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Interview with Bertie Watkins, Artistic Director of COLAB Theatre

As the entertainment industry has become increasingly interactive, immersive theatre companies such as Bertie Watkins’ COLAB Theatre have flourished. Audiences are no longer passive observers but instead play a key role in shaping the narrative and creating a unique theatrical experience every night. From a spy show to a hostage situation to an innovative take on Romeo and Juliet, COLAB has pushed the boundaries to create some dynamic and exciting works of art. Run-Riot talked to Bertie Watkins, COLAB’s Artistic Director, to learn more about Crooks 1926, their newest venture which explores the criminal side of 1920s London.

Kerenza Evans: What's your primary ethos behind COLAB? 

Bertie Watkins: To make life exciting. Life can become very mundane and you often end up doing the same thing over and over, COLAB provides a place to escape. We want to give people the opportunity to try new things in an exciting way.  We also look to push boundaries, stretching the meaning of play into a fully interactive and immersive experience. We create a space for adults to play in. We want every experience to be different; each audience member gets a wholly unique experience.

Kerenza Evans: What is the premise behind CROOKS 1926? 

Bertie Watkins: In 2016 I created Crooks at the same time as I was researching our local area and found out about The Elephant and Castle Mob and characters such as the McDonald brothers and Alice Diamond. They led fascinating lives that I wanted to explore. I’ve always loved the era, films and T.V. shows like Peaky Blinders, but I also wondered what was going on in London at the same time. Crooks 1926 came together by combining this fascination with a desire to create work that makes space for play and game mechanics as well as emotional tension. 

Kerenza Evans: How does the production use game mechanics to enhance the experience? 

Bertie Watkins: The game mechanics are intrinsic to the experience. We provide a playground for people to experience the 1920s in their own way. Behind the scenes we have live Game Masters who adapt and react to everything the audience does, allowing for a flexible and unique experience. Our work is inspired by board games and parlour games such as Werewolf and Scotland Yard as well as computer games like the Mafia series and Getaway. We also draw on the work of immersive experience companies such as the brilliant Parabolic, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for many years.

Kerenza Evans: Audiences nowadays increasingly expect interactive content. Is this why immersive theatre has surged in popularity? Are audiences too impatient to be passive observers? 

Bertie Watkins: To a degree I think there has been a rise of ‘Protagonist Culture’ in society where you are your own protagonist in your own story. We have been driven to individualism and I think it drives everything that we do now. This, coupled with the rise of streaming services, has led to an appetite for film-like, interactive experiences. People want to experience these worlds in real life not just watch from the side-lines. The work we create serves this desire, in a way that allows people to play and enjoy themselves. They have room to test boundaries and be different in a new space. Our hope is that these experiences create genuine social experiences, drawing out the individual from the protagonist narrative and into the communal.

Kerenza Evans: How true-to-life are the historical aspects of your plays? 

Bertie Watkins: All the characters are based on real people; Sabini, the McDonald’s and Alice Diamond all lived a couple of streets away from our venue and worked in Elephant and Castle. We are proud to bring that piece of history alive. By nature the flexibility of the experience means that can’t follow history exactly because the audience decides the narrative but it is interesting to observe how closely we follow history at main points throughout the show.

It has been such a privilege to dig into this wealth of history. It has inspired so many of the characters and the whole show is rooted in it.

Kerenza Evans: The theatre is housed in an old pub in Elephant and Castle. What were the challenges in the renovation?

Bertie Watkins: We love this space (all our work is site-responsive) so this piece developed as we built the space making it perfect for the production. Sound proofing the space was time-consuming but vital for what we wanted to do. I really invested in and enjoyed converting the space into a 1920s environment. We have done our best to try to cover and convert as many modern items as possible, but it has proved impossible to cover everything. The Box Office, and sound and lighting systems still need to be functionable and therefore requires a degree of suspension of disbelief. However, we find that audiences are more than happy to meet us half-way when it comes to things like this. Most of these challenges though have been exciting to tackle and the space is much better because of it! 

Kerenza Evans: How does the choice of venue shape the theatrical experience?

Bertie Watkins: It shapes everything, as I said, we respond to the site and the piece grows from there. This piece fits perfectly into this space because the piece was built from space. In its current format, this piece couldn’t go anywhere else in the world. That is one of the reasons it is so exciting and unique.

Kerenza Evans: What are the key differences between running a company and running a theatre?

Bertie Watkins: COLAB has two branches, COLAB Theatre Productions and COLAB Venues. We find there are joys and challenges in both. 

With venues we have a playground in which to make work. It allows us to welcome other companies and give them a space to create. As it’s not a traditional venue we get to see new companies flourish and see work that wouldn’t usually be programmed in more traditional theatres. Because of that it is so important that we keep providing and developing these spaces so that we can support the industry and help it to grow. 

The production company is our place to channel our creativity and develop our ideas. We get to hone our skills and find our own artistic style by making the work we want to. 

Running both together presents its own unique challenges, not in the least because of the workload, but it is important for us to continue with both. Our venue, COLAB Factory was first dedicated immersive theatre space in the UK it is vital that we keep allowing companies to come and work there. It is equally important that we keep developing our own brand of theatres in a growing and increasingly diversifying industry. 

Kerenza Evans: When it comes to independent, fringe theatre, London is arguably spoiled for choice compared to the rest of the country.  Do you ever consider touring the regions with your company?

It is something that we are currently thinking about. We are in active talks with companies in the regions to bring new work to them. We have already taken work to Manchester and we are hoping to do more of this in the future.

Kerenza Evans: In what direction do you hope to take COLAB in the future? 

Bertie Watkins: We want playgrounds on every corner on every street!  Theatre should be as accessible as streaming and we want to make them exciting and engaging places to go. We want to create something you can’t get on a screen. We hope that we can continue to re-introduce adults to play-time! 

Crooks 1926 runs until the end of March 2020. Tickets are available here.

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