In London’s (Off) West-End 2019: An Interview with Immersive Theatremakers Darling & Edge
LONDON – Harriet Darling and Elise Edge met quite by chance, but from the moment they did, the two artists knew that they shared something special. Fast forward a couple of months and conversations later, and the two came together to form Darling & Edge, a design company specialising in spatial and experiential design, each project lovingly hand crafted and utterly unique.
With a background in experimental performance art, and mostly being self taught, Darling & Edge see themselves as an antidote to routine and pride themselves on a rich imagination and penchant for play. “We weren’t at the stage yet where we were skilled enough to take on the entertainment aspects of it, and so we concentrated on what we were good at – the design,” says Darling. “That’s how we partnered with Gingerline and did the design for their events, before we decided to strike it out and find our own people we could collaborate with on our own projects.”
“We have a lot of respect for Gingerline and what they do,” adds Edge. “It’s amazing how they ran out on a massive limb and managed to built themselves and their brand up in such a short amount of time. They always push so hard, and they’ve been such an inspiration to us, and every time we do a project with them, we only get better. They gave us a chance to work together when no one else really understood what we’re doing, and we owe them a lot for helping us get off the ground.”
Since that first project, the duo have continued to work with immersive company Gingerline on multiple other productions, while also having had the chance to strike it out on their own, with their very first immersive pantomime – Beauty and the Feast, produced by The Vaults. “The ideas we have were always to take a simple concept, and frame it around the feeling of nostalgia,” says Darling. “We both started out with backgrounds in experimental performance art, but moved away from that to appeal to a mainstream audience. There’s a space for experimental work, but that’s usually very funded by the Arts Council, and we wanted to be independent, to stand on our own two feet and not need propping up. To do that, we’d have to create something commercially viable and self-sustaining, with universal things the general public can appreciate, sort of like when you stand atop a mountain and admire the beautiful view.”
“We don’t do funding because we just want to make work we really want to without restrictions,” adds Edge. “We take the commercial aspect of our work very seriously, and we’ve done things like learning how to market on the job and it’s such a different way of working. We want to have that creative freedom and independence, and build a name for ourselves on our own merit and autonomy, rather than whatever message a drinks brand wants to put out at the time.”
The duo certainly don’t manage this alone however, and come with a slew of contacts and collaborators they can rely on to bring it all together. “In finding collaborators, we often are the ones curating the teams we work with, and tend to build relationships with people who’ve grown with us,” says Edge. “We do get people coming in, but they’re either looking to make lots of money or students trying to leverage on us to put their own ideas out there, and that’s not a massively appealing idea.”
“In that sense, we lead the ideas and play the role of creative directors, and are often very headstrong about projects and having our ideas playing out,” adds Darling. “We’re focusing a lot on applying our own sensibilities to our work, and going forward, hope to create a strong brand identity and signature style, going beyond just being ‘another Christmas show’.
In the seven years that Darling & Edge have been on the scene, the idea of immersive theatre has grown so much that it’s become a genre of its own and its own industry, with plenty of copycats and new companies delving into the scene. But as far as it goes, Darling & Edge aren’t in the least bit worried about these at all, confident in their own branding to stand out. “The word immersive creates an expectation, like how people sometimes expect Punchdrunk. But not everyone is Punchdrunk, and we have to be careful about the words used, and create an environment that completely envelopes people in it,” says Darling. “We hope that Darling & Edge eventually becomes synonymous with chaotic, anarchic shows with a bit of drag and cabaret. It’s certainly not for everyone, but we’re still quirky, fun and come with a biting sense of humour. There’s a definite personality to our shows, and what’s so key to standing out in this industry is to know and establish what kind of show you’re making.”
Adds Edge: “Immersive theatre has come such a long way since we first started. But now, it’s grown so much that you’ve got immersive product launches, immersive corporate parties, and for us, we say immersive pantomime and people just get it. It’s certainly not easy, because you have to make sure the illusion never breaks, whether you’re stepping into the place or even when they go to the toilet. You’re throwing out all the pre-established rules of theatre and TV, and still have to find a way to establish total control and capture your audience’s attention. You have to focus so much on crafting that environment, and curating an entire experience for your audience.”
In a sense, that’s also led to the way they’ve designed their shows, to bring joy to their audience members, and also why food remains such an important part in all their productions. “I imagine our work to be like parties, and if I had a party at my house an invited people over, well, there must be food! I’ve always loved cooking for people and hosting them and making them feel relaxed, so food becomes an anchorpoint for our shows to put people into that mood,” says Darling.
“The aim of our shows has always just been for audiences to have a bloody good night out, relax and have fun and escape from reality a bit with their friends,” says Edge. “We want everyone to share in the food, be communal, and share in this experience with each other. We don’t have a mission statement, but if we did, that would be it, along with the fact that our work is just very aesthetically-led.”
“Above all though, we want to position ourselves as artists first,” says Darling. “Our backgrounds are rooted in live art, and paintings and aesthetics are so important to us. The immersive pantomime form is us expressing our art in that medium, and it brings out our focus on fun and playfulness without alienating people.”
Indirectly, this love of food and design has almost naturally led to their new venture – a full-fledged restaurant called Hello Darling, located right beside the Old Vic and within easy walking distance to The Vaults, where most of their pantomimes are held. Hello Darling, besides serving up tasty food, feels like a quaint, pastel-hued home, complete with thematic bedrooms, bathrooms and more on the second floor, which guests can book out for private events. “Besides it being related to the company’s name, we were also being a bit cheeky and wanted people to answer the phone and door to go ‘Hello, Darling!'” says Darling.
“The concept behind it was to add a homey feel to a restaurant, with all these big sharing tables and big dishes so it feels more like a dinner party than a meal out. We let the space lead our design, and really went all out with the house party idea. You can see the upstairs designed like individual rooms, and when we went up to check on our guests one night, it was amazing how you saw guests singing ABBA in the library, doing the cha cha slide in the living room, R&B in the bathroom, and it just felt like this organic party unfolding before us, and everyone just seemed so at home here.”
The experience of running a restaurant has been rather different from their usual supper club/pantomimes however, and as Darling puts it: with a supper club, people knowingly sign up for a ride and casually accept this curated menu you’re bringing them on. But in a restaurant, people have much higher expectations, because they take ownership of the space, and choose to self-customise their own menu, and become much more demanding as a result because of that freedom of choice.
Nonetheless, the duo have continued to run both ventures simultaneously, and most recently, also opened their brand new 2019 pantomime – Aladdin and the Feast of Wonders. “Aladdin was a work that started out a lot more messy and unpolished, and that gave it a kind of punk, underground feel,” says Edge. “It’s a difficult story to tackle as white theatremakers doing a Middle Eastern story, and it didn’t feel right for us to be doing at first. But we made contact with an LGBTQ Asian artist group, got their interest in the project, and figured out how to integrate precisely those problems into the work.”
Plenty of thought has gone into the dining aspect of the show as well, taking audiences from market to palace, and reflecting that same progression and journey in the dishes served up as well, all of which are Asian-inspired, and of course, all very shareable.”We know that when Aladdin is done as a pantomime, there tend to be subtly racist vibes, and that’s an English tradition we certainly don’t want to continue,” Edge adds. “But we’re not just casually sweeping it under the carpet – we’re going to address them head-on in the show. And best of all, it’s still so funny, it makes your face ache from laughing, and what’s resulted is a modern production that’s really a step up from our last production.”
With other British immersive theatre companies making the move to franchise their work overseas in cities like New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Darling & Edge feels that there is no need or great desire to follow suit just yet, if ever, preferring to focus on creating quintessentially British works and working closely with their collaborators back home. “We work with such a huge group of people and it would be so difficult to transfer our work overseas,” says Edge. “We don’t want to just take it wholesale and put it abroad, and if we ever did go overseas, we’d want to find collaborators there to tweak it such that it becomes its own thing and really is adapted for the audience there, or even create an original work for the place. Not to mention, you really would need a lot of support of people on both sides, and a lot of commitment on our end to stay overseas at least a couple of months to make sure the concept works.”
What lies ahead in the future then? Right now, the duo are still focusing on perfect Hello Darling, while running Aladdin and the Feast of Wonders. Hinting that they’re planning an adaptation of Cinderella for their pantomime next year, the two reiterate that they’re in a very happy place at the moment. “Even after 7 years on the scene, there’s still a lot of room for growth,” says Darling. “What’s been keeping us going is each other encouraging ourselves to keep doing what we do, and we act as each other’s springboards and bounce ideas off each other, as well as making sure we don’t veer off from the big idea. You have to ultimately have confidence in whatever work you’re putting up, something that translates to the performance itself and it shows.”
“At the end of the day, we’re constantly learning on the job because we don’t do anything twice, and keep exploring new ways of manipulating and designing spaces,” she concludes. “We’ve still got so much room to grow as who we are, and while we haven’t created a thing we can take to the world just yet, we’re quite happy at the pace at which we’re going, building it and working out what it is.”
Aladdin and the Feast of Wonders runs from 1st October 2019 to 15th January 2020 at the Vaults. Tickets available here
Hello Darling is located at 131 Waterloo Road (next to The Old Vic) London, SE1 8UR. To find out more about Hello Darling and book a seat, visit their website here
To find out more about Darling & Edge, visit their website here