Last year, three companies, LAStheatre, Wild Rumpus and So It Is, set out to create a narrative-led, immersive family arts event for the north of England. The Lost Carnival took families on an adventure into the world of an incredible carnival that had suddenly stopped touring at the peak of its popularity, under suspicious and mysterious circumstances. The family audience helped to revive the carnival and its characters, with their passion, enthusiasm and love – just long enough for a breathtaking finale to take place featuring the dramatic return of the Lost Carnival’s leader, Popou Ingenou, aboard a steam train.
The Lost Carnival went on to play to over 9,000 young people and their adults in Bury, Greater Manchester. It was a festival of mesmerising theatre and enthralling installations, circus, music, visual trickery and sideshows. The press called it “a spellbinding spectacle” and, more importantly, one inspired audience member dubbed it “a night of wonder and awe”. This May, The Lost Carnival will be making its way to Crewe, Cheshire.
Immersive theatre sounds like a newfangled creation but it has been around a very long time. The first immersive event that I ever attended was a Living History Weekend at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford, where I grew up. Still knee high to a grasshopper, I escaped my parents and sat listening to a woman tell Celtic stories around the fire in a round house. When she finished, I walked out into the blinding sunlight and bumped into the kneecap of a Viking. Naturally I challenged him to a duel. The giant accepted. I quickly found a shield that was, approximately, the same size as me and hid behind it. The Viking gasped, murmured something about magic and went on his way. I scuttled back to my parents who, I am sure, had only allowed me the illusion of escaping their attention.
Theatre is a magical art form. Regardless of whether it takes place in a theatre, park or in your living room it presents a world captured not by the camera and frozen but live, evoked by an act of collective imagination, that makes you part of it. Immersive theatre has the exciting ability to take this process one step further. It allows you to break free of the stalls and physically explore the world of the show. At the Lost Carnival you will be able to explore the carnivals of two families, the Birds and Ingénues, meet the acrobats, magicians, jugglers and maybe even challenge one to a duel! Anything can, and does, happen – it is a wonderful reminder that make-believe can happen anywhere.
My experience at the Heritage Park had a huge effect on me and, as an adult and theatre maker, reminds me of the immense capacity for play in children – the desire to be at the heart of the theatrical event and not just its spectator. As such, there is no need to look for the “relaxed performance” of the Lost Carnival. This is a show that actively encourages young and old to shout out, interact and become part of the performance. To use a term coined by Jess Mabel Jones, this performance is not relaxed, it is “extra live” and everyone is welcome. Everyone’s contribution an addition.
The success of the Lost Carnival lies in the passion of the three companies (all award-winners in their own right) involved in its creation: Wild Rumpus’s heritage in producing excellent family arts festivals including Just So Festival, the commitment of So It Is to creating new quality arts engagement for the North West and LAStheatre’s experience of creating immersive theatre. Last year, as we watched the Lost Carnival come to an end, there was a sense that, together, we had created something quite unique, a thrilling playground of experience.
This year’s instalment of the Lost Carnival, the Battle of the Carnivals, is bigger and better. Don’t worry if you didn’t make it last year – the whole production is crafted so that you can enjoy it as a themed festival of circus and live music or you can, , like my younger self, delve deeper and interact with the characters and their stories. You can even run away with the circus and join one of the competing carnival families.
So dress up. Bring your magic tricks, juggling balls and dust off that cartwheel – the Lost Carnival is waiting for you. You truly are the author of your own experience, every moment tailored by your individual actions and reactions – something that can never be achieved by recorded media or traditional fourth-wall theatre. I am sure we can all agree it is a lot more enjoyable to live the adventure than watch someone else having all the fun.
Oh, and if you can’t wait until the end of May, the wonderfully talented Geoff Bird (BBC Radio) has produced a tantalising Lost Carnival podcast series just for you. The game is afoot!
The Battle of the Carnivals will take place in Queen’s Park (CW2 7SE) on 28th, 29 and 30 May. Book tickets at thelostcarnival.org.uk