An intricate wooden door welcomes you as you enter a narrow building. All you see is a winding staircase leading upstairs. You are greeted by someone wearing a 'Happy to Help' badge who is ready to answer any questions related to your tour of the living tower. Her unsettling smile sets the tone for what lies ahead — the threat of dangerous monsters, an unpredictable princess, brainwashed princes locked in a duel, abandoned clocks and ominous sounds that alarm even the daily inhabitants at the tower. As the tour progresses, you are guided to different floors, through photo galleries of princesses past.
Time stopped in The Tower on 21 April 1986 and you are forbidden any mention of modern technology, especially while talking to the celebrity nutritionist who is keeping The Tower on a strict diet. Every character tempts you to do something unusual — they may even capture your friends and make you wonder if you'll ever see them again.
Every character tempts you to do something unusual
A Tall Tale is an immersive theatre experience created by the Mumbai-based theatre collective Crow, co-founded by Nayantara Kotian and Prashant Prakash in 2014, where audiences are invited to enter the world's only living tower created 631 years ago. According to Crow, they 'build multi-sensorial worlds with their own sets of rules that the audience can explore, touch, inhabit and influence'.
This form of storytelling that breaks the fourth wall is still alien to many in India. Crow is one of the first to bring this experiential style of theatre here. Popular in the UK, US and Canada, the form can be broadly termed 'site-specific' theatre — as it is performed at a unique, customised location rather than a standard theatre space — or 'promenade' theatre, since the audience is expected to walk and move around, rather than sit.
This form of storytelling that breaks the fourth wall is still alien to many in India
While immersive theatre dates back to the medieval times, when most performances were site-specific and interactive, its resurgence can be traced back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century, followed by murder mystery theatres and haunted houses, which also put the audience into a specially adapted environment and allowed them to curate their own experience.
In the UK, the theatre company Punchdrunk has been a pioneer of this form, along with other groups like Shunt and Coney. The founder of Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett, explains in an interview, "In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you're comfortable ... If you're uncomfortable, then suddenly you're eager to receive."
Immersive theatre dates back to the medieval times, when most performances were site-specific and interactive
Every audience member has a unique experience, based on the characters they choose to interact with, and the inputs they provide to alter the course of the narrative unfolding in front of them. My experiences at A Tall Tale included singing 'Fix You' to a light bulb to flatter it to come back to life, telling the living tower a story to deal with an emergency situation, feeding biscuits to the imprisoned princess, feeding grapes to the crows, and handing out special powers to one of the princes in the midst of his duel. Luckily, I managed to escape safely.
I first stumbled upon Crow's performance at The Floating Market, as part of the U/A Festival organised by OML in Delhi in 2015. This was designed as a marketplace where you could barter candles for food items like 'suspicious sausages', purchase 'liquid courage' at the apothecary or be hypnotised by the lost property woman who was the Market's best kept secret. My favourite character (possibly ever) was the Word Doctor, who was treating obsolete words like 'psithurism' and 'unasinous' to bring them back to life, essentially by making them part of our consciousness, once we discovered them. I found myself wishing Crow would host more such experiences for theatre enthusiasts in Delhi, a city that is slowly becoming the hub of innovative and intelligent theatre.
Every audience member has a unique experience, based on the characters they choose to interact with
Crow has now acquired a headquarters in Hauz Khas Village. Their Valentine's Day special this year — 'The Hungry Hearts Supper Club' — was one of the most satisfying culinary experiences I have had in a while, as they partnered with expert chefs Rahul Dua and Kainaz Contractor (Café Lota, Rustom's Parsi Bhonu, Blue Tokai).The audience was invited to attend a grand meal with elaborately dressed Victorian creatures, from the Siren (who lures young men to their deaths) to the Imp to the Goddess of Fashion. The menu included 'cream of nightmare soup', 'fried epiphanies' and 'phoenix pasta'.
It's true that the immersive theatre experience begins the minute you hear about it and only ends when you stop talking and thinking about it. Hopefully, yours has just begun.
A Tall Tale by Crow is playing this weekend in Delhi. For details, go here.
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