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‘This entire year for live arts has been a real one step forward, two steps back process,” says Daniel Dingsdale. He’s been one of the lucky ones, working on a huge production that has survived the coronavirus upheaval and is set to open in spring.
Dingsdale is the writer of Doctor Who: Time Fracture, an ambitious immersive theatre show officially licensed by the BBC and developed by Immersive Everywhere. It promises to take audiences across time and space on a mission to save the universe – all within the confines of Covid safety restrictions.
It has been over a year in the making, with more than 5,700 applicants for acting roles. Director Tom Maller says he has been able to “cast far and wide for new talent. But that’s clearly because, unfortunately, there isn’t another show of this size launching at the moment.”
Maller, who has directed Dr Strangelove, 28 Days Later and Blade Runner for Secret Cinema, says 2020 changed the way the team worked – meetings were mostly held remotely – but it has given them more time to plan the big spectacle moments in detail. “We’re making this show separately. However, we’re still trying to keep hold of the essence of immersive theatre, where people want to come and do things, rather than just see things.”
Likewise production designer Rebecca Brower has had longer than usual to work on her model of the set, which Maller describes as the most detailed mock-up he’s ever seen. It features continuity references and locations from Doctor Who’s near six decades on screen that are sure to delight fans.Travel from historic places to the year 3000 ... Doctor Who: Time Fracture. Photograph: Rebecca Brower
Rory Evans, co-director of Illusion Design & Construct, which is building out elements of the set, said they were about to have the busiest summer they’d ever had, and had just used their cash reserves to move to a brand new south London workshop when Covid hit. With 25 full-time staff, he says they found themselves too big to take advantage of some government Covid relief schemes, and too small to partake in others.
Brower says the show “has saved my sanity. I feel sorry for creative people, stuck at home with all that going on in their brains, and nothing to work on.” She describes seeing friends in the industry drifting away to work in post offices or become ambulance workers. “Those are great things to be doing, but it’s such a loss to the creative arts. I’m incredibly thankful to the universe for this production.”
Time Fracture forms part of sprawling Doctor Who story arc Time Lord Victorious, which has played out across comics, books, CDs, vinyl and an animated YouTube Dalek series, with former Doctors David Tennant, Paul McGann and Tom Baker reprising their roles along the way. But the team are anxious to stress that you don’t need to have followed the whole thing for it to make sense – or even be a fan of Doctor Who at all.Doctor Who: Time Fracture trailer
“This is a standalone experience,” says Maller. “There’s a beginning, middle and end, that are explained, then you experience, then you leave with the memory forever.”
“If you are simply an immersive theatre fan, you’re going to travel from historic places to the year 3000, into 17 different worlds, and meet some amazing characters and music and atmosphere and dance and themed cocktails. We’ve devised this show to appeal to families, friends, solo explorers, and also for people to socialise and have a much needed fun night out in a different environment.”
Because of Covid restrictions, when the doors open, the show will be at half capacity, and there will be some social distancing in place. But that has its own advantages, as Brower explains. “It’s difficult to create big illusions in a space without a proscenium arch, especially when the audience is up close,” but there will now be slightly more enforced distance.
If you do understand Doctor Who, there are Easter eggs hidden all around. Brower has been given the run of the programme’s vast prop store. But while it takes its cue from the small screen, Brower said she doesn’t want the audience to feel like they’ve walked on to a TV set – they’ve been pouring concrete and building real brick walls to avoid that.Operation Time Fracture ... all aboard. Photograph: Rebecca Brower
Will there be monsters? Of course. They are a vital part of the Doctor Who universe. The team are keen to keep some surprises under wraps, but pre-publicity has already teased that the audience will meet Daleks, Cybermen and Time Lords.
Maller describes it as “a love letter” to the world of Doctor Who. There’s bad news for completists, though. Maller explains that each actor will have multiple tracks. “That’s 42 actors having three or four tracks each, and there’s 17 different worlds. The audience have two hours on the show, so when you do the maths it’s near impossible to see or do everything.”
Dingsdale says that “all of the huge story beats are still in service to the main story, but how you get through is very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.” The appeal of immersive theatre for him is that it re-enables a sense of play. “When you were a kid in the woods, you’d pick up a stick and have a sword fight. For that moment you are knights and the forest is Camelot. We lose that as we get older and more easily embarrassed. The real fun of immersive theatre is for a brief period of time to harken back to that. It’s a wonderful experience to have, especially in a unique universe as broad and varied as Doctor Who.”
Doctor Who: Time Fracture opens at Immersive | LDN, London, from 21 April.