STAGEY CHAT WITH TOM BLACK

The next interview in our stagey chat series is with Tom Black, the creative director of the hugely successful Jury Games. Jury Games is an immersive interactive theatre production who have currently found their in-person home at Theatre Deli Leadenhall in Central London.

Get yourself comfy and join us for the next segment of Stagey Chat!


Hi Tom, how are you doing? Thanks so much for chatting to Stage to Page today! Would you mind introducing yourself and telling us how you first got into the theatre industry?

Thank you to Stage to Page for taking an interest in immersive interactive theatre. I came into the industry as an actor and writer, mainly through working with DugOut Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe from about 2010 through to 2017. I devised and later scripted plays with them, and performed each year, taking time off from my day job to keep my hand in the theatre game. In 2018, I was asked by an old friend if I was free to come work on an immersive theatre show set in the Second World War – this was

For King and Country, the brilliant interactive piece by Parabolic Theatre, and within a day of working on it as an actor I was hooked. I’ve since made various things with Parabolic, worked with other companies, and of course co-founded Jury Games.

The idea of Jury Games was conceived during the 2020 pandemic. Can you tell us more about how it came about?

March 2020 was a very difficult time in so many ways. Within the theatre world, the immediate outcome of lockdown was, of course, the overnight shuttering of all acting work. I had actually just been told the show I was in (Crooks 1926, by the also brilliant Colab Theatre) was extending through the summer, as well as having been cast by Punchdrunk in their live event The Third Day. Both of those were put on ice – though I’m very glad to say they came back later – and to top it all off, an exciting R&D I was about to do with Joe Ball of Exit Productions was also no longer possible.

So I suppose a shorter answer would be “I needed to pay my rent”. I was sat at my kitchen table in late March 2020, talking to my now-fiancĂ©e, and she was asking if there was any kind of theatre show I had thought of that could work in these locked down conditions. I had one thought – online video conferencing, which we were all learning so much about during that bleak month, wasn’t capable of emulating lots of what I’d grown used to playing with in immersive interactive theatre. But the one thing it could emulate, and emulate quite well, was the thrill of having a meaningful conversation with an actor playing a role. I began to run with this idea and, under the working title of ‘Confession’, came up with an intimate show where a single audience member would have half an hour to interview a person accused of a crime and find out what had really happened.

I took the idea to Joe Ball, given we had been about to work together and I needed some help putting it on. The very first suggestion he made was ‘make it a jury, not one interviewer, because then you can sell twelve times as many tickets’. Within a couple of weeks, we were running the very first test shows of Jury Duty.

Jury Games first started online over Zoom. When did you decide that making the experiences in-person would be a good idea, and was that a daunting transition after being online for such a long period of time?

Pretty much as soon as the world looked like it might reopen properly in the summer of 2021, we decided we should be ready to put our shows on ‘in real life’. So in the late spring, we commissioned the physical evidence which I know you’ve interacted with at the show, along with reworking various elements of the story to work better in a physical setting.

It honestly wasn’t particularly daunting, we all saw it more as returning to what we had been doing before the pandemic – making real life shows with physical interaction and face-to-face conversations between audience members. Eddie Andrews and Ellie Russo, who had joined Joe and me in the summer of 2020 to make Jury Games into a company, are producers extraordinaire and were particularly helpful with this transition.

One thing we decided early on was that we would keep the actor playing the Defendant on Zoom - there’s something crucial to the atmosphere of the show that stems from the man on trial being somehow remote from you, appearing only on a screen when you are ‘allowed’ to talk to him. In others of our shows we’ve introduced face-to-face interviews with actors, and they work in those contexts, but in Jury Duty it’s always been best to have the Defendant on a screen.

As an actor, creative director, writer and interactive narrative designer, is there an aspect of the industry you prefer - and why?

The overlap between the first and the last is where my passion lies, I think. By which I mean I have the brilliant job sometimes of designing a narrative, playing around with it, and then getting to be the first actor to introduce it to an audience. I was the first actor to play the Defendant in Jury Duty, for example, which allowed me to feed back 100% directly into the development of the story and the structure of the game. In other shows I’ve created, I’ve often had a central role in the cast and led the audience through what it is they actually have to do in order to experience the story. It’s a fantastic – if somewhat self-indulgent sometimes! – way to learn up-close what is or is not working about your story.

Are there any new immersive experiences in the pipeline for Jury Games? I feel as though the opportunities could be endless!

Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, but not just yet. We have just taken up an indefinite residency at Theatre Deli Leadenhall, and we are getting very comfortable there – once we’re properly settled in we would love to build a show that’s specifically designed to run in that brilliant venue. And we have a couple of story ideas...

My blog is called Stage to Page. But if you could turn any book, from page to stage, what would it be and why?

I’m going to cheat and pick a book that I’m pretty sure would be impossible to turn into a live show – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s a brilliant premise – a murder, experienced by a protagonist from seven different perspectives all on the same day, as he continually wakes up in the bodies of seven different people at a party. If I had enough money, a beautiful 1920s mansion, and probably a magic wand, I would love to either try my hand at making it into an interactive show, or to experience someone else’s take on it.

And finally, why should people book tickets to a Jury Games show?

Our USP is the chance to question live actors yourself. So if you like mysteries, seeing the big picture, and catching people when you think they’re lying, you’ll find something you enjoy in a Jury Games show. 2,500 performances in, we’re still getting people take new approaches to questioning and investigation that we’ve never seen before.

You can book tickets to an online or in-person Jury Games show, here.

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