I didn’t expect to spend last Saturday afternoon learning how to punch, how to throw a knife, or how to pick a lock, and yet this is what I found myself doing, when I visited immersive theatre piece Party Skills for the End of the World at the Manchester International Festival.
The brainchild of Stunt collective’s Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari with artist Abigail Conway, the show takes place in the Centenary Building at Salford University, which has been given an apocalyptic makeover in which classrooms are turned into makeshift spaces where visitors can learn new, somewhat unexpected skills.
The continuation of a project developed by Shunt and Conway back in 2014, the MIF version sees the idea considerably ramped up. “They wanted [in 2014] to test ideas around party skills around the end of the world – what skills could we do and learn with audiences in an eclectic mix,” explains Conway by phone from her home in Chichester. “They invited me along because the basis of my practise is around instruction-led or facilitated-led installations, where audiences build something together.”
“The commission for MIF was a whole other ballgame, in terms of just the size and scale, which is beyond anything I’d ever done before. It was going from ten interactive installations that we did in London where we tested out ideas to then over 30, and them being dispersed over what can only be called a mammoth site.”
The performance opens with visitors being taught, via posters, how to mix a martini or a nojito, and from the start, it is clear that we are being encouraged to interact with each other. While the opening is a little awkward – we mostly all just grin nervously at each other – things ramp up when we are let loose across the building to explore and discover the various skills on offer.
While there is teaching going on, the vibe is far from a normal learning environment, with Conway and set designer Bethany Wells deliberately dressing the building to seem a little off kilter. “We didn’t want it to be ‘we’re in a teaching environment’,” says Conway. “So in terms of the design we had to be site responsive and be quite inventive in how we used the structure and the furniture but also strip out any uniformity that could create a blandness or a generic atmosphere.”
One solution was to use the existing furniture in the building in unusual ways. “The library shelves became a bowling alley, the water tanks were used for vessels for the lava lamp room, and tables from the canteen became refurbished for carving in the butcher area,” continues Conway. “That was really fun because it was responding to the site and trying to be creative.”
The building is a rabbit warren of rooms, all of which have large windows, allowing passers-by to easily peer in. This, says Conway, was “a gift” both for the experience but also for wider ideas she is keen to explore in her work. “People could see through the windows and that became a really interesting performative layer: of people being watched, and watching others,” she says. “Which I’m very interested in in terms of my practice, of ‘where is this barrier?’, ‘where is this line between audience and performer?’. We are all capable of making and creating and performing, but it’s about framing it in an unintimidating way, and a playful way.”
Play is at the core of the whole work. For while there is the mildly unnerving undercurrent of the ‘end of the world’, the overriding atmosphere of the piece is one of fun. “I’m really interested in adults playing, because we just don’t,” says Conway. “It’s ironically institutionalised out of us, through institutions. We talk about things and we slowly think differently about play.”
While play is usually a childish concept, the activities on offer here are decidedly adult, from the aforementioned knife throwing through to skills I failed to encounter, such as skinning a rabbit or making a crossbow out of pencils. Part of the intention is to allow visitors to explore activities that might be out of their normal range of behaviour, to try out being a different kind of person than who they might be in their normal life.
“We’re talking about real adult things,” says Conway. “It’s all done in a hopefully playful way, that only later you might think about. In the moment, I wouldn’t want people to ruin that playful moment of talking to strangers or making something and just being absorbed in that activity by over-thinking it. That’s what works well when you’re immersed in something, is that you’re not thinking outside of it.”
Unlike what we might expect from the theatre, even immersive theatre, the experience of Party Skills… is without an overriding narrative, beyond the original set up. Instead, visitors to the show are taken through a series of experiences, designed to provoke ideas and interactions with others.
In this, it is in keeping with Conway’s wider body of work, which aims to encourage participants to play an active role in the making of the art. Previous works have included the installation Home Sweet Home, created with Lucy Hayhoe, where each visitor is asked to design a small house to form part of a makeshift town, which has its own postman to deliver mail across the dwellings. While some of the homes made are conventional, Conway and Hayhoe have found there is always a smattering of crack dens and brothels created too.
In other works, Conway has drawn on her own hobbies or interests to make works. This has seen her decision to get her motorcycle license result in Ride, an artwork that premiered in Tasmania two years ago, and saw a number of bikers ride participants on the backs of their bikes to “a viewing area of the rider’s choice”.
“It’s about perspective and meditation, and all these burly biker men – the majority men, middle-aged men – say really profound, really beautiful things about how riding has saved them in some ways, or journeys that have really changed them,” says Conway of the work.
In stark contrast to this piece, she is currently exploring a work based on growing primroses. But while the subject matter may differ each time, the intention is always for people to learn something through experiencing her works, hopefully something magical.
“I’m not interested in making linear narratives,” she says. “I want it to be about people’s experience with themselves, with whatever I’m making. Obviously there is an idea – I would like people to feel like they had fun, I would like people to feel like they’ve learnt something, I would like people to feel like they talked to someone they didn’t necessarily know and feel good about that. And restore some sort of faith in community or society or people. If they got any of those things, I’m really happy.”
Party Skills at the end of the World is on as part of this year’s Manchester International Festival, until July 16, mif.co.uk