Reality bites

Two new shows blur the boundary between cast and audience. Lynne Walker on the rise of reality theatre
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The Independent Culture

We're promenading between the hot frigidarium, the sweltering calidarium and the positively stifling laconium, eavesdropping on a world of intimate and feisty female chat. Only the cast gets to take the plunge into the pool.

In taking her admirable Harrogate Theatre production into Harrogate's hammams Hannah Chissick has created the hottest ticket in town. Since the play deals with the council's decision to close the baths because they are not profitable, it must be satisfying to Harrogate Borough Council that they found partnership with Scottish Life and the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore their ancient Hot Room Chambers in 2002. It is impossible not to feel involved when you are feeling, smelling and tasting the heat of the drama.

Putting theatre into alternative surroundings isn't new; nor is it peculiar to Yorkshire, although a recent theatre project, Mulgrave, in Mulgrave Woods near Whitby, took the audience on a four-mile journey accompanied by visual arts, music, and live performance. Companies on the Edinburgh Fringe have utilised a car, a curry house and a public toilet (though not necessarily on that order).

London has seen shows in operating theatres, dungeons and capsules on the London Eye. Lovers of Chaucer are experiencing his tales in a new light with a mile-long trek around Southwark. Groups of 100 hikers can brave treacherous terrain and ravenous midges on the isle of Skye to enjoy a twice-weekly son et lumière show on the Old Man of Storr.

Back in Yorkshire, another sort of reality is unfolding in Leeds, as three snapshots of a community through the ages are brought to life by members of the same community.

Once Upon a Quarry Hill, at the Quarry Theatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, delves into the history of the distinctive mound on which the theatre has stood since 1990, which is also home to the Leeds College of Music, the BBC and Quarry House - a government building of monolithic proportions straight out of Metropolis.

"It's always a partial building site," says the show's director, Steven Downs. "They're always pulling something down or putting something up and even while we've been rehearsing contractors' signs have gone up, announcing the building of a hotel and office block."

Once Upon a Quarry Hill reflects some of the site's colourful history, from its location for plague cabins during the 16th century to its rebirth as a smart Georgian spa in the late 18th century. Another aspect of the show is derived from the site's one-time location for back-to-back, terraced slum dwellings, housing exploited factory workers, and later for rather swish modernist flats, characterised by distinctive arches.

"The show ties in with our aspirations and how dreams change: it's really a metaphor for people's lives," says Downs, "based upon renewal and the cyclical nature of what happens on Quarry Hill."

A number of the 60-strong cast, ranging in age from four to 85, have learning difficulties and some have never appeared on stage before.

The journey begins in the 17th century, with Nellie, "the gutter slut of Swinegate", who is taken to the ducking stool in Spaw Well on Quarry Hill. Another strand involves Thomas Justice, a union activist fighting for workers' rights during the industrial revolution. The third tale is spun around the diaries of Slomo, a Jew who flees Nazi persecution and finds himself drawn into the life of his adopted city.

With so many rich pickings to be had from Quarry Hill and its "bones on stones", as Downs describes it, it's not surprising there is so much packed in, even without covering the area's entire history.

"Getting everyone in this hugely talented but incredibly varied cast to work together has been quite a job," admits Downs. "Just moving people round the stage, in and in and out of four different costumes several times in the show, is a challenge."

The cultural phenomenon of reality and site-specific shows still has plenty to offer, it seems, not least because of the lower than usual production costs and the greater impact such shows can make.

Harrogate's Steaming relies on the set of the Turkish Baths - exotic Arabic tiles, elaborate arched roofs, oak and mahogany changing rooms - and natural lighting. Once Upon a Quarry Hill draws on ordinary people to play characters they have created from their own cultural heritage.

Where reality television offers diminishing returns and is in questionable taste, reality theatre simply makes drama that little bit more real. And while the audience can't vote on individual elements, passive participation is a crucial element in this type of theatre.

'Once Upon a Quarry Hill', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds 0113 213 7700) to 23 July. 'Steaming', Royal Baths, Assembly Rooms, Harrogate (01423 502116) to 30 July