How does “Please Be Seated” challenge conventional theatrical expectations?

“Please Be Seated” was a dance production created by New Movement Collective in 2014. They described the performance as “[m]ore than just an exploration of the comic, the work uses unexpected absurdity in theatrical expectation to create a journey that undermines and challenges conventional perception.” (Newmovement.org.uk, 2014) I will investigate New Movement Collective and highlight how “Please Be Seated” tested the audience by challenging the concepts of time, space and relationships between the audience and performers in a theatrical setting.

New Movement Collective is a collaboration of choreographers who have shared experience in many leading ballet and contemporary companies. Their aim is to create refreshing and innovative work of the highest standard. Their work explores different and unusual theatrical settings developed with strong collaborations linking dance, architecture, film and music.

One of their earlier productions, NEST, in 2013 was a site-specific promenade dance performance where the audience were invited to walk freely in the space. This was a successful performance with strong reviews. It challenged the conventional theatrical expectation for an audience going to an end stage theatre by placing them with the dancers, as an immersive and promenade experience, rather than in seats watching the performance. “Please Be Seated” was New Movement Collective’s first production on a traditional end stage theatre. The Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre was transformed to reflect their desire to challenge theatrical conventional expectations.

Timing

The production tested the patience of the audience from the start. People were either let into the theatre in pairs or instructed to wait in a group outside. This formed a large queue outside the theatre moving at a slow controlled speed as 8pm approached, after the advertised start time of 7.45pm. The delay challenged theatregoers’ preconceptions about timing. They usually expect shows to begin at the time advertised on their tickets. There was a sense of frustration and irritation in the queue with some members pushing their way to the front not realising that everyone was queuing. Once the pairs entered the theatre, there was a solo dancer already performing on stage. This posed the questions: “When did this performance start? What have I missed? Was this intentional?”

Five minutes after the last pair was seated, the musical score changed, which gave a hint that the performance was starting or moving to a new scene. The other group who had been instructed to wait outside the theatre were let in at this point testing different forms of patience between the two groups. The seated group might have been wondering why the others were late and the other group could have been asking themselves what they had missed. The conventional approach would be that the performance begins at a set time and all the audience are requested to take their seats beforehand.

What was interesting was how there weren’t any other challenges with the notion of time. The ending of the performance was a more conventional approach; perhaps this was because it would be too risky to challenge the convention, as it would confuse audiences. Are there any other ways in which the performance could have ended?

Space

The other group were let in directly onto the stage from a door at the back after being told they could use the props as they wished and to interact with the dances but obeying orders at all time, challenging the theatrical convention of space, particularly in an end stage theatre where the audience would be used to entering the space directly into the seating area.

“Expanding the stage into the auditorium through an intricately designed wooden platform above sections of the seats, the dancers are already in position, above and amongst us, as we are seated.” (Williams, 2014) There was a very strong relationship between the audience and dancers defined by close physical proximity. Certain dancers were disguised in the audience sat in their seats who emerged as the performed went on. Reflective of New Movement Collective’s work exploring different and unusual theatrical settings.

Perception – Relationship to audience

The title of the piece “Please Be Seated” was emphasised from the start. People were let into the theatre in pairs in slow succession to take their seats while the rest of the audience observed them coming in along with a solo dancer performing on stage. This goes back to the timing concept of the piece at the start. Was the queue leading into the theatre intentional? The idea of having two audience groups changed the perceptions of the audience and it became a performance in which the audience were both spectators and spectated upon by the rest of the audience.

The communal/totalitarian theme of Please Be Seated complemented the breaking of theatrical conventions. Audience members became part of the dance, dancers became performers instructing orders and themes of power and position were explored in the dance. This links back to the previous parts mentioned with the controlled queue playing with time and positioning the audience in particular spaces.

Conclusion

“Please Be Seated” challenged the theatrical conventions of time, space and relationships between performers and audience. New Movement Collective collaborated together to bring up ideas that were thought outside the box. They transformed the theatre space into something more, extending the space, challenging the timings and testing audiences. The result was an interesting and unique dance piece that performed well amongst critics.

References

Newmovement.org.uk, (2014). Please Be Seated. [online] Available at: http://www.newmovement.org.uk/work/please-be-seated.html [Accessed 7 Jan. 2015].

Williams, R. (2014). New Movement Collective: ‘Please Be Seated’ – The London Word. [online] Thelondonword.com. Available at: http://www.thelondonword.com/2014/11/new-movement-collective-please-be-seated/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2015].