Oliver Lansley is the Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles, a company he founded in 2001 and with which has been pushing the boundaries of inventive storytelling ever since. Their 2015 show, Alice’s Adventures Underground, saw Les Enfants venture into immersive theatre for the first time and they have subsequently continued to bring their own unique style to the genre with productions such as The Game’s Afoot (2016): an immersive Sherlock Holmes theatrical experience staged in Madame Tussauds. Given the success of these shows, Les Enfants Terribles have brought Alice’s Adventures Underground back to The Vaults Theatre in London this year for another run, after adding more than sixty pages to the script from two years ago (you can read culturised’s thoughts on this revival here). For this they have once again created an expansive Wonderland through which the audience members travel as the play unfolds, and which is also being used to house the children’s show, Adventures in Wonderland, that runs concurrently.
In addition to his work with Les Enfants Terribles, Oliver is also both a writer and an actor. His first play, Immaculate (2010) was one of Samuel French’s top ten best selling plays on its release. He also co-created the BBC 2 series Whites and has appeared as an actor in The Best Possible Taste, The Wrong Mans, and Sherlock. We at culturised managed to get Oliver to give us some time out of his hectic schedule to tell us about the success he has achieved with Les Enfants Terribles, his thoughts on the growing popularity of immersive theatre, and what it is about nonsense literature – such as the Alice books – that he feels makes it so suited to being staged in this way.
From your experience working in immersive theatre with Les Enfants Terribles, such as The Game’s Afoot, what has been different about working on Alice’s Adventures Underground?
Well Alice was actually our first immersive show when we did it in 2015, so in a way that was our introduction to it. But we’d obviously been to a lot of immersive theatre before and the thing we always thought was missing was a real sense of narrative. The nature of immersive theatre is often that it’s free roaming and therefore it’s very hard to give people a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end because you can’t control what they’re going to see. So that was the starting point: how do we create a world that is both immersive and complete and gives you a sense of choice and freedom and randomness, but at the same time deliver a story? So basically our whole model and concept for the show started from that point. And then the other thing that was important for us was controlling audience size; obviously from a commercial standpoint you need to get a certain number of people through the doors every night, but what we felt was that sometimes in immersive shows there are times when you’re with a group of one hundred, or two hundred, or even a thousand people, and the intricacy of the world that’s been created is hard to appreciate: you don’t get to enjoy the details. So what we wanted to do was find a way to keep the experience as intimate as possible, and so that’s how the idea of splitting the audience in the show came through. Although we have almost seven hundred people a night going through, most of the time any individual audience member is in a group of around fourteen. The main thing I always wanted was to create an experience that was unique to every person but that was equal. I didn’t want anybody to feel like they’d been cheated, or they’d been in the wrong place or they’d done the wrong thing: everyone had to feel as if they’d had their own experience.
And so how do you see yourself fitting in with the growing popularity of immersive theatre more broadly? Especially seeing as Alice’s Adventures Underground is such a groundbreaking show in the ways you’ve just mentioned
Basically we want to place people in the role of the main character. To talk about our other stuff, for example when writing our Sherlock-based show, The Game’s Aftoot (2016), we set out to try and figure out the best way to tell the story in an immersive format. Whereas with Alice it was pretty clear that if you wanted to tell the story of Wonderland, you would have to create Wonderland and allow the audience to have their own adventure, in relation to Sherlock Holmes there’s no such obvious focal point, so The Game’s Afoot is a totally different model and totally different show. We had to reinvent the narrative in line with the experience we wanted to create, and what we ended up with was realising that we should aim to replace the protagonist with our audience. I think that concept, in a nutshell, is what we aim to do with our immersive shows. For me, if you go into the world of Sherlock Holmes, you want to be Sherlock Holmes and solve the crime, and if you’re going to be in Wonderland, you want to tumble down the rabbit hole and have this crazy and unexpected experience just like Alice. So the kind of immersive theatre we produce is based around placing your audience as the protagonist, and therefore I suppose that’s our niche within the growing popularity of immersive theatre: giving each individual audience member an experience akin to being the protagonist of the story.
So you think that’s what makes a Les Enfants Terribles immersive show stand out amongst other immersive theatre practitioners?
Well if you look at the big players such as Secret Cinema, or Punchdrunk, or You Me Bum Bum Train, every single one of them is so different, and I think the reason for that is that this is a new medium. There are always those people who degrade immersive theatre as a form and just say, “oh it’s just promenade” etc. but I think the presence of all of these different companies using different mediums proves that it’s not. And it is starting to be recognised as a form in its own right – I think the fact that we got nominated for an Olivier Award is a real nod towards that. But each approach is so unique, and each experience is so different that, yeah, I think where we stand within the genre as a whole is that our focus is very much on the storytelling aspect. That’s always the central focus for us: it’s about how we can tell this story in the most engaging possible way. The difference is what we’re doing is we are telling the stories whilst literally immersing our audiences in them, so it’s about trying to create a story which places our audience at its centre.
And is that commitment to storytelling something you’ve come round to since getting involved in immersive theatre, or is it something you’ve been committed to since founding the company in 2001?
We’ve always been about storytelling at our heart. We’re bringing back a show called The Terrible Infants later this year, which was a huge show for us and is literally storytelling: it’s made up of a series of short stories. Lots of our other shows, such as Ernest and the Pale Moon and The Trench, started as prose stories so storytelling is very much at the heart of what we do as a company. Whatever we do, our focus always begins with what the story is and what the best way to tell it would be. If that happens to be on the stage, or immersively, or through song, or whatever else would be most appropriate, we use any and every tool at our disposal to tell that story in the best and most interesting and engaging way.
On your website you describe The Terrible Infants as a show for “big kids and small grown ups” and as a company you also seem to use that commitment to storytelling to open up theatre to both children and adults by creating properly devised children’s shows alongside the adult ones. Is creating shared theatrical spaces for children and adults something you are aiming to do?
Well, for instance, currently running alongside Alice’s Adventures Underground we have the children’s show, Adventures in Wonderland. The reason we decided to do a separate children’s show is that we didn’t want to have to compromise on either. We didn’t want to have to make a one-size-fits-all production. If we wanted our adult show to be really dark then we could do that, and if we wanted to make the kid’s show really silly and light then we could do that as well. I think the more children’s shows we do, the more important it feels to us. We have come to realise that our shows could be these children’s first experience of going to the theatre, and that’s quite an important moment and quite a responsibility: you could either instill a passion for it or put them off for the rest of their lives. Also since James (James Seager, producer of Les Enfants Terribles) became a father he started to find that there was a lot of children’s theatre that was maybe a little bit lazy or didn’t have the same craft to it as we try to put in our work. So our approach was to treat our children’s shows the same way we treat our adult shows. And you learn so much from kids because their filter is different. Particularly with immersive shows: if you put a hippo on stage they’re going to see a hippo, not a person in a hippo costume, and when you put them inside that world they’re going to react differently to an adult audience. The other thing for us, as well, is that we have built this huge world for Wonderland, and so by using this resource you end up with a children’s show that has such a high production value, which you just wouldn’t get in a kid’s show elsewhere. So what we’ve been able to create is a show for children that would under any other circumstances be financially impossible because we’ve been able to piggy-back of the adult show.
And do you think that interaction between adult and children’s theatre, seen by using the same space, is reflected in the stories you try to tell? A lot of the content in The Terrible Infants are stories by Roald Dahl and Edward Lear, and now you have also turned your focus to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books it feels as if you’re staging a lot of the great works of nonsense literature, which is of course a genre that plays with the idea of adulthood and growing up more generally.
For me, I think when you look at Lear or Carroll or any of these writers, one gets the feeling that modern children’s literature has slightly lost the sense of the absurd sometimes. Nonsense literature is so compelling because we’re all trying to figure out the way in which the world works and why things happen the way they do: both children and adults equally. Often I think nonsense can be the best way to make sense of things, if that makes any sense. As a kid, you process things in a different way and the world is confusing and strange and contradictory, and the magic of certain literature such as Roald Dahl is that it’s both challenging and complex, but it’s also scary because the world is scary. These works of literature teach children to understand what the world is: if you protect them from any level of that then you’re not teaching them about reality, because reality is dark, confusing, and complex – and also beautiful. But I think sometimes, particularly if you’re dealing with children, then you have to do that in a more abstract way. Equally it is important to recognise that these are still the questions we are asking as we grow up, and so the more nonsensical children’s literature continues to resonate: that’s why we can fill an adult show with Alice in Wonderland. These nonsense worlds speak to you on a subconscious level because it’s trying to answer questions. For me most art is trying to answer questions, but questions that don’t have a definitive answer, and the more nonsensical work seems to tap into big issues on a much more subconscious level than literature that hits you over the head with a moral or a clear-cut answer.
And so in terms of adapting the most famous work of nonsense literature to immersive theatre, I wanted to ask about your choice of title. Most of the recent adaptations have focused on the “wonderland” motif, such as Damon Albarn’s Wonder.land. Why Alice’s Adventures Underground?
I suppose I still see the world we have created for the show as Wonderland, but a name becomes a name rather than a description. In terms of the dystopian themes we have worked into the narrative, Wonderland doesn’t mean Wonderland to the people who live there at the moment. The reason why we chose the title Alice’s Adventures Underground is that that was Lewis Carroll’s original title for the book, but the word “adventures” is as relevant as “underground”. The implication for me is that this is a world that exists outside of you in which you are adventuring, and as such there’s lots to be done and explored rather than just a single linear journey: the idea that the show is a sort of odyssey of events was something that was important to us. We wanted to capture the sense of this being a bigger world and there being more than one adventure to be had.
And in terms of the size and scale of Alice’s Adventures Underground as a production, how did you begin to conceive of it? And did you always have The Vaults in mind for staging it?
We were thinking about the show before The Vaults was on our radar, but once we started working there it very quickly became apparent that it was an ideal place to do it, and that’s when the show really started to come together. In terms of the idea, we knew we wanted to create it as a world, and if you want to create a whole world you’re very aware of the scale of that, especially if you want it to be immersive. So we were sort of aware of the scale, but if we had been aware of just how big it would become and how much we were going to undertake at the outset, we probably wouldn’t have started. So I think our naïvety of what we were taking on is probably what allowed the show to happen in a way. What we had were a few fragments of what we wanted to do, such as the Mock Turtle, and the Mad Tea Party and other moments we wanted to hit, and from then it was about developing the framework and how we were going to achieve that and also once we had the idea of the world in mind, thinking how we wanted our audience to engage with it. That’s when the themes of structure and story really came into play and allowed us to create this form that allows the play to work the way that it does.
So after the initial success of the show in 2015, and expanding it massively for this production, what’s next for both Alice’s Adventures Underground and Les Enfants Terribles more generally? Are you going to try and go bigger?
Well we have a few plans in the pipeline and are formulating what we’re going to do next. Obviously I can’t talk about that right now, but as with Alice our process always starts with thinking about what we’re excited by and what we want to do. I think if we approach anything cynically, then it’s never going to work. There needs to be a reason: if we’re going to do another immersive show it won’t just be for the sake of it, we’ll talk about why we want to do it and how it’s going to be different. So as we found when approaching what we often refer to as Alice 2.0 after the first time, with every experience you learn more and now we have acquired all this extra knowledge we want to put that to use. Since 2015 when we took our first step into immersive theatre, our knowledge of the form and what we want to bring to it has grown exponentially, so the idea of going back to a blank page and starting from scratch knowing what we know now is really exciting. And, knowing us, it’s probably going to get bigger, we’re not very good at getting smaller.