Interview with Cressida Peever

Shotgun Carousel’s latest immersive experience Red Palace opens at the Vaults next month. I spoke with writer Cressida Peever to find out more. 

Can you tell me about Red Palace?
Red Palace is an immersive fusion of theatre, cabaret and circus. Produced by Shotgun Carousel, it combines their signature sass and spectacle with the gothic macabre of a masquerade ball. The concept of the show is the brainchild of the inestimable Laura Drake Chambers (Creative Producer, Shotgun Carousel), unflappable Director Celine Lowenthal and myself. We began working on the shape of the show about seven months ago, and many many coffees (and mint teas for me) later, we’re working with a brilliant production team to realise this show at The Vaults from September. It’s Shotgun’s largest production to date, and the largest cast size I’ve ever written for. Combine that with the free roaming audience and vast expanse of The Vaults, it’s ambitious to say the least. But I hope our audiences will be pleased we bit off such a massive chunk of show.

What was the inspiration behind the piece?
Laura set us in motion with her ambition to produce a masquerade ball, and presented Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death as a provocation. From there, the three of us researched characters from fairy tales, folk tales and legends to fill the ball and create an atmosphere our audience would want to immerse themselves in. Whilst using familiar characters like Snow White or the Big Bad Wolf, each one has been modified to give a contemporary twist that I hope will resonate with our audience members. As part of this I also played with transposing Poe’s ideas of otherness into a modern day context, in the hope of pushing the audience’s boundaries throughout.

How did you first get involved with Shotgun Carousel?
I first worked with Celine on a scratch night when I had a short piece of writing accepted for performance but was asked to find a Director to manage my piece. A friend of mine suggested Celine and after I’d sent her the script along with a begging email she agreed to take it on, and did a wonderful job with it. A few months later, she got back in touch to say she was working with Shotgun on their show, Divine Proportions, and asked if I was interested in writing the script. I met with her and Laura, and from the moment the three of us sat around the table I knew I’d found a creative home with them. Divine Proportions was put together much more quickly, and I didn’t have any time to second-guess my work or the creative decisions, especially as by the time I became involved there wasn’t time for any big conceptual changes. The show was more successful than I could have dreamed, and when Laura asked me to work on the next production I was overjoyed. It’s been especially exciting to be involved this time from the very beginning, and to collaborate so organically on such an ambitious show.

What can audiences expect from Red Palace?
The Prince has ruled the kingdom for one thousand days, and now he’s throwing a lavish party to try and cheat death. Our audience members are the party guests who he thinks will shield him from his fate. And they just might – if they choose to do so. His life is in their hands, and as they party in the many rooms of the palace and meet all manner of extraordinary beings, they draw ever closer to the choice: will you let him live?

How do you go about scripting an immersive piece of theatre?
It’s very hard! My approach is to start by creating watertight character biographies and backstories (written in prose, rather than as dialogue). These allow the performers to be clear on their character’s motivations and viewpoints, so that they’re equipped to respond to anything an audience member might throw at them. It’s crucial that they feel comfortable riffing, but never in a way that breaks the illusion of the character.

When I move on to scripting the scenes, I block out lines for audience members’ responses. In some places this is very free, encouraging the performer to respond naturally to whatever is said. In others, this is in the form of a flowchart that guides the performer through the type of response they might get, and directs the scene accordingly.

In all places, I try to think of the audience like another character in the scene. If you have a character onstage and they don’t say anything for a long time it can feel unnatural. So I make sure there’s room for them to contribute, or that there’s something they can be doing instead.

What would you like audiences to take away from the experience?
I want audiences to reflect on their part in the story and carry it into their lives outside of our magical world; to always interrogate Princes and help people whose circumstances differ from their own.

Red Palace runs at the Vaults from 24 September – 12 January. 


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