A play for today: Operation Black Antler

A play for today: Larah Simpson, freelance project manager, reflects on the collaboration behind creating the highly political immersive theatre piece Operation Black Antler in Chatham.

June has been a busy month of big questions and opinions, most notably with the build up to the EU Referendum. Here at Ideas Test we’ve had other big questions to consider with our latest major co-commission Operation Black Antler – which invited audiences to debate the idea of undercover surveillance and morality of state-sanctioned spying.

Operation Black Antler is an immersive and site-specific piece of theatre that encompasses three different, secret locations. Audiences are first sent instructions via SMS, invited to assume the role of an undercover cop as part of a small team, briefed and then sent into an undercover operation. From a first-hand perspective, they had to make decisions and then reflect on the consequences of their decisions.

Co-commissioned with the Brighton Festival, Operation Black Antler was created and devised by the four-times BAFTA nominated artists group Blast Theory and celebrated immersive theatre company Hydrocracker, two leading theatre companies working together for the first time. After a sell-out three week run in Brighton, Ideas Test brought the project to Chatham in June, setting out to create a theatrical experience that would excite, engage and enrich audiences from Medway, Swale and beyond.

Working alongside the creative teams from Blast Theory and Hydrocracker, local residents were invited to take part in casting workshops that were held in Sun Pier House in Chatham. An open call-out to people 18 +, cultures and backgrounds was issued to encourage the people of Medway and Swale to discuss, debate and dive into the murky world of undercover policing and surveillance.

Attendees were put through their paces with members of both theatre companies and experimented with improvisation, political debate and creating an ensemble functioning as one. After several of these casting workshops, nails were bitten and many cups of tea were drunk before a community cast of 10 local residents were chosen, most with little or no previous acting experience.

Over two weeks the community cast then worked with the Ensemble Director to create their new identities which would challenge audiences – as well as themselves – by projecting views, often disparate from their own, in order to incite discussion and debate within the piece. The community cast played pivotal roles throughout Operation Black Antler, and worked alongside the seven professional actors and creative teams from both companies. The result of this collaborative process was a truly unique and exciting production that allowed those involved to not only experience world-class immersive theatre, but to be actively involved in creating it.

“As opposed to pretending to be a character, you become the character. It’s Sort of like a game but far more well done. “- B. Naylor, Community Cast

“Wonderful, really exploratory, creative, really lovely atmosphere. It’s the involvement in the community that’s the most important thing. Someone here said that they wanted to make theatre or art that helped people change the way they think”. – N. Ranouf, Community Cast

One of my greatest personal joys throughout this process has been the time we have spent at the second secret venue, a bar on Chatham High Street called Poco Loco, where a large proportion of the action took place. Although Poco Loco is a working bar by day and night, Owner Jodi and her staff and clients managed to encompass and support the project from the very beginning. All were so very welcoming of the cast and creative teams (which could at times number almost 30 people!) and actively encouraged and facilitated rehearsals, meetings and the five nights of performances.

The regular customers at Poco Loco were friendly and intrigued by the project, adding another level of reality and mystery to the atmosphere of the piece. Despite their place of respite and relaxation being overtaken, and the fact that some of them had never experienced theatre before, they became a very valuable part of Operation Black Antler and had as much fun as we did during the process.

Matt Adams, Director at Blast Theory said about his time in Chatham:

“I’m having a fantastic time presenting Operation Black Antler in Chatham. I’ve had the privilege of meeting dozens of diverse, passionate and welcoming people from Chatham and across Swale and Medway. Our community cast and production support are brilliant. They’ve chosen to go on a journey into the unknown and they’re doing it with verve.

“To create this show here at the same time as the country has voted on one of the most important decisions in a generation gives it added significance. Operation Black Antler explores the fears and hopes of a disenfranchised group who are desperate for change. And it puts the audience into the position of deciding when anger spills over into danger. Right now, that seems an even more important question to explore.”

Operation Black Antler allowed the communities involved to gain invaluable insight and experience into the world of immersive theatre, whilst creating an intense and affecting piece for audiences who travelled from Chatham, Canterbury, London and as far as Canada.

“Last time I acted I had a tea towel on my head and I was five. It’s really unusual to sort of see the process they go through, it’s much more psychological and psychodynamic than I thought, using your subconscious.” – Rachel, Community Cast

The piece was ever-growing and evolving, often being shaped by the morning’s headlines and reactions and opinions that developed from daily discussions in an inclusive environment where all voices were heard and valued.

Lasting friendships were made, confidence in creative skills grew and Chatham came alive with a sea of symposiums on politics, principles and personalities.

Mission accomplished.

More from Operation Black Antler:

Production images on Flickr from Blast Theory

Community Cast blogs on Blast Theory’s vimeo channel

Playing a part in Black Antler’s community cast

Why we are making Operation Black Antler, from Blast Theory