As I sat on one of the chairs that surround a white, sand-like patch of ground that serves as stage, I could tell that Frogman was far from a usual show. I put on a VR mask that took me into the room of a dancing eleven-year-old, which, as producer Jack Lowe will tell me later, is setting of one of the main clues that will help this experimental thriller develop.
Jack Lowe, artistic director and former UEA MSc Water Security student, leads Curious Directive, a Norwich-based theatre company that takes on a scientific perspective on its life-exploring shows. Since starting in 2008 with their exploration of neuroscience in Return to the Silence, the company has been working with scientific themes and technology-driven methods to make science accessible and engaging to audiences.
“Wherever you look in the world, you can look at it through the lens of what is going on at a scientific level,” Lowe said. “When we started, there was a lot of drive on other platforms which were finding new ways that hook audiences. So why couldn’t a theatre company just look at science?
“Our shows try to take different areas of science as starting points, and then find the right form for that work. So, with something like Frogman, VR is the right form because of dive masks.”
Indeed, the thriller takes the audience back and forth through time, from the present-day reality of a coral reef scientist, to an eleven-year-old’s room, to diving into the Great Barrier Reef sea, mixing virtual reality and live performance.
Humanity, however, is one of the main themes that Curious Directive wants to explore in their scientific-led storytelling: “I think that all of these stories are moved by humans, ultimately. It might well be that you’re telling a story about quantum mechanics, but at the end of the day you are still talking about the story of a human being. That’s a kind of philosophy of storytelling,” Lowe said.
“That is really exciting as a theatre company; doing something that can be so potentially dry, but actually isn’t. These stories are being heard by people who want to be proven wrong or want to search for the absolute truth – that’s what the scientific method is. But what is really interesting about art is that it is of course such a subjective thing, and the audience bring whatever they bring to it.”
Considering the great environmental relevance that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef currently holds, Frogman is a commemoration of its natural beauty: “It definitely has to do with climate change, but we decided not to force that message and rather celebrate the Great Barrier Reef when it was in such healthy condition. It’s amazing the stories that come from when you just look at these big places in nature. But you’re there as a police diver looking for a body, so it is a nice juxtaposition between the beauty of somewhere and the fact that you’re there for all the wrong reasons.” The reef ’s bleaching, Lowe said, could be a metaphor for the plot of the story itself.
“We decided not to land too heavily on the environmental science side of it but on what these humans are going through. There is something about the investigation which has to do with childhood imagination, which is really fascinating. What we choose to believe when we are eleven years old is what’s really at the heart of the play, in some ways.”
Having opened at Edinburgh’s Travis theatre in 2017, Frogman is touring around the country before travelling to China and Australia. The show has also previously played at the Norwich Arts Centre, where, as Lowe said, the audience are a gig-going audience, brave and ready for experimental pieces.
“It will be interesting, here, to see what the difference is. The Theatre Royal has quite a traditional, theatre-going audience, so it’s going to be fun to see how they react to it all!”
Taking on a more political dimension in their upcoming shows, deriving from Lowe’s background in politics, Curious Directive is currently working on productions on gastro-politics and migration. Always exploring their themes through a scientific lens, their ultimately humane stories promise to engage their audiences exploring life’s different dimensions.