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Interview: Sleepwalk Immersive on their 1960's infused Greek tragedy Bacchanalia

Later this month Crypt in Bethnal Green will be taken over by Sleepwalk Immersive for their debut show - Bacchanalia. Based on The Bacchae by Euripides, the show will see audience members enter the city of Thebes and be immersed in the story of Dionysus as they seek revenge on the family who have denied their divinity. It's set to be an intense and intimate immersive production, with just 40 audience members per performance.

Ahead of the beginning of rehearsals for the show, we spoke to Sebastian Huang (Artistic Director) and Maya McQueen (Associate Director) from Sleepwalk Immersive to discuss the shows conception, their approach to creating immersive work and what audience members can expect from their 1960s-infused Greek tragedy.

Promo still for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

What inspired the creation of Sleepwalk Immersive? How did it come to be with the team you’ve got in place?

Sebastian: Work on the show Bacchanalia actually started before we founded the company. I've been working on the show for about four and a half years now. We started with a tiny little experience in Brixton, and from that the show has developed, but I think about two years ago a lot of us started working in the bar team at The Great Gatsby Immersive. We met doing that and obviously, we all got on very well. So we started throwing around these ideas about The Bacchae and how we'd work with that. We did a couple of little R&Ds and from that, I think we all just had so much fun and loved it so much that we just decided to form the company.

Maya: Yeah, it's been a slow-growing thing. Pretty much this time last year we started our first R&D where it was the first version with a smaller team. We made a 20 to 25 minute version of the show, which we shared with friends and a couple of people from the industry to get feedback, which was really, really useful. And then with Ruth (Howard - Movement Director), we approached her and presented the show to her and she really liked it and was happy to come on board to further out the team.

Promo image for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

Bacchanalia is based on The Bacchae by Euripides. Can you speak to what drew you to wanting to tell that story specifically?

Sebastian: I love the play. I remember reading it for the first time and thinking 'How I never heard of any of this?' A lot of the great tragedies get a bit more attention than The Bacchae, so we were really keen to do it. A lot of the themes that come from Euripides, they're very translatable into immersive. It's all about the madness, it's about loss, it's about power dynamics. That's something we felt very confident in conveying in an immersive setting.

Maya: Especially Greek theatre, so much of it is about justice in this huge wide world. It feels like a great place to bring an audience into, where you've got these two sides in these two towns and nothing can be fully concluded because that's what a lot of Greek theatre is about. You've got these different points of view and this person believes so strongly in this way of living and this person believes in that. It's presented to you and you think about it afterwards and I think that's a nice type of play to throw audiences into.

Promo image for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

You held a workshop for Bacchanalia last year. Can you share how that experience was and the biggest takeaways from putting that workshop on?

Sebastian: There are a million things! We did two workshops and then an official R&D. I think every time we were learning, it was getting bigger and bigger each time as well. Every time we do something new, there's a million different things that we now have to think about. I'd say every day we work on this show we're learning something new, which is just a really lovely, privileged position to be in because we get to do what we love and we get to learn about what we love every day.

Maya: I feel like with immersive in particular, one thing we've learned is it's really important that it feels really collaborative with the performers because they're the ones at the end of the day who are having that specific connection and contact with the audience member. So they're going to be fully on their own and it's important that they feel empowered in what they're doing, that their ideas are heard and they feel 100% confident that they can bring themselves and their ideas to the table because they are going to be alone in a room with a bunch of people and they have to feel confident in that.

Sebastian: We're just so excited to get these cast in as well because they're all at the top of their game, you know? From the last things we've done, we've really been able to get the best cast we can, and to work with them very closely.

Promo image for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

You had a successful Kickstart campaign for the show, which exceeded the goal. How was it seeing that kind of response for a show that’s from a new company and is an unknown entity for most backers?

Sebastian: We were incredibly fortunate that people were willing to give and willing to support us. So really, we wanted to give something back. We spoke to a lot of immersive superfans over the last few months and something they felt was missing from the scene is that some of these people who spend loads of money and loads of time coming to see these shows, they don't really feel like they ever get much back or recognition for their support of the industry. So it was very important to us that the people who come and support, they get something back. So that was kind of the idea around the Kickstarter. Putting something like a picture of their loved one or their name in the set, something like that - we want to show that we're here to work with the community, with the fan base, with the scene, not just tell them 'This is the work. Go enjoy it'. We want to include them in our work.

Maya Particularly because they are so included within the form. A lot of creating this work was us looking at what do we as superfans of this work love. What do we come out of and go 'That was my favourite experience'? Often it's the little easter eggs and the tiny little details that you come out with that nobody else has noticed. And so, especially with the set, it's so fun for someone to be going around and seeing how we've personalised these details.

Promo image for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

It feels like a comparison that could be drawn between yourselves and the work of Punchdrunk. Would you say they've been one of the inspirations behind your approach to immersive storytelling?

Sebastian: I think that we definitely take a lot of inspiration from them. The company is made up of quite young people, so we're really one of the first generations to be able to grow up with immersive. Maya and I have been seeing Punchdrunk since we were quite young, we're big fans, but there are also a lot of other companies that we really respect and draw inspiration from - Third Rail, Parabolic, Immersive Everywhere - all these amazing companies that we've managed to experience. There's been a lot of talk and comparisons with Punchdrunk, but I would say in terms of the work we make there are quite a few differences. Their shows are very cinematic, almost. It's supposed to be like you're walking through a movie and I'd say the work we make is a bit more theatrical, a bit more focused on the live performance aspect of it.

Maya: One thing we're really interested in is different mediums and how they blend together. Bacchanalia is going to be a mix between dance, physical theatre, music and puppetry. We want to see how these different things blend. And it works narratively within the play because of these two characters you meet who are polar opposites of each other. So we're exploring that artistically, but we're definitely interested in drawing, from other mediums and as well as inspirations like Punchdrunk and how they can blend together.

The show is taking place within Crypt in Bethnal Green. It’s a very intimate and atmospheric venue. How much does the space inform the show and vice versa?

Maya: I think completely. We wrote Bacchanalia as a bigger version of this show. So what people are going to see in a few weeks is about 30% of what we'd originally written. But what we did when we got the venue was go 'Okay, how does this show best work for this space?' Because it has to - there has to be that site-specific element within immersive theatre. Otherwise, it just feels like you're inserting something in and that's not fully breathable in that space. So we're definitely looking at the atmosphere as well as the rooms and how we can adapt different scenes to that. We definitely feel like we've then adapted what we'd written to build it for this space.

Do you think there's a future version of this show that is 100% of what was originally written?

Sebastian: Absolutely. 100%. We're not going to stop until it is as big as we want it.

Promo image for Bacchanalia
Photo: Sleepwalk Immersive

Bacchanalia seems like it'll be a very intimate experience - with six performers to forty audience members. What do you anticipate that'll be like for the guests?

Sebastian: One of the things we really love about immersive theatre is the human-to-human connection, that real intimate personal level of performance. I think this show, in our dream world, would be for one audience member and they would go in by themselves and all this crazy stuff would happen just for them, you know? Obviously, we can't do that, so we try to replicate that sense of intimacy in that sense of being very personal with the performer. And we're quite lucky that Crypt as a venue does really help that - low ceilings, all the corridors. It's a very intimate space. So we're really looking forward to getting the audience in and seeing how that works and seeing how far we can push that. I think we always want to be dealing with quite a small audience - just because we believe that that makes for a nicer viewing of our work. We really want to just make sure that people who do come have a good time and they don't get pushed around, it doesn't feel super crowded.

Maya: I think that's definitely the best kind of experience for performers and audience members as well. People will really feel like there's a full connection for an hour and a half with these one or two characters; because even for the performers they've got a small group of people in front of them that they can remember and have this whole experience with. I think that's really, really important to us.

The show is set in a 1960's version of Thebes. What was it about that period that spoke to you when devising this version of the show?

Sebastian: I think we just read the play and I was like 'Okay, well, obviously this needs to be in the sixties'. I think there are a lot of things in Euripides's play that lends itself very much to the hippie culture around that time, and we're big fans of the music as well so it's great that we can use some of that. I think it was really just the natural place to set it. Our first version of the show was quite abstract as to when and where it was set. I think as we explored the show more we started unpacking these themes. It just made sense to set in the sixties.

Maya: A lot of the play is about this divide in culture where you have two completely different sides who live in completely different ways and see freedom as something completely different. The sixties just immediately jumped out to us with that. I think even it shows that during the time it was a very popular play that was revived and put on, which I think speaks to how people within the Sixties kind of felt quite akin to that.

Finally, how are you feeling about opening the show to the public in the coming weeks?

Sebastian: We're just really, really excited to get audiences in and to show people what we've been doing and hopefully start building a little community organised around this style of immersive. Every decision we make is to enhance the audience experience. It all comes from a love for the audience really.


Sleepwalk Immersive's Bacchanalia runs from 12th to 31st November in Bethnal Green.

You can find out more about Sleepwalk Immersive via their website and Instagram.


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