Text by: Struan Robinson / 撰文：Struan Robinson
Translated by: Shen Xinyi / 翻譯：沉心懿
“shunt” was founded by ten artists from Central School of Speech and Drama, who met in 1997 whilst doing a one year postgraduate course. Its beginnings as a collaborative effort has become the group’s defining feature, as embodied in the company’s title as a ‘collective’. It operates as a company which devises its own material – various, slightly interlocking themes are agreed upon by the group as a whole before each member brings forward a different proposal for each scene in an effort to challenge the traditional theatre model of a single author. As a result of the huge amount of collaboration the company does, often what appear to be disparate and unrelated ideas come together through the collective creativity of the group. Their work tends to be site-specific and evolves during the devising process alongside their often-changing environment. Much of the time, the collective’s message is unclear at the beginning of a run, developing only as the weeks go by and reaching a fully-formed idea by the end of the run. Perhaps one of the first companies to define themselves as being ‘immersive’, shunt have paved the way for companies such as Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train to infiltrate their way into the public consciousness. But shunt remains, unlike these arguably more commercialized entities, on the fringe of the mainstream, delivering productions and performances that are perhaps a little too disturbing and avant-garde to really become commercial fodder.
尚特劇團也許是最早自我定義為”體驗式”（immersive，行業內也會翻譯成沈浸式）風格的戲劇公司，這種理念甚至影響了如今廣為人知的眩暈劇團（Punchdrunk）以及你我笨笨車（You Me Bum Bum Train）等戲劇公司的運行模式，為它們如今的普及鋪平了道路。然而，相比後者的商業化，尚特劇團保持了它一慣的先鋒精神，在主流戲劇的邊緣區域推行更叩響人心、更具實驗性質的作品。
As a theatre company, shunt have always proved divisive in nature, often alienating mainstream theatre critics and appealing mainly to their risk-taking and loyal fans, to whom their work is most definitely aimed at. A lack of focus and coherence, an attack on style over substance and a lack of understanding the message behind shunt’s work makes up most of the criticism against them. shunt combine multiple forms of media, such as video installation, dance, acrobatics and acting, it has even been suggested by several that shunt work better as a performance art installation company rather than a theatrical one. But at the heart of shunt’s work is the relationship between audience and performer which is pushed and pulled and examined intently by the collective, a relationship which can clearly only be truly found in the theatrical medium. Their audience tends to be one which relishes the uncertainty of a shunt performance; who delights in the non-sequiturs and unabashed weirdness of the production and draws out broad themes from them which can be pulled apart and discussed after the show. It is quite clearly not a theatre company for those who favour proscenium arches and dislike audience participation.
shunt’s piece ‘The Architects’ was promoted by the National Theatre in 2012 but took place in a disused biscuit factory in Bermondsey, signaling their status as a respected but still alternative company. Once again exploring and pushing against ideas of space and illusion and taking cue from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the company deliberately created a totally confusing sensation for the audience, creating a wooden labyrinth which gave way to a luxurious ocean liner, all within the confines of a South London warehouse.
The company’s latest production is a 45-minute promenade piece set in multiple shipping containers in a Greenwich Port called ‘The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face’. Finishing in late September 2014, a great deal of secrecy shrouded the production. As usual with shunt, the space in which the performers worked became integral to the piece itself. Taking its cue from Charles Kingsley’s Victorian moral fable ‘The Water Babies’ and Joseph Conrad’s seminal post-colonial work ‘Heart of Darkness’, an aura of dread and fear crept into the production somewhat accurately, as true moments of terror tended to pervade the awkward silences. Unlike the immersive productions of Punchdrunk however, this production did not allow the audience to wander and explore on their own, but rather invited them on a journey alongside the performers in what transpired to be a fairly twisted game of ‘follow the leader’. An idea of sensation ran throughout the piece, from the moment the audience were asked to remove their shoes and socks before they enter, creating an uncomfortable proximity with the performance itself that was emphasised by the claustrophobic contains of the set itself which often plunged the audience into pitch blackness. This is all part of shunt’s ethos – a determined desire to put the audience into a visceral situation so disorientating that they cannot just remind themselves that they are watching a piece of theatre, but have to admit to themselves that they are living it instead. Alternately nightmarish and enlightening, ‘The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face’ remained a divisive piece for critics and audiences alike.
他們最近的作品被命名為《從自己臉中爬出來的男孩（The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face）》，這部時長45分鐘的體驗式戲劇作品將演出場地設在格林威治港海運集裝箱之間。和往常一樣，作品本身和空間融為一體。利用查爾斯·金斯利（Charles Kingsley）的兒童文學作品《水孩子（The Water Babies）》和約瑟夫·康拉德（Joseph Conrad）寫於後殖民時期的小說《黑暗之心（Heart of Darkness）》作為該作品的兩條故事線索，使得它蔓延著一種恐怖的氣氛，在海港集裝箱之間那種寂靜的環境中尤甚。與暈眩劇團的體驗式戲劇作品相反，該作品並不允許觀眾在場地內自由穿行探索，而是邀請他們緊隨表演者的步伐進行一次令人膽戰心驚的”跟我走”遊戲。感官體驗貫穿整部作品，從觀眾在開場前被要求脫掉鞋襪開始，通過讓觀眾置身在令人感到幽閉恐懼的漆黑集裝箱內，營造並強調了一種近距離體驗演出的壓抑感。尚特劇團的作品風格是如此強烈，他們從始至終都熱衷於用真實的場景把觀眾從現實中剝離，從而使他們忘記自己是在觀看表演，而承認自己是故事發展的一部分。撇開作品的恐怖氣氛和啟發意義，《從自己臉中爬出的男孩》一如既往地在劇評家和觀眾中極具爭議性。
Interview with shunt co-founder David Rosenberg
ART.ZIP: Where do ideas come from? Contemporary, zeitgeist issues or ones that are more transcendent, like ideas about love and death? Which out of the space or the theme for a production comes first?
DR: Initial starting points for performances might come from a particular space; a physical perspective that we want the audience to have on an image, an idea for a role that we want the audience to play or occasionally from an existing text or historical account. With all our shows the dialogue is usually the last element to get added and the most vulnerable to change over the run.
ART.ZIP: So much of shunt’s ethos focuses on displacing the audience and exploring the relationship between performer and audience. What can that tell us about the value of theatre?
DR: As increasingly more of our culture is consumed alone in front of a screen – live performance is an indispensable opportunity to bring people together in the same space. Given that the audience has made this effort to leave the couch it seems unfair to ignore them. When we are disorientated, uncomfortable, nervous then we might see or feel things in a different way (or we might get disappointed, frustrated and angry – oh well, there’s just no pleasing some people)
DR: 現今越來越多的觀眾會選擇坐在屏幕前–但事實上，現場演出是一種使觀眾能相聚於同一空間的不可或缺的方式。當然觀眾這麼合作地從沙發上爬起來了，我們更要努力工作來回應他們。當我們感到不知所措，緊張不安時，我們會用不同的角度看東西 （不然我們會覺得失望、焦慮或憤怒 — 沒辦法，有些人總是那麼難以取悅。）
ART.ZIP: How does immersive theatre fit into the category of visual theatre?
DR: The first time I was immersed was playing Donkey Kong in the 80’s. My avatar was only a handful of pixels but I was him, I became him, and in order to become him my imagination was required to fill a gap. This gap is becoming increasingly narrow.
I go to the cinema to escape from a dimension – pretty much everything else i do is in 3D so what I expect from the cinema is one dimension less. The additional dimension currently offered, although it advertises itself as a greater immersive experience is, for me, paradoxically less immersive. Imagine a man with electrodes placed in three distinct areas of his brain – when he presses the green button he experiences a sensation of sexual pleasure, the yellow one – a nostalgic pleasure, and the red one a crazy visual hallucination that is also in some way pleasurable.
I think this man was used as an argument against hedonism, however it could equally be used as an argument in support of hedonism, for the fence has become almost as wide as the two gardens that it divides and consequently it is very difficult to find anywhere else to sit.
The term immersive is now a marketing idea rather than an authentic one, in fact authentic is now also a marketing idea: a technique for corporations to attempt to not sound corporate. It would seem to me that if a corporation wants to be authentic then they should probably attempt to sound as corporate as possible.
When I’m a doctor – I want to sound like a doctor I don’t want to sound like another patient – that’s confusing.
But these doubts have not stopped us from making what have been described as immersive experiences usually by other people but sometimes ourselves – for marketing reasons. Pop-up is also a misleading term.
DR: 我的第一次體驗式表演是在80年代扮演大金剛（Donkey Kong）。這無非是一些像素組成的卡通形象，但是我確確實實是它。為了使表演惟妙惟肖我需要彌補我想象力的缺口。這個缺口正越變越窄。
ART.ZIP: How does shunt differ from companies like Punchdrunk which have sprung up in its wake?
DR: There are increasingly more companies in London who are making work outside of the auditorium. We will always be compared with each other due to our common interest in abandoned buildings and mobile audiences but I’m not sure how useful it is to compare other elements of our work. The thing that most typifies shunt’s contribution to this whole thing is our pathological inability to capitalise on what has been successful in a previous project and roll it out in the next. We are constantly making our second album.
ART.ZIP: shunt’s productions are hugely influenced by their current location/every different audience. Is it difficult to archive and store past productions if every experience is so different?
DR: Neanderthal man, as far as we know, didn’t produce any art, which makes them, in our eyes… a bunch of Neanderthals. But maybe they were more into performance art or immersive events, which are, as we know, notoriously difficult to document.
Their only true legacy is a gently disappearing memory. How did such an ephemeral art form get stuck in such old and inflexible buildings? The shunt archive is a vast and as yet unorganized mass of stuff that Susanne Dietz (shunt associate artist, documenter and video designer) will hopefully pummel into shape next year.
ART.ZIP: Why has shunt proved so divisive with critics? Do you think the critics are missing out on the point?
DR: Who knows – we have also been divisive with audiences – no one has to like everything. Sometimes critics are factually wrong about what they write – this is more annoying. That’s like us not bothering to turn the amps on.
ART.ZIP: Would it be in the company’s interests to go overseas and bring their productions to other audience e.g. Chinese audiences? What would be the company’s pick for a production that could introduce shunt to a Chinese audience that embodies their ethos best?
DR: It would be very difficult to take a shunt production from the past and try to restage it. There would be much greater interest to create something new made specifically for the space and audience. It would also be of interest to work in collaboration with local artists in the creation of a new performance. Our ethos (other than to ‘explore the live event’) has been profoundly malleable over the years and has probably been defined by each performance rather than the other way round.
ART.ZIP: Surely the point of theatre is that there is a distinct separation between audience and performer – what is gained by immersing the audience directly into the action?
DR: I would suggest that given this binary choice then – the point of theatre is to remove the separation between the audience and performer – this can happen in an auditorium as powerfully as in a railway arch (our home for over 10 years). There are things that become more complicated when the audience are in the middle of the whole thing: they seem to need a reason to be there, they are of course always the audience but now they have a parallel role and that needs to be worked into the narrative. If they are not to be ignored then the performers need to have a way of communicating with them which also makes sense of the performers’ predicament.
ART.ZIP: How do you find performance sites? Is there something specific that you look for? Did you know (for example) that for The Architects you wanted a disused biscuit factory or for The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face that you wanted the jetty?
DR: The question we asked ourselves for those two productions were – ‘We have a biscuit factory – what shall we do in it?’ And ‘We have a slab of concrete in the middle of the Thames – what can we use for a windbreak?’ Because you never know what building or site is going to make it through the increasingly arduous task of acquiring it, it has made more sense to us to sort out the site and then think how it could filled with performance.
ART.ZIP: What do you want audiences to come out of a shunt show thinking?
DR: Have we left yet? How did I get so drunk? When will this ringing in my ears stop? I never want it to stop; as long as my ears are ringing then I am free from responsibility and pain.
ART.ZIP: Is immersive theatre bringing in a new breed of theatre goers?
DR: There are now many companies who have made a great effort to reach out to new audiences either through presenting work in exciting and surprising locations or making the whole thing more of a fun night out or a social event. It’s difficult to know whether these audience’s are ‘theatre goers’ or simply the audience for all this new work. But whoever they are – there are loads of them.
How important is the visual aspect to a shunt performance? Obviously it’s all about sensation so you incorporate touch and sound as well as sight.
ART.ZIP: shunt productions appear to be sensation driven – are we not missing out on broader themes? This is a problem a lot of mainstream media outlets have with the company.
DR: I’m not sure whether all shunt performances are sensation driven although that doesn’t mean we are not also missing out on broader themes. We are always trying to create enough space for the audience to also occupy the performance. We enjoy a certain amount of confusion and unknowing and we are always try to place ourselves and the audience on a knife edge between narrative and abstraction. The problem with this route is that it’s very easy to fall of either side and every audience member has a different idea of where the knife should be placed.
This means that we can guarantee that our work will not be for everyone. Luckily there is loads of other theatre.