Alexander Palmer is the Founder and Artistic Director of Riptide Theatre Company: a Leeds-based arts organisation that is arguably pushing creative boundaries around access and inclusion and place like few others.
Delivering immersive, interactive and digital experiences – their current work ‘Intermission’ is likely to leave audiences intensely moved – possibly prompting a re-evaluation of their life journey – and just as importantly – giving the opportunity for a momentary pause.
Intermission is described as: ‘a new unique immersive experience with care at its core. Audience members will be guided on an individual journey through a series of therapeutic treatments, each mindfully designed to reflect and reconnect with yourself.’
Running until 23rd December on Merrion Street in Leeds, innovative technology and scientific research is infused with meditation and spa rituals, to produce a bespoke experience tailored for participants.
Developed and delivered by a team of mental health professionals, life coaches, yoga instructors, performers and masseuses, the show is grounded in a commitment to holistic health and wellness.
So – what of the man – and the inspiration behind this ‘Christmas antidote’?
Following university (Drama at Exeter, graduating in 2014), Palmer headed to London – and a role with Punchdrunk, a theatre company that Time Out describe as ‘Hands Down the best Immersive Theatre Company in the world’. And he agrees, although his creative practice and area of interest was already concerned with immersive experiences, in part due to the ethos at Exeter and the cross-fertilisation with nearby Dartington Arts School.
“I always found that as an audience, it didn't really matter who I was. [in traditional theatre]. If I walk out at half time, the show still continues. The show isn't really about me. It doesn't really matter that I'm who I am. And that has that stayed in my head for some time.
“I'm quite a big video gamer and some of my favourite gaming experiences are when you are playing a character and you make choices as that character. That means something. So I decided to set up Riptide here in the North, where there isn't much going on in terms of immersive work.”
Alex grew up in Holmfirth and so returning North felt like natural progression: “Riptide started from my bedroom on my own with a dream of making experiences that were different and personal. I then slowly began bringing a team together, getting actors who have that sensitivity to deliver the projects I envisioned.”
The ensemble involved with Intermission is unique and quite different to one you might encounter in a traditional production. “The reason I like working with those [type of actors] is that sensitivity to performance. Often we don't work with actors who have a traditional training. I find we have to coach stage technique out of actors because the stage is not 300 people.
“We've worked with coaches and mental health professionals within the rehearsal and development process. So what we've been able to give the actors who don't necessarily have a [therapeutic] qualification, is almost a crash course of how to hold space for people.”
And the development for Intermission has been a slow burn. It's been two-and-a-half years in the in the making.
“I think I have to go back to lockdown. The first lockdown actually: There was a project we did called Project Intimacy. Basically everything shut down and we as a company thought, ‘what can we offer to audiences in a time when you can't meet new people?’ A lot of my friends were living alone and suddenly their world shrunk. So we set up a project on WhatsApp, which was almost like a digital Pen Friend. It was a curated 14 day experience – and you got matched with an anonymous stranger who shared your beliefs and views on the world and over those 14 days you connected with different stimulus, conversation-starters and activities. For example, Day Four was a walk.”
Participants would leave home (and they could theoretically be in different countries and time zones), but would leave the house at exactly the same time and share a walk with their ‘partner’ and document the experience, by taking photographs and sending them back and forth.
“You know nothing about this person. You don't know age, gender, name. You know nothing about them. That whole project was about how can we curate a shared audience experience? We then started thinking when lockdown went away: OK…there's still a kind of aftermath of COVID, and we are the loneliest generation ever to live. Loneliness is the epidemic that we don't seem to be talking about. Mental health is a buzzword at the moment, but loneliness less so.
“Project Intimacy was connection with someone else. Why don't we do a live show that's around connecting? This sits in a wider series of work over the next four or five years for us called Lost Connections which will look at different connections that we've lost.”
From a personal perspective and also with the team around Alex, it’s clear they’re an incredibly mindful bunch and there is a real sense with Intermission, that they are hoping to share and encourage us to consider living the same way, or maybe just take that pause and think.
“Yeah, one hundred percent. I think that's the personal the way I live. As a freelance person in the arts, I try and take mini breaks throughout the year rather than a big holiday. Personal development is quite high on my list of priorities. How can I improve? I bullet journal. I meditate – and things like that. I've got an appreciation of what this practice has done for me.
“I guess it's opening a space. You can take or leave most of Intermission, but one scene might stay with you. That one writing treatment or that one question that you're asked [during the performance] may change your life.
“We’re only encouraging people to change direction by degrees. One degree is achievable but that one degree – after one hundred miles, is a big direction change and I think that’s it.”
Alex references James Clear’s 2018 bestseller Atomic Habits, in which he examines the 1% ‘shift’ and how over time that 1% can compound – and just might change us.
“We haven't made Intermission to be a big revelation or moment of big life changes, like ‘I must quit my job’. I hope that it's rather that 1° shift of ‘Oh, I'm going to do that one thing better’, or ‘I’m going to call that one person…[I’ve been thinking about – but lost touch with].”
So, with the embryonic concept established, how does the process then develop?
Alex: “My process starts with what kind of audience experience do I want to give first, rather than so often when you're making theatre, you say ‘I really want to put on Hamlet and this is my vision for that’ for example. The audience experience comes after. The audience experience I want to give is something that feels really personal, something that infuses meditation, infuses wellness techniques and is really relaxing.
“We then devised a whole list of different treatments. I always knew this was going to be a one-on-one experience. That was quite important. If you were being watched, or even if you had two actors and one person, I think it would be changed. I knew we needed to work with trained coaches and trained councillors who had the practice - as a safeguard measure, but also as a quality thing.”
Intermission lasts 80 minutes – and in that time, participants experience ten quite different sensory experiences.
“I actually think the challenge of doing a mini coaching session in eight minutes is quite intriguing stuff. Usually they've got an hour or more with their clients, but how would you get a connection over 8 minutes? It's quite interesting because that's the feedback that keeps coming back. It was an interesting challenge.”
For those of us going along to Intermission – are we audience members – or someone participating in a therapy session?
“I think you’re both. And potentially you’re also an audience to your own participation as well. This is the type of experience that you can interact with in different ways, but I think the thing I would encourage people to do is interact with it authentically.”
And as a creative practitioner, as a theatre-maker – what is your overall objective?
“I want everyone to feel important and the centre of things. I want people to feel cared for. To genuinely feel that we see you. I hope that you feel like your journey is that of being guided by strangers who hold you in unconditional positive regard – and that's the line we come back to again and again in rehearsal: Unconditional positive regard for people coming through our experience.
“We hope audiences reflect on how they're living and who they're connecting with. In whatever way that means to them. For some, that could be career. For some, that could be family life, for some it could be habits, that they might want to start or stop.”
Alex and the Intermission team are clear that art for art’s sake is not especially useful. They are at the heart of a bigger conversation: What's the point of art? He is quick to confirm that the best experiences he’s had in theatres or art galleries are when he’s made to question his own choices. Intermission – and Riptide are doing just that.
Intermission begins with an unsuspecting door on Merrion Street in Leeds, that we should all venture through before December 23rd. If you’re anxious to escape the pre-Christmas throng and feel like you are the centre of the universe for 80 minutes, you’re unlikely to find a more suitable portal.
Alex elaborates: “So if you want that experience of feeling like you’re the centre of things and you're almost like the star of your own film – if you imagine your life as a film, you become the main character, and it's almost like that.
“Even if you don't necessarily feel you have a need, it's still an experience that is all about the individual and that kind of self-care. It's a lovely experience. It's a gentle experience. And again, the ultimate objective is just to hopefully turn someone by 1° to towards a more sustainable future.”
Intermission has been open less than a week – and already the testimony is startling: ‘It was like a waking dream.’ ‘A surreal but profound experience’.
And the scheduling has been deliberate: Alex: “It's important to do this in winter because there is a seasonal aspect to loneliness. In summer, people are more relaxed and more sociable. It's when things start getting darker, literally darker, that our habits change – and a lot of us are very lonely.”
Intermission is the second project within Riptide’s Lost Connections series of work. There are two more quite different experiences in the pipeline, with the next one being a Rural Retreat for audiences, over the course of several days. In an Airbnb-type experience, people will come together to eat, walk together and have curated conversations with a similar type of sensitivity as Intermission, but set in the middle of nowhere – and completely off grid.
Alex describes the next project as ‘a pilgrimage to be you – whatever that means’. The working title is ‘Journey Back to Human’ – and again, the appeal is obvious.
“The final ‘connection’ in the series will look at what a religious epiphany is for non-believers. So borrowing from different doctrines…what does it mean to feel connected or to get to a sense of enlightenment?”
There’s a great deal ahead from Riptide over the coming months and years that we should follow – and access, but in the first instance: as November clicks into December and ‘frenetic’ becomes the most overused adjective for lots of us…stepping through Intermission’s door could just be the most important thing you do this year for yourself and your future wellbeing.
For Intermission information and booking, please CLICK HERE