Designing Alice’s Adventures Underground

We talk to Alice’s Adventures Underground director Oliver Lansley and designer Samuel Wyer, of theatre company Les Enfants Terribles, who have brought an ambitious new immersive show to the cavernous Vaults under London’s Waterloo station.

We talk to Alice’s Adventures Underground director Oliver Lansley and designer Samuel Wyer, of theatre company Les Enfants Terribles, who have brought an ambitious new immersive show to the cavernous Vaults under London’s Waterloo station.

The show begins by presenting each audience member with a choice of Eat Me or Drink Me, which decides the journey they will take through a selection of the 33 rooms in small groups, meeting various characters along the way. With a cast of 30, who repeat the performance on a loop 36 times in one evening, this is certainly an elaborate project.

Lansley and Wyer tell us about reworking Lewis Carroll’s 150 year-old classic story, with a blend of theatre, circus, live music, puppetry, set within a labyrinth of carefully designed rooms, including twisted and furry corridors, a vast, decrepit banqueting hall, and even a lakeside scene complete with ‘real’ lake.

CR: Can you tell me a bit about your background? And how you became involved with Les Enfants Terribles and Alice’s Adventures Underground?

Oliver Lansley: I set up the company when I was about 19. It was born out of a desire to make our own theatre but to create work that was slightly outside of the normal channels that ‘new work’ was originating from. I aspired to make work which was slightly more European influenced, and a bit more… off the wall. That’s partly where the name comes from, being outside of the establishment, les enfants terribles – naughty children.

Samuel Wyer: Oli and I have known each since we were children and had been writing what became the show’s stories for a couple of years; sickly sweet cautionary tales in the mould of Hillaire Beloc. Oli and James Seager had built a successful theatre company, and were keen to use their reputation as strange and inventive storytellers to do something even more unusual. My character designs, puppetry experience and illustrations combined with Oli’s writing and the company’s distinctive physical style came together to create the dark (and sometimes confusingly named) The Terrible Infants. Nearly a decade later we found ourselves in front of the drawing board for Alice, devising something weirder and greater than anything we’ve attempted before.

CR: What were the influences and inspirations behind the design of Alice’s Adventures Underground?

OL: Everything from art installations and exhibitions, to films, and other theatre pieces – we were trying to create a whole world and we wanted it to be as diverse as possible, so you will find influences in this show ranging from Jean Paul Jeunet to Shockheaded Peter to Star Wars – not to mention the many previous Alice iterations.

SW: Finding the balance between re-imagining Wonderland and being true to its iconography was both exciting and a huge responsibility. There exists so many well-loved retellings and interpretations of Carroll’s world, the greatest challenge was creating my own. Early on in our process the elements of espionage and tyranny led us down some interesting paths, and ultimately informed all aspects of the show. I’ve always held a mildly macabre course in my designs, Gormanghast, Gorey, and German expressionism, but the story demanded new, more disorientating ideas that put the audience’s experience at their heart. The Prisoner, The Shining, and David Lynch all played a small part in the new Wonderland, alongside our recognisable style.

CR: Can you tell me about building wonderland and how the designs were realised?

OL: We imagined something, then we were lucky enough to find a group of talented enough people to be able to realise it. Sam is a genius who we’ve worked with for many years and it’s been lovely to give him a canvas of this size. We’ve done some bonkers stuff in the show – there is one tunnel that we have flooded, which rains and has an island in the middle of it. That was one of our first ideas we had for Wonderland, many moons ago, and still now when I walk into it I can’t quite believe we’ve done it!

SW: The Vaults was chosen early on and played a huge part in hauling our dreamlike imaginings into practical reality, with the show’s routes and aesthetic being dictated to a large part by the venue’s spaces. It started like a practical, large-scale game of Tetris led by the story, chopping and swapping the spaces, designing rooms within rooms, and filling every last inch with a narrative experience. The next stage was pulling together an A-team to make it a reality, including producer Emma Brünjes, art director Rhiannon Newman Brown, and production manager Andy George. We avoided using volunteers as a rule, because we all believe that to be creating a show of this magnitude everybody needs to be valued as a team member. We moved into the venue in a little under two weeks before the cast joined us on site to begin rehearsing amongst the chaos, and had the bulk of the build finished in just under four!

CR: Can you tell me more about the design process, in terms of both set and costume?

SW: Even very late on a nuance in character detail could flip a room’s palette or content, and vice-versa. The evolution of the whole show was so integrated I could never have separated the two. Some of our key costume designs were interpreted and built by the costumiers Prangsta, who are incomparable in their field for the level of flair and detail they create, and the rest were made by our team.

My drawings can be somewhat more expressive than informative, and focus on character rather than common sense, so Alice Walkling my costume supervisor was incredible at cutting through all that and interpreting real solutions and details. There was also a significant crossover between character, costume and mask work, as some of our impressive heads, built by our mad-scientist puppet-maker Max Humphries, required fitting along side costume to allow for their extraordinary shapes and unique physicality.

CR: How did you work with the team including the sound and video designers?

SW: We all began the project with regular department meetings to keep everyone in the same world, sometimes whole days went by debating sets and journey planning, whilst AV geniuses sat patiently absorbing and generating incredible problem solving content, including Tomas Gisby our composer and soundscape designer. We found ourselves thinking at length on the size and shapes of the tannoy systems and in show speakers. Practically they trigger the entire show as well, signaling to our stage management and performers where they are in their piece.

Working with the projection team, and the completely wonderful Nina Dunn was a real highlight of the show. A visual artist who, with the added dose of mysterious tech, and second language of lumens and lux levels, transcended from artist into magician.

CR: Do you have any favourite rooms, or moments in the show? 

OL: Every room has its own special moment – but all for different reasons. I don’t want to give too much away but one of the things I’m most proud of is the diversity of experiences available. I love the big grand set pieces but then a one-on-one with an actor in a tiny dark space can be equally as thrilling.

SW: Being sat at our tea party table is a really special experience, to design a space that vast and characterful was thrilling. I got to build some really indulgent details in there, like the vast, dominating clock face and the tiny expressions of the flowers in the Rose garden. There are also some technical tricks in that scene that garner true disbelief from the audience. But a real personal design triumph for me is the ‘eat me/drink me’ room. We were never 100% certain it would work as planned before we built it, but it is hilariously effective.

CR: What were the main challenges with designing and creating the show in terms of striving for an immersive environment?

OL: To create a show that could be this size, and get the requisite number of audience members through and yet also remain intimate (most of the audiences journey takes place in groups of 14), whilst giving a freedom of choice, randomness and show that can genuinely be different every time you see it, was very complicated. As well as navigating 42 performers and trying to weave together multiple narratives – it was a real brain fryer.

SW: Honestly the biggest challenge was not doing it all myself. The scale precluded that, I’m used to having total control and managing a couple of trusted colleagues. Juggling a space this big and visually detailed on our timescale was like plate-spinning wonderland style. My focus is usually on illustrative detail, however, this show called for much broader gestures and colour palettes to fill the world and keep the energy of the show high.

But you need the detail in this kind of show – misdirection through detail is a valuable fig leaf in these environments. When you have had to crudely mask a ceiling or doorway, you can make exciting decisions like pulling peoples eyes toward, for instance, a giant tin of Wonderland cat food (with a real functioning barcode). Strong patterns or distorting architectural details can lead and direct attention, keeping the audience feeling a strong visual momentum. Knowing when to embrace a venue and play with that conceit is important too and some things I chose to embrace and embellish.

CR: Would you say that with immersive theatre, intrigue and excitement around the detail and exploration, can sometimes take precedence over emotional responses towards a story or character?

OL: Not for us, but I guess this can be a danger for the audience. I think our job is to engage the audience with the story to make sure they want to know what’s going on and hear what’s being said – if you make it important enough to them they will seek the information our and hopefully the environment will simply enhance that.

CR: What would you say makes a truly successful piece of immersive theatre, in light of current trends for the ‘immersive’ tag in events more widely?

OL: I think it’s essential the audience know who they are and what their role is in the piece. It needs to hit the balance of keeping an audience comfortable but also getting them involved. And of course the world needs to be realised in a way design-wise that stops you from constantly being broken out of it. In terms of what the tag is doing for other work, I think it’s encouraging people to embrace the experimental and unique, two things which I think makes theatre special. To me embracing the fact theatre is live and unpredictable can only be a good thing, so if ‘immersive’ work helps people engage with it in a way they wouldn’t previously that’s fantastic.

SW: The strength of an immersive show is in empowering the audience to engage in a world. Give them the belief that all the people and places they encounter exist before and after them, or else that the fate of that world has been somehow changed by their presence. It should also be disarming. I really enjoy the sense that an oblique system exists that you are yet to decipher, recognisable aspects from our lives that are altered to be out of reach. Like arriving at a foreign railway station. We had a lot of fun with this on Alice’s Adventures Underground, creating the rules, passports and ceremonies in the show, invoking a sense of Kafka and Terry Gilliam through Carroll’s infamous nonsense.

As an umbrella term ‘immersive’ is sometimes unhelpful. It could be anything, from a show like ours, right down to someone in a wig accosting you in a bar. It most likely implies you won’t be sat for long periods, or that someone will talk to you and they’ll have an unrequested backstory to tell. Theatre doesn’t have to be seated, or interactive or narrative or visual, but it does have to engage you. Punchdrunk do this in their larger shows by submerging you, en-mass and ghostlike, into a highly detailed world. Look Left Look Right often focus on you as an individual being an integral part of a story. They are both radically different examples of excellent theatre, both termed ‘immersive’. One thing its prevalence and popularity does encourage is pushing practioners into really considering how the audience experience their work.

There may be a tendency elsewhere for the enthusiasm for an immersive approach to weaken content though. If your audience is over-stimulated, or you aren’t properly giving a focal point you may find you have spent all your time immersing people and not enough time making good art. It’s still ok to put on a show, or just look at something beautiful, you don’t have to be able to climb inside it or role-play with it.

Alice’s Adventures Underground runs until 31 August, at The Vaults, London.


Images: Photos by Jane Hobson; sketches courtsey of Samuel Wyer; marketing images (final two above) by Jason Joyce

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