Owen Kingston looks like a pirate king. Even in a small coffee shop dashing between engagements, he looks larger than life and like he should be brandishing a cutlass (very unfair, given he is incredibly sweet natured).
He’s been a theatre director for 20 years, and doing immersive theatre for the last five. He went to see The Drowned Man, and it changed everything for him. “it made me think completely differently about everything I had done up to that point. All I wanted to go was create that kind of work, that had that kind of audience experience built into it.”
Owen is the Venue Manager for Colab Factory which hosts both the Immersive Great Gatsby and For King and Country. He’s also the Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre, which produced the latter which he directed and plays a role in.
Tight Knit Company
For King and Country is due to close at the end of the Summer, but has been an extraordinary success. It took Owen months trying to get the project right before he was even willing to talk to anyone else about it. For four weeks at least the idea existed only in his head and after that, it was a couple of weeks of technical work before he was ready to take it to other people, rehearse and block it out.
Owen has a company he knows and trusts implicitly. He has built this up over time and adds to it with each production. He brings on new people but finds it easier to work with the same expanding group repeatedly. “For my own sanity I’d prefer it if the cast as most people I’ve worked with because I have a shorthand with them already and it makes it less laborious.”
This isn’t down to cliquishness, but to the very specific type of work that Owen creates. King and Country, for example, isn’t just immersive, it’s entirely audience-led. The actors can never expect to get fully onto a set of rails. They have to be facilitators as much as they are entertainers and that’s a very specific skill set. “You want actors who are really sensitive to the audience members they’re with and are able to tailor what they’re doing accordingly. And who can instinctively read a room and know where to go for different things.”
Trust is particularly important in immersive theatre. “In the sort of theatre we do vulnerability as is massively important. And it’s nearly impossible to be vulnerable with somebody you don’t trust.”
Audiences Are Paramont
This is part of why Owen is very protective of his cast and very aware of the need to be a good employer. Both in terms of the staff’s welfare and the need for them to be able to perform and deliver. Staff are actively encouraged to take time off for both physical and crucially mental health issues.
“We have a rule if they’re having serious issues in their personal life, if they’re not they’re not feeling mentally fit, we would treat that seriously as if they had the flu. We’re not going to let them on if they’re vomiting into a bucket. Similarly, we’re not going to let them go on if they have just broken up with their long-term partner and they’re in a total mess.
I think it’s so important because audiences experience for any theatre company has to be paramount. And if your audience experience can be harmed by anything, you have to take that seriously as a risk and in a West End musical your audience experience is unlikely to be harmed by an actor’s personal life unless the actor can’t do the show for whatever reason. In an immersive theatre show, where the actor is responding dynamically to what the audience say to them, it’s really easy for that to get out of control if their emotional state not in control.”
New Breed of Video Game
When I ask Owen what’s next for him and Parabolic, the answer is not at all what I expected. For King and Country is getting made into a computer game. As those who have read about my dream shows, you can see me getting my geek on right here. Owen says “It will be a whole new breed of video game which is where you converse with the characters in the game. For certain core things it dynamically generates the speech that comes back to you, so it intelligently responds to what you say, it remembers what you say so that it can bring it up again later.”
The gameplay won’t exactly match the experience of the play. It has to be developed so a player will return again and again. But that opens up an exciting possibility. “There were some things we can do way better So one thing it can do is make calls to other sites on the Internet to plug information in. So it can literally go to Wikipedia and look something up and then use it virtually instantaneously.”
Also in the planning stage is a second show – a direct sequel to For King and Country. Set four years after the original, it would feature the same characters, on an alternative D-Day. They and the audience will become leaders of the British resistance, breaking into the same bunker and fighting once again For King and Country. Owen says it’s not “nailed on” But you get the sense, from his excitement and confidence, that if he can find a way to do it, it will happen.
There are other, less developed, plans. Plans that need a bigger site or just a different type of building. That’s not easy to find for the right cost, in the right place in Central London. But Owen Kingston is a man who makes things happen. As we wrap up, his delight in every detail of his work is what stays with me most clearly. The care he takes over audiences and actors are replicated in the attention he pays to plot and atmosphere.
Whether it be in a game, a giant warehouse or back in the bunker, there will be that magic. “It has to feel magical,” Says Owen, “otherwise, what’s the point?”