Any One Thing: Hyper-Real Intimacy And Immersive Theatre

The Notebook | 31st January 2020

The founder of Any One Thing on creating a new model for contemporary theatre that employs cutting-edge tech to create hyper-real experiences

Any One Thing is a theatrical production company at the forefront of intimate, interactive theatre that is designed to sear experience into your memory banks via the application of world-class acting and cutting-edge tech. Taking place in private homes and volunteered spaces across London, the nascent but increasingly talked about company bring to life uncompromising stories by some of the most prodigious writers and directors in contemporary theatre, seeking to create unique experiences unfettered by the constraints of appealing to a mass commercial audience. Headed up by founder Paul Farnell and based out of Mortimer House, Fitzrovia, Any One Thing brings the tech expertise Farnell gleaned leading his previous globally celebrated tech company Litmus Software to the environs of the stage, personalizing every performance for audience members through data-mining, in order to create a strange spectral space where the real and unreal become symbiotically intertwined. With every audience curated, and each show taking place at a different venue every night, there is nothing quite else like it in the live theatre scene currently, so once you’ve bought the ticket to take the ride, you are guaranteed a night like no other. Here, Farnell talks to Maslow’s Notebook about creating an ambitious new model for contemporary theatre, and tells us how an interactive show about The Holocaust at the Edinburgh Fringe set him out on a path to explore spine-tingling emotion.

What inspired you to create Any One Thing?
I think the plays that have stuck with me, and that I've most enjoyed have always had something about being close to the action about them. There's something about being that close to the actors and, in a sense, having a front row seat–being able to see the sweat and the expressions, and everything so up-close. I guess the goal of Any One Thing is to kind of bring that intimate front-row experience to everybody in the audience. We tend to keep the audience size super small, and all the plays, so far at least, have taken place in somebody's home–as if it is one of the main characters’ flat. So, it’s like you've got this hyper-real experience on your hands that kind of puts you in the heart of the play. The differentiation for us then is the level of personalization of the experience, which is probably unique. We come from a tech background, so we do data mining on everybody that attends when they buy a ticket–we pull all kinds of stuff, such as past addresses, past jobs, related people, family members, friends.

In what sense does the data mining come into play theatrically?
Well, it’s a super interesting thing to me to take software and data and make that theatrical. For instance, in the last play, Souvenir, we had a section where a bunch of photographs flashed up on a screen and, at some point in the play, each person in the audience was sat in front of it. Let’s say we had found an old home address of yours, or whatever. We would automatically then do a search for nearby restaurants, or say, the pub that was nearest to where you live, and include it in the drama to make it very personal. This particular play was all about memory and technology, so you would see some images that you don't recognize, then, suddenly, you see your aunt holding a baby, or something that we’ve pulled from your Facebook–it's a strange experience, and it kind of switches your mode in terms of the theatrical and the real.

Are there any particular shows that inspired you to get involved in interactive theatre?
There are quite a few, but one experience that stayed with me was something I saw in Edinburgh years ago. It was about The Holocaust but it was immersive, and it was set in these quite expansive underground vaults. The audience were in amongst the actors, and I guess you could kind of tell who the actors were, but you were basically with them in a concentration camp being yelled at by German officers. Towards the end, you were made to stand in line, and take off your shoes, and were then taken through to the showers. The actors got completely undressed and, by the end, you're underground and literally pressed up against every other audience member. I had an actor who was naked pressed against me. They turned on the shower and every cast member died. It was just so chilling, and it still stays with me–it was so eerie. I guess the key thing, for me, is to tell stories and create experiences that people will remember years later. I'm never going to think about The Holocaust the same way that I did before that. It’s a dark example, yes, but it’s definitely our goal to create highly emotive and spine-tingling experiences.

Do you see the interactive nature of Any One Thing mirrored anywhere in film or television?
I would say there are, of course, things like Bandersnatch where it's getting closer to that kind of interactive thing, which is really neat, and outside of the theatrical experience. But I'm personally more excited about creating really high-end interesting experiences in person, and by virtue of us putting so much effort into the design and feel of the experience, I think it maybe feels kind of like a rarity, so is retained more deeply in memory in some way by the individual? We've worked with some of amazing writers and super experienced directors from The National Theatre, and while we are currently keeping our audiences small, we are working on ways to have a chance for more people to experience what we do.

How would you achieve that kind of expansion?
It's not so much about doing bigger shows or locations, but more about supplying the model or template to other theatre groups to benefit from and use to be able to put on work that perhaps they couldn't have otherwise done. The goal is that Any One Thing can become sort of an ecosystem to get ideas started, or help do previews of interactive shows that people want to put on. We would not be the ones necessarily running hundreds of shows, but we would be incubating ideas for the intersection of theatre and technology or storytelling and technology, and create space for people to play around in a low risk way. There's so many great writers and scripts and directors, and I know there's thousands of actors, and they shouldn't have to need the skills to write grant applications or find somebody's dad who's rich and will give them some money, because that's not the way art should be made. We can then help get these things off the ground as productions, and then it's kind of for other people to run with it.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor
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