The project at the Tower of London began with a phone call. Susie Thornberry a former producer at the BAC, and now producing for the Learning and Engagement Team at the Tower of London called us up about designing a nighttime experience for them. They were asking two companies to embark on a short sprint of R’n’d culminating in a pitching session to internal staff who would choose the right work for the organisation. The phone call came a year ago – a week or so before we were due to head to the US to present at SXSW and then fly north to install ‘Door Into the Dark’.
A year later the experience ‘Nightwatchers‘ has had two sell out runs. The first selling out before the opening – encouraging the Tower to launch a second run twice as long which was critically reviewed across the London press. The Metropolist gave it 4 stars – “Cunning and enjoyble,” wrote The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner – “makes one constantly question the veracity of memory”
So how did we get here. Here’s some extracts from the process diary that might explain how things like this take shape.
Researching and things…
Research is a hard thing to define when you have a broad brief of a nighttime thing that 100 people can do an evening and as yet undefined budget and 1000 years of historical insight to choose from.
The attack was two pronged. What is the space, what is the potential and what is the story. This double headed beast that is story and doing is the schizophrenic heart of Anagram.
The art of the gripping story demands its own form of attention, and on top of that the piece needs to work with the main energy of the audience wanting to know what will happen next, the character, their needs, the twists, the redeeming endings.
We spent a bit of time with a friend Ashish Ghadali, who writes thriller scripts for hollywood, who broke down the structure of the psychological films he had recently been working on. And then there was the question of the doing. What could you be actually doing at the Tower, what action was relevant, gentle, and added to the experience of being there.
There was something heartbreakingly dull for me about being in the Tower. It was a spot on the London tourist trail. Its income from international travellers paying pricey entrance fees on a daily basis was such a guaranteed revenue stream that nothing really needed to be done there. The information boards spoke to anyone with a simple grasp of English and repeated the headline bits of history you couldn’t fail to have picked up at school even if you had slept through the entire curriculum.
We also got involved in the tourist thing.
It was fun, but was it real? How do you do something real? Why would I interact if it doesn’t feel real – like it didn’t really matter. Something here felt like scratching at the surface. The theatre of history, not history itself.
Then a few things came together at the same time.
One night we saw the army training at the Tower. We asked our producers about it – The Tower of London is an actual military institution – there are army barracks stationed somewhere in the complex . Exact location- not to be disclosed.
It seemed incongruous that a site that seemed to market its relationship with the state – actors running around deliriously shouting ‘Off with their heads’ by day – could have a very direct link with it by night.
There was something there worth mining.
At the same time we were working our way through the 1000 years of the Tower of London – starting at 1066 William the Conqueror. We got about halfway through – the reign of Elizabeth.
And the story of the Jesuits.
There was a room at the end of the route we were designing for that Susie had shown us that had carvings in the wall – a kind of ancient prisoner graffiti – belonging to a Jesuit priest that had been interned there before being hung drawn and quartered for treason in 1603.
The Jesuits were an extremist group within the Catholic faith. Young men would travel abroad from England (an island of protestantism in a sea of Pope allegianced devotees ) become ‘radicalised’ and return with ideas, zeal and terror plots against the state.
At that point there was one topic that was hitting the headlines
A few months earlier we had been working up a pitch for The Space called Freefall - a collaboration that never happened with Kyle McDonald, Philo Van Kermode, and us that looked at online security.
It was a creation of an entirely fictious world where your Facebook profile picture was mutated by information you left in your browser. It was too weird for The Space (I really want to see it revived again though) but it was during the research for this project that looking into the more sinister aspects of privacy there was at the same time statements in the press that the Shadow Minster Philip Hammond had suggested in Parliament the re-introduction of the Treason Law for terrorists. The implication that the language and goals of ISIS were so far beyond what we could do or understand was apparent in the desperate recall to ambiguous and laws open to misuse and appropriation.
And it felt like the work was getting to find its way into the territory of the real.