As the lights go up on the bare stage at the Lyric Hammersmith, 10 dour-looking actors in tank tops and shorts are standing in a straight line. They then begin to make their way toward dog dishes positioned at the lip of the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, good evening!" says an announcer, while the actors begin to lap at the bowls with their tongues – and push each other out of the way to get to the water.
"Once this beast was as God made him. Now see what he can do: He walks upright; he wears a jacket and trousers. Round of applause, surely!"
If I told you this was a brand-new play, would you think it was exciting and modern – or silly and perverse? And if I told you it was a 200-year-old classic regularly performed around the world, would you think it was dated and didactic – or poetic and resiliently resonant?
For audiences at the Lyric's Secret Theatre season in London, not knowing is all part of the fun. Over the course of the next year, a company of 10 actors and 10 directors, playwrights and designers are mounting six plays that are being sold without titles or description. The show above is billed simply as "Show One."
The audacious concept has ignited debate over the assumptions audiences (and critics) make when they go to see plays – and whether theatre has been robbed of the element of surprise.
Sean Holmes, the outspoken artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith since 2009, hatched the idea for the Secret Theatre when the building his theatre is housed in began to plan a significant expansion. Like other theatre companies in Britain and Canada, he saw renovation as a chance for innovation: Realizing that the main auditorium – a 550-seat proscenium – would remain untouched during construction, he decided to create a performing space secreted away within the building site.
And to increase the aura of mysteriousness, Holmes decided to not announce what plays the company was doing, so that patrons come in – as he puts it – "unsullied by expectations or knowledge."
As anyone who's been to a Fringe festival and stumbled upon a gem can tell you, discovery is an element that can significantly enhance a theatre-going experience. Holmes himself recalls walking into Irish playwright Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 – an extraordinary production that later toured to Toronto's World Stage – without knowing anything about it and being blown away.
"It's like going back to an Elizabethan idea, where you'd turn up at the Globe on a Tuesday afternoon in Shakespeare's London and you might have been confronted with the first night of King Lear, or you know, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, or anything in between," he says.
The possibility of making theatre more like flipping through television channels – or hitting "I'm Feeling Lucky" on Google – would be intriguing in a Canadian context, where new plays and classics and imported hits from Broadway or the West End are so often segregated from each other. They each attract different audiences with different, often entrenched ideas about what kind of work is more artistically worthwhile.
On the other hand, it's hard to keep a secret these days – especially, in London, where theatre is a major industry that dozens of critics compete to cover. At the premiere of the Secret Theatre's Show Two (which, even more contrarian, opened before Show One), The Stage theatre critic Mark Shenton gleefully tweeted the title during intermission, giving in to the modern journalist's impulse to be first above all.
There was an immediate online backlash against Shenton – who later apologized "unreservedly" on his blog for spoiling the fun for audience members who wanted to be surprised.
While he's promised to avoid tweeting Secret Theatre titles going forward, Shenton continues to be skeptical about the Lyric's project. "It is crazy that they ever expected the secret to be maintained," he says in an e-mail. "Of course it was going to leak – fast – in a social media age. And I think they needed it to leak, too – as without a title, they were finding it very difficult to sell."
Indeed, Holmes says that box office for Show One and Show Two picked up after the openings – although he's not sure if that has to do with the reviews (many of which were negative) or word of mouth from audience members who have been better about keeping the titles secret.
Ultimately, however, Holmes has a larger purpose.
For him, the Secret Theatre is a chance to shake things up in a British theatre culture – not so different from Canada's – where the playwright and the play still rule supreme. The year before, the Lyric collaborated on a production of hotshot British dramatist Simon Stephens's Three Kingdoms with two European companies – the Munich Kammerspiele and Estonian company NO99 – and Holmes was inspired by working with the companies and their permanent ensembles of actors where it is the production or performance that is paramount. (In continental Europe, sticking to the script is optional – and directors take liberties that in much of the English-speaking world would be considered out of bounds.)
"I realized so many of the ways that we make work in this country are based on assumptions, rather than rules," Holmes says. "There was a depth and clarity and bravery of the work from these companies that I was anxious to copy – or learn from."
Stephens's attempt to challenge British theatre's "deep structural conservatism" – while it continues to export huge hits like Matilda and War Horse – is refreshing, even if it may also be foolhardy. "It might be a failure – but I'd rather have a glorious failure than another sort of a slightly disporting success," he says.
As for Show One – spoiler alert, if you're planning a trip to London any time this theatre season – it only took me a couple of minutes to figure out what the play was even in Holmes's unorthodox production. In a bizarre coincidence, earlier that day, I had reread German playwright Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, about a downtrodden provincial solider who murders the mother of his child – as I was going to see another production of it later that weekend.
But I wonder: Would I have been less reverently attentive to this famous but unfinished 1837 play if I didn't know its heavyweight status? It may be possible to go to the theatre without expectations about an individual show, but never without our expectations about the art form. As American theatre theorist Herbert Blau, who died earlier this year, wrote: "An audience without a history is not an audience."
Outside the box
The Lyric Hammersmith isn't the only theatre that's using new construction as an excuse to deconstruct what they normally do. Here are two others:
The National Theatre, London With its third stage out of commission as it transforms from the Cottesloe into the Dorfman, the National has opened up a temporary venue called The Shed – a giant red cube that sits (and stands out) on the bank of the Thames. Ben Power, the associate director in charge, has used the opportunity to present short runs of productions that the National would not usually be able to program, as well as add in shows at the last minute rather than plan months – or years – in advance. Power hopes to transfer this flexibility and energy into the Dorfman when it opens next year.
The Theatre Centre, Toronto As Toronto's venerable avant-garde company awaits the completion of its first permanent home in the former Carnegie Library, it has been programming in a pop-up a block away. This 600-square-foot gallery space has played host to a popular, packed series of public arguments called Civil Debates, while Darren O'Donnell's Mammalian Diving Reflex will take it over on Nuit Blanche (Oct. 5) with a performance art piece called Dada Data. The Theatre Centre's informal space has been a big success – and, with large windows facing one of the city's main drags, increased its visibility in its new neighbourhood ahead of the opening of its new Live Arts Hub.