INTERVIEW: Parabolic Theatre’s Artistic Director Owen Kingston, ‘Crisis? What Crisis?

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory (5).JPG


The year is 1979. 

Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government has a working majority of zero. 

Parliament is in deadlock. 

The country is crippled by strikes. 

Relations between the British government and trade unions are at an all-time low. The IMF has agreed a financial bailout for Britain, but on the condition that punitive wage freezes are implemented across the public sector. Strikes have crippled much of the country. Parliament is in deadlock. The people are angry. The IRA is a source of constant fear, and the National Front is on the march. 

Britain’s new friends on the continent, the European Economic Community, look on nervously. So too do the British armed forces, and, rumour has it, the Americans. This is a world familiar to those who were there – but it seems to have got even worse. You are right there in the thick of it. 

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives have tabled a vote of no confidence against the government. If even one Labour MP does not vote in support of the Prime Minister, the government will fall. You and your fellow parliamentary advisers have been gathered in a neglected office building, away from the prying eyes of the press, to find a way of averting disaster. The clock is ticking, and who you choose to work with can make all the difference. 

Can you end the deadlock and get the country back to work? Or will you hand the opposition the keys to number 10?

Taking audiences back to 1979 when Britain was on the brink of political collapse for the second time in a decade, Crisis? What Crisis?’ is Parabolic Theatre’s thrilling live-action board game coming to The Colab Factory from Tuesday 12th November until Sunday 8th December. Exploring the parallels between the Winter of Discontent and our own divided and turbulent times, the production let its audience get hands-on with government in a time of political and civil unrest.

As government special advisers, the audience must manage the escalating political crisis and steer the country to stability while fears of riot, strikes and economic meltdown spiral. With a direct line to politicians and journalists, foreign dignitaries and the armed forces, the audience must take action and the mechanics of the production mean that their decisions alter every show so no two are the same; the ending changes with each choice they make.

Ahead of the show’s run, I spoke to Parabolic Theatre’s Artistic Director and venue manager of the Colab Factory, Owen Kingston.

Owen begins by telling me what the show is about: “I guess you’d call it a political simulator. What we do is we present audiences with a whole range of political problems from 1979, and we give them the tools to try and address those problems and make positive changes, and then we see what their decisions are, and play out the story accordingly”. 

“a political simulator… we present audiences with a whole range of political problems… and we give them the tools to try and… make positive changes”

Set as a live-action board game, Owen explains that “the show is built around game mechanics, so if somebody likes board games, to a certain extent it will feel like a board game, but you’re not sitting around a board, it is all happening for real. There are certain rules that govern what happens, so when you try to make changes to the economy, for example, that will have knock on effects, which are predictable if you’re able to figure out how it works, but it all ties up logically together, kind of like a board game. But you’re not at any point sitting around a table, you are playing as though it is a real event, and these things are happening for real”.

As Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre,  a company that specialises in producing immersive theatrical experiences, I asked Owen what the show was like to stage, and whether he had encountered any challenges. “All of these immersive shows present a similar set of challenges, and the biggest challenge is always that the audience is very unpredictable, you present them with a range of options, and whilst you might have an idea of the most likely directions the show might go, audiences will constantly surprise you.

“the audience is very unpredictable”

So in relation to the actors, a lot of preparation work is important, in this case doing some research into the political situation in 1979, and making sure that all our actors understood the realistic parameters of what should and shouldn’t be possible or likely, but also then giving the actors those tools, and enabling them to think on their feet, and empowering them to make decisions on the night to try and ensure that the experience is built around the audience’s decisions and bends around them, so I think that’s probably the biggest challenge in staging a show like that, is ensuring that the actors are pretty much prepared for any eventuality”. 

“the experience is built around the audience’s decisions”

Set in 1970, Owen explains the significance of that year: “That was the year that Jim Callaghan’s government fell, so people say that it was the biggest political crisis since the war, in that you had a huge number of different challenges facing the country, there were an awful lot of strikes going on, the government had put in a pay freeze, so that people weren’t able to have significant pay rises, and they hadn’t had significant pay rises for a while, inflation had still been quite high, so people’s buying power had reduced over time.

The Labour government at the time was really struggling, because they were supposed to be the government that was friendly with the unions, yet the unions were very hostile to the government’s position. And all the time you had a resurgent Tory party with Margaret Thatcher, who’d been nearly appointed the leader, who was nipping at their heels, trying to get back into power. So that was the setting of it. It was the end of the post war consensus, and a distinct shift away from the kind of post war policies which felt more socialist in nature, towards more what Margaret Thatcher was going to bring in, with a very different approach to public finances”.  

The show deftly explores parallels between the ‘winter of discontent’ and our own divided times. Owen explains that the drawing of such parallels is “in anticipation of what might happen with Brexit. There have obviously been a lot of news stories, a lot of talk about the chaos that might ensue with a no-deal Brexit, or even the difficulties that could ensue with a Brexit with a deal, whereby we’re having to change how we do things, so you might have shortages of food and medicine and that sort of thing, and similarly in 1979, there were a lot of unpleasant issues, for example when the lorry drivers’ union goes on strike, suddenly things don’t get delivered, so those sorts of things disrupt people’s everyday lives.

I think there’s a lot of potential in our political situation to see some of that stuff happen, and that certainly was the case back in those days. In 1979 you had a parliament where the government had a working majority of zero. We’ve seen that very recently, so you’ve got a very evenly divided parliament where the government is really struggling to govern. Obviously we’re having an election in a few weeks’ time because of that situation, and the election might see a huge shift in people’s thinking, and in how the country’s run, and that’s certainly something that took place in 1979″.

“the government is really struggling to govern”

The show allows audiences to get hands on with the government, acting as government advisors. I asked Owen what the audience will have to do. “All kinds of things. What happens is the audience will be split into smaller groups to handle different areas of running the country, so there’ll be a group that’s dedicated to coming up with economic policy, so we’ll present them with a range of ideas and things they can enact, so they might decide they want to do fairly moderate things, like maybe reducing or increasing VAT, or really quite radical decisions. In our test shows, and a run of our shows we did earlier in the year, we had audiences decide that they wanted to bring Britain out of Europe completely, and go and join the Soviet Bloc. What we do is we allow for those extremes as well.

“we allow for those extremes”

A lot of audiences so often sit in a more moderate place in what they want to try and do, but it is possible to enact some seriously wide-ranging alternate histories, if you life, which is quite fun. There’s also a lot of decisions about public order as well because, during the strikes, there was always that threat that public order might start to break down. That is a serious risk in the show, so deciding whether you want to put troops on the streets, for example, or how you want to deal with areas that have seen really difficult times. And on top of that as well, dealing with the press is a huge part of the show, so the audience will get to make appearances on LBC Radio, so we simulate that in the room, and make it sound like you’re on the radio, which is fun”. 

“it is possible to enact some seriously wide-ranging alternate histories”

With audiences making decisions that alter the course of the show, no two shows are the same. Owen explains just how much control he and the cast have. “We have a very tight structure for the show. That gives us a lot of control over how different things can be at any given time… There are certain events that are fixed, that will happen at the same time pretty much regardless, but there are also within that a lot of things, how the audience responds to those events can be wide open, so it depends what they think is a good idea and what isn’t a good idea, and then what we will do is respond logically and realistically to whatever their decisions are, and then when we hit the next event that is fixed, and we’ll always trigger at that point, how that event triggers might have been affected by what has come before it, depending on what it is, and what the audience have done.

“how the audience responds to those events can be wide open”

To give you an example, there are several different ways in which there might be an attempted military coup against the government. One of those ways is if the audience push the policies too far to the left, and essentially border on communists. At that point, the military might decide to step in. Another way is if the economy goes completely off the rails, again the military might decide to step in at that point. Another way is if they upset the Americans. So if a coup occurs, it will generally occur at the same point in the show, but there might be different reasons why it’s happened. And it also might not occur at all if the audience don’t do anything that might trigger it”. 

Owen talks about the significance of giving audiences the power to make decisions, and the benefits of immersive theatre in engaging and empowering audiences to get hands on with politics. “One of the things I believe very strongly, and one of the things immersive theatre does best is it engenders empathy in people. It literally puts you in somebody else’s shoes, and gives you an idea of what their life or their situation might be like, so allowing people to make decisions and make changes and suggest ideas is all part of that process of encouraging people to think about what might be, and what sort of changes they could make, so I guess that’s a large part of what we’re trying to do really”. 

“one of the things immersive theatre does best is it engenders empathy in people. It literally puts you in somebody else’s shoes”

Owen also discusses why it is important that topics such as those explored in the production continue to be highlighted in theatre. “I think it is really important to face people with realities. Particularly with the Brexit debate, there’s been a lot of assumptions made on both sides about what made happen, but nobody really knows – a lot of these assumptions are based on other assumptions. Looking at history, we’ve got some hard facts and some hard date to deal with, so we know what did happen, and we’ve got a much better idea with hindsight of other things that could have happened. Now I know the crisis in 1979 is not at all the same as what politicians are dealing with today because there was no Brexit. It’s not about the same issues, but when you look at how quickly a country can go off the rails, if things aren’t managed carefully, a lot of those things are quite similar, so I think it’s important to audiences, because what we’re doing is allowing them the chance to see how difficult politicians’ jobs really are.

“I think it is really important to face people with realities”

A lot of people are saying at the moment, ‘I could do better than the politicians, they’re doing a terrible job’. Well actually we’re giving people the chance to try and prove that. What we’ve found in the test shows we’ve done and in the run that we did earlier in the year is that audiences come out thinking it’s a lot harder than it seems. And that maybe politicians really are just doing the best they can. And maybe that best isn’t good enough, but I’m not sure that your average Joe in the street would necessarily do any better, even if they think they could. That then feeds into the idea of empathy – at the moment, people are really hostile to our politicians, on all sides of the political spectrum, and I’m not sure that’s the healthiest thing for the country. This is a time where we need to be more engaged in politics, not less, and where we need to be making really sensible decisions about the way forward, because it’s going to have huge far-reaching consequences. So anything that we can do to try and enable people to be more engaged with politics is a good thing, I think”.

“this is a time where we need to be more engaged in politics”

Finally, I asked Owen the main thing he’d like audiences to take away from the show. “I think that idea of having a go, and seeing how hard it is. It may be that we discover people with some incredible political acumen who do this. Maybe there’ll be people who come and play this show and think, ‘Hey, that worked out pretty well, maybe I could do this for real’. In which case perhaps we’ll get some really good new politicians that come out of it. On the other hand, we might have people who at the moment are sitting back like an armchair general saying, ‘I can do a better job than this’, and being very scathing about politics. Maybe if they come and try it for themselves, they’ll lose a little bit of that cynical edge”.

“we’re giving people the chance to try and prove that”

“If you go to the theatre to relax this is not for you. Adrenaline rages. But if you find yourself saying that politicians today are a mess and you could do better – go and find out” (Croydonites Festival).

‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ runs at the Colab Factory from Tuesday 12th November until Sunday 8th December. 


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