The punter is the star on these nights out

New 'immersion experiences' make the audience the focus of events

By Victoria Richards
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:42

Secret films shown at undisclosed locations; mystery menus served at restaurants known only to the cognoscenti, and clandestine bedtime stories read at hidden hotels. "Immersion experiences" – where audience members become part of live events – are becoming increasingly popular and lucrative.

Future Cinema, an events company, is behind Secret Cinema, putting on classic films in eclectic locations, from abandoned warehouses to parks. Guests don't find out what the film is until they arrive, and they must rely on cryptic clues to find out where to go and even what to wear. The message is simple: tell no one.

Its first production, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, took place at an old railway arch in 2007 with 400 curious movie-goers. Its latest, held earlier this month at Alexandra Palace, saw 150 actors, 20 animals and 15,000 guests in "bedouin attire" transform north London into Damascus for David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia. Founder Fabien Riggall, 35, said people want to "go back to basics". "Our guests want to be part of something, rather than passive observers."

In the past three years, Secret Cinema has showcased Ghostbusters in Brighton, the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera at the Hackney Empire, Lindsay Anderson's If... in Bristol, Blade Runner at Canary Wharf and Anvil! The Story of Anvil at Shepherds Bush Empire – including a performance by the band. There are plans to take it to Berlin, Moscow and across the UK, as well as a children's version.

"Cinema is part of people's lives and it shouldn't be restricted to a sterile multiplex," Mr Riggall said. "In the early days of film, you had a pianist and a compère – it was rowdy and fun. We're trying to go back to that."

It doesn't stop at cinema. Husband and wife team Tony and Nicki put on not-for-profit gigs at their home in York. "We started House Concerts York three years ago. Lots of artists play gigs at people's homes in the US, but it doesn't happen over here," said Tony. "Now, we've got artists queued up wanting to play. It's the intimacy that they and the audiences really like; it's a bit like sitting in the studio while a musician is making the album."

The Human Library project tours events, where volunteers act as "living books" to talk about coping with disability or prejudice. Lorna Prichard, 26, a journalist from Abergele, North Wales, was a living book at the Womad Festival in July. "I've got an extreme form of synesthesia – which means my senses are visualised all the time in vivid shapes and colours," she said. "My book was called Synesthete and competed against Traffic Warden, Alternative Dyke, Multimedia Artist and Single Mother."

Interior designer David Carter hosts storytelling events at the 40 Winks boutique hotel in Stepney, east London. A dress code of pyjamas and nighties is "strictly enforced". "People are fed up with overbranded, commercially driven entertainment. They want something personal and emotionally engaging," he said. "We get stressed City workers coming to us. Put them in pyjamas and show them something magical and it takes them on a Peter Pan journey for a while."

DJ turned chef Horton Jupiter, 39, runs the Secret Ingredient, serving Japanese and Spanish food to guests at his flat in Newington Green, London. "I read a book called This Diary Will Change Your Life, and it suggested having people you didn't know to dinner. So I did. Six people came to the first one, but since then, I've had as many as 16, four nights a week."

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Immersion experiences...

Underground Rebel Bingo Club

Freddie Fortune and James Flames, both 28, hold "rebel bingo" nights at eclectic locations across the UK, from church halls to basements. Fans of the game be warned – they make up their own rules.

"We used to run club nights in a church hall in London. Then we found an old bingo set, decided to give it a go and it took off from there," said Freddie Fortune. "We've held a night for 1,000 people, and we've also set it up in New York. Every night has a cover story. Sometimes we masquerade as a 'neighbourhood watch meeting' and people need to maintain the pretence to get in at the door. It gets pretty messy. People draw on each other and dance on tables. It's like 'Metallica does bingo'."

One-on-one plays

"Face your fears – come inside and play," teases the team behind One-on-One, which offers tailor-made performances to an audience of just one – you. Dayna Slate, 29, a media agency associate director, had a surreal experience at the One-on-One Festival at Battersea Arts Centre in July.

"To say the performances are intimate is an understatement. Mine involved selecting a song – I went for Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game' – and descended into a cellar where a performer invited me to dance with her. After some initial hesitation, I thought, 'What harm can it do?' It was all rather mesmerising."

The Secret Ingredient serves up a mixture of Japanese and Spanish food; House Concerts York is an idea imported to the UK from the US where lots of artists play gigs at people's homes.

Storytelling at boutique hotel 40 Winks in Stepney, east London, has a rigid dress code: pyjamas and nighties or "you're not coming in". And the Human Library project tours events and festivals, lending volunteers who relate their experiences of coping with disability or prejudice.

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