In a small, moodily lit room, about 100 people sit scattered around tables, cabaret-style. One actor, clad in a leather jacket, stands behind an audience member. He raises her arms into position, mimicking the handlebars of a motorcycle. He tilts her left and right as he makes imaginary turns, a white scarf waving behind him with the help of a castmate. The audience erupts with laughter. The rider is Ewan Black, one of the five cast members shaking hands with the audience, turning them into stage props, and telling the story of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in The Club Car at The McKittrick Hotel.
It’s a show that requires its performers to be actors, storytellers, musicians, production assistants, and whatever else the show needs for its resourceful and immersive staging. As Black puts it, “It feels like a kind of sprung together thing, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s designed that way, and it’s actually a mammoth task to make it feel like that. You’re speaking in verse, piggybacking lines, but you’re also getting a glass to ting it to pretend to be ice. It’s like a duck on water—gliding, but under the water, everything’s going absolutely mental.”
The show begins with a jam session as the cast of five play music, sing, and have small conversations with members of the audience. And then it launches into the story of Prudencia Hart, an academic researching Scottish folk ballads which suddenly transform from fiction to reality. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was designed for pubs rather than theatres, and it’s rife with audience participation and interactions. Commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and co-created by playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, it has toured many locations within Scotland and throughout the world since its 2011 premiere. The current revival at The McKittrick, where it also played in 2016, runs through April 30.
Charlene Boyd plays the titular character, joined by four ensemble members who tell her story, sliding in and out as its additional characters. Along with Boyd, Aberdeenshire native Ewan Black and Natali McCleary, who hails from Glasgow along with Boyd, chat with Playbill about the immersive show. (They're joined by castmates Charlie West and Gavin Jon Wright.) Boyd, Black, and McCleary joined the National Theatre of Scotland production last summer for its run at Edinburgh Fringe, where its performance venue was a library. “It was completely different to The McKittrick. Polar opposite, huge echoey space which literally had books on every side,” says Black, hands miming the space in the air.
Reflecting on its most recent Fringe run, McCleary says, “It felt like you had literally walked into a pub, or in this case a massive library, and these people just were grabbing whatever was nearby. ‘We're going to tell you a story.’” That simple approach to the show is underpinned by Prudencia Hart’s resourceful staging and use of props. For instance, snow factors into the plot—and it’s made by the audience tearing up cocktail napkins into tiny pieces before the show starts. When the cue comes, attendees throw the pieces up in the air to create the effect. While vivid, the aesthetic of the show feels “stripped-back” with the way the props feel found. But as Black says, that’s built into the show’s design.
For McCleary, the production has become slicker as it has travelled to new spaces which offer greater flexibility with the show's design elements. McCleary points to the lighting. During the Fringe at the Playfair Library, it was either “lights on” or “lights off." Boyd concurs, “You have to adapt to your surroundings. Even simply having lights is so different when you're used to everyone bright, in one state of light.” With those greater capabilities, it's no longer on the performers to create as much of the mood.
But challenges still remain for them. The show’s immersive staging necessitates the actors communicate with each other across spaces. And with each venue change, they have to reevaluate how they project to the audience. Black says, “How we deliver lines vocally is very challenging. I'm talking to someone here,” he points in front of himself, “but I'm also talking to someone that is at the other side of the room behind my head.”
Given how the performers move throughout the entire room and interact with the audience, it’s paramount that they be in tune with the audience. “People who come to The McKittrick, they're up for the challenge,” says Boyd. But, gauging the audience’s willingness to play along is part of the groundwork they have to create first. Black and McCleary, who interact quite physically with members of the audience, have two different approaches to getting a read. “What I always try to do [before the show] is chat or listen into conversations. You see someone's confidence levels,” says Black. Then he adds with a laugh, “This is the worst sentence, but I like to ride someone as a motorbike if they're with a lot of friends.” Why? It’s a guaranteed set of laughs that’ll spark the rest of the audience into joining in.
While Black listens to people, McCleary watches them. Trained as a dancer, she shares, “Body language is a fluent language to me, I’m very sensitive to it." In addition to her background in dance, she also attributes her skill to having been bullied when she was younger and the “rather rough training of growing up brown in Scotland.” For McCleary, it's about instincts and “being mindful.”
As Prudencia, Boyd stays in one character the longest through the show. While in character, Boyd says she has to start by being “more closed off so that I've got somewhere to go” later in the show. One way she does that? She doesn't look at the audience when playing Prudencia. But she still makes a point of trying to meet everyone with a smile before the show begins so that they invest in Prudencia's story.
“I remember Wils, the director, kept saying ‘make sure every corner of the room has a moment. It could just be a little look, a little wink, or whatever,'” says Boyd. The show’s immersive staging encourages a kind of freedom with improvising and tailoring to each night's specific audience. Sometimes audience members who fall asleep are woken up by a deluge of “snow,” and sometimes interjections become a conceit between the performers and the audience. “We don't pretend that things aren't happening if they are actually happening,” says Boyd.
McCleary adds, “Whatever happens within reason, we take it.” She goes on to explain that it’s also because the show has explicitly invited the audience to participate. “You have to be really mindful that you have set a space where you've said, ‘This is safe, and you are open to participate here.’ People are going to do that as they see fit. You can’t create space for participation and go, ‘but not like that.’ We're here to just tell the story.”
Boyd picks up on the thread and says, “No one should feel left out. No one should not be asked to make snow.” It goes back to what Boyd says The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart really is about at its core: Bringing people together. “It's very much a community storytelling piece.”