Amy Price talks to Christian Cooper Ellinas, the creator of ‘Cooper Studios’ and mastermind behind the upcoming immersive theatre project ‘Dystopia’.
Having met Christian at his base above The Empty Shop, it’s easy see just how enthused he is about his brainchild. I’m lead around the ‘Cooper Studios’ as he explains how the two rooms have been transformed into a suitable artistic space and it becomes obvious that everything in the room, from the paint-palettes to the secondary walls protecting art- work from damp to the main workbench, have been lovingly hand-built. This degree of devotion then continues as he starts to talk about his latest project, Dystopia, where he’ll be bridging the gap between theatre and art.
This is such an ambitious project: what inspired it? Is it something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
Two summers ago I was working with a theatre company called Punchdrunk* in their workshops, and I’d never done anything like that before, but I found that I loved working in workshops, building stuff and painting all day. Being paid for it was obviously a bonus. I started wondering why none of this was happening at Durham. There is the Art Society, but there’s not permanent base for it. So I decided I wanted to make a Studio for everyone to come along to. The business aspect of it just sort of followed. I had a lot of help from a company called Durham Creatives, and then from these guys at Empty Shop.
So how heavily is this influenced by Punchdrunk?
Very. It’s also very heavily influenced by a theatre company called ‘Secret Cinema’, who I worked with over the summer just gone. ‘Secret Cinema’ essentially converted a car-park four times the size of the science site into a 1950s village inspired by ‘Back to the Future’. The audience then filled the village and were able to talk to different characters and explore before watching an out-door screening of the film.
Where was this?
Well… It’s Secret Cinema, so it’s a secret… until you buy your tickets at least. And that’s the way we’re doing it: when you buy ticket you’ll be giving a meeting point, but you won’t know until the night where you’re actually going. At the moment we’re looking at around three locations.
You’ve already mentioned one or two things that you’ve asked me not to print. Do you think it will be difficult to maintain this level of secrecy? Especially as the show is running over three nights?
Hopefully it will be so enchanting that the earlier audiences wouldn’t want to ruin it for the next audience. Obviously there will be people who spoil it, and give the locations away to others. It’s unavoidable.
Will they be venues people recognise?
One of the venues: no one in the university will have been there before. The second venue: quite a few people… and the third venue: only fourth years will have been to.
How much time are you giving yourself to set them all up? Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man took months to do?
Well we’re giving ourselves days. Although we do have a month of preparation work. The thing is, the Studio is my main focus and my primary work is for the Studio members. Fortunately I do have a lot of spare time though, so I do have time to make props and make plans. When we have the ‘get in build’ at the locations, I’ll have it all planned out, all set out and it should all get together.
In terms of Dystopia as a show, what inspired the story?
(Pause as he tries to phrase his answer without giving anything away.)
The sci-fi genre, and a selection of films from that genre, have always been a massive obsession of mine. And within that there is ‘lo-fi sci-fi’, where the vision of the future isn’t all glittery and shiny and amazing. Social order is terrible, there’s massive capitalism and elitism; then every piece of technology is clunky and more run-down than it is now. It’s just quite special the way in which there’s 60s technology in a story set in 2500. It makes it more believable in a sense, than spaceships and holograms.
Is there quite a prominent story line? Or is this about the spectacle of immersive theatre?
People will come out a little confused, thinking ‘what the f*ck just happened’, and whilst they do get a story line, it’s more about the event than the story line. There’s quite a lot of verbal interaction between the characters and the audience, and the characters will have a lot of background for the audience to explore by talking to them. There’s more scope to the story line in that sense. There are also different forms of entertainment throughout the night, meaning it is more about the experience than the story-line. I mean every member of the audience will be given a kind of ‘identity pass’, and they have quite… an effect on your experience.
You obviously have a very strong artistic background, but how much experience do you actually have with the theatrical side of things?
I’ve never done theatre before – I’ve always been the carpenter/set builder / props-maker. But the scenes that happen are very ‘theatrical’. So I have my two producers who having been offering guidance, and they have a very strong theatrical background.
Is this a kind of way for promoting the studios? Or has this been a plan for you as long as the Studio’s has been?
Well we don’t really need to advertise… not to say we’re amazing, but we’re full for this year, and a waiting list for next year, so we’ve got all the people we can cater for. I guess we can draw attention to the fact we’re here, but we don’t need to recruit members. It’s more that now this is set up, and it’s running reasonably well, I’ve realised that I’ve got this facility for a year to do what I can.
Only for a year?
Yeah then I’m heading into the big wide world. We’re trying to make plans, so hopefully it will be here next year.
What’s your biggest fear with the production?
Biggest fear is one of the venues falling through – them turning round and saying we can’t use it any more. Or that the immersion isn’t as effective as I want it to be. I mean we’re putting in a lot of special effects, a lot of luminescent lighting and things like that. We’ve got in production bullet hits, in production ‘stunning’ effects (using light and sound), smoke machines and everything like that. So it should be cool.
It’s quite a challenging form of acting, if they have to stay in character and interact with people – are you happy with who you’ve got?
Really really happy actually. Everyone was pretty damn good. I’ve never even been in an audition before, so I basically just sat there and let the producers take over for that, as they knew more what they were doing.
It sounds daft, but are you excited? Or just terrified?
Ahh no I don’t tend to get worried about things until they’re actually happening. Once it’s actually happening I’ll be panicking probably, but I’ve got enough time to get everything sorted so I don’t panic. I am so excited though, I can’t..
Any final comments?
We want to warn everyone that this show Dystopia is pretty nasty at times. Our main song that we use for the show is ‘It’s a Dark Night’, and we want to emphasize that it’s going to be a dark night.
** Punchdrunk are a London based theatre company, famous for their large-scale immersive theatre projects. These projects frequently transform massive buildings into fantasy sets that audiences can explore as the action takes place.
Photographs: Amy Price & Christian Cooper Ellinas