sleepwalk Immersive. How has it been working with them on this run of the show?


Jack: I can't speak highly enough of Parabolic, they're awesome. Everyone on the team is just the nicest people ever. When we did the show a year ago, Danny Romeo, who now writes on Phantom Peak, saw an early workshop version of The Manikins. He introduced me to Tom Black, who was an awesome participant and did some really fun stuff. He loved the show and ended up putting me in touch with Owen [Kingston, Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre] in the fall. At the time, I had been extremely frustrated by trying to find a space to perform in that was affordable or to get someone to program us. 


When Owen said he was interested, I was expecting maybe like a week or two at best. We talked and he ended up offering us six weeks. That was the exact opportunity that we needed. There is literally no one else in London or as far as I know, in the UK, who would have made us that offer off the strength of a script and off the strength of his colleague having seen the show. It was such a rare and brilliant opportunity, and I'm totally indebted to them. Beth Atkinson - who is part of their team - has been stage managing the show and she's been brilliant. She's made the show so much better and more efficient by working on it.


IR: We mentioned in our review that a logical comparison for people to have made when the show was first announced was with Punchdrunk. In reality, the only thing the two shows really share is 1:1 interactions. Was that comparison something you thought about when writing the show?


Jack: It's an interesting one. The first Punchdrunk show that I saw was The Burnt City, and we were already well into the development of The Manikins. I've read a lot about Punchdrunk and their work, and I did finally manage to see Sleep No More when I was in New York last year, but that was also well after the show had been written. When I was still an undergrad, a mentor of mine who had worked on props at Sleep No More back in the day told me about Punchdrunk and Sleep No More. I'd heard of site-specific theatre, but I had never even heard of immersive theatre until I was probably 21/22. She told me about it and the concept just blew my mind. Then lockdown hit and I couldn't see any immersive theatre, so I had a couple of years where I was just imagining what it would be like, reading about it and imagining what is the potential, what would I want to do in that form.


I knew that within Punchdrunk shows they had 1:1 interactions, and I also knew that that was what I was most interested in about what I understood about Punchdrunk. But I also knew that it was a very particular style of interaction in those 1:1s. I've only personally ever been in a single 1:1, but my understanding was that there wasn't that much room for the participant to structure the narrative in those moments or talk in those moments. In my mind, in drama and in theatre, it's the verbal argumentation that is the core of it. 


I was interested in trying to take what I thought were some really exciting ideas in the Punchdrunk 1:1 scenes, especially the dream-like nature of it. That was something I've always been really interested in - using theatre to recreate a dream space and a dream mentality, and I think Punchdrunk does that so well. I was interested in how could you combine that with conversational interaction, because they on their face seem to be almost clashing with each other. It would be really difficult to create a dream-like interaction if you're talking and articulating yourself heavily. But I thought maybe it might be possible.


The idea of The Manikins being like a 90-minute 1:1, I totally see that as a comparison. Of course, on a technical level, and in terms of what the experience feels like, is completely different. I've seen something that Katy [Naylor of voidspace] has said about it in an interview where she was talking about the show being like the dream-like feeling of a Punchdrunk show or Punchdrunk 1:1 but with the facilitated space for full agency.


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Part 2 of our conversation with Jack Aldisert will be released in the coming weeks on ImmersiveRumours.com.


 

The Manikins: a work in progress runs at Parabolic Theatre's Crypt in Bethnal Green from 3rd June to 13th July 2024. Tickets are currently sold out, but you can visit themanikins.com to find out more about the show.

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