Party Skills for the End of the World

As part of MIF 2017, the Centenary Building in Salford plays host to Party Skills for the End of the World. This hands-on immersive experience showcased survival crafts in a post-apocalyptic setting. There was a greenhouse brimming with herbs, vegetables grown in wine glasses and old beakers, sessions on making lava lamps, and blow darts. Participants were also shown how to make martinis, dance and play the guitar (these are party skills after all). 

The style of performance feels reminiscent of a new wave of interactive experiences that are growing in popularity. The first European escape rooms appeared in Budapest in 2011, a city which now has over 60 game-operating companies. These ideas have since spread widely throughout Europe, although the thrill of solving fiendish puzzles to a time limit with a team of friends has always been a winning formula. The Crystal Maze recently re-launched after a Kickstarter appeal and both Manchester and London now have live Crystal Maze experiences. They even share something in common with the classic murder-mystery night, where participants try to discover who killed the host while enjoying drinks and a hearty meal. These events are run by actors who stay strictly in character, speaking to participants to drop subtle hints about motives and give alibis. Pop-up cinemas like The Secret Cinema and The Jameson Cult Film Club also use atmospheric venues and live actors to enhance the experience of watching a film. 

Research from Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich found that people generally value experience-based purchases over material ones. Positive anticipation is associated with experiences, and even when an experience doesn’t go as planned it can often still provide a funny story. Experiences are a move away from material goods and consumption. Given that in the UK alone we use an estimated 275,000 tonnes of plastic every year, such a move would undoubtedly benefit the environment as much as our general happiness. There are only so many gadgets that we need, many of which have already been amalgamated into smartphones. A radio, camera, music player and map can now all be contained within a small portable device. Of course, there are material costs involved in creating and hosting activities. Party Skills for the End of the World used a large amount of oranges, curved needles, paper hats, print-outs and craft props. 

Possessions are only as valuable as the positive experience that they give you, and living or working in cluttered spaces has been linked to increased stress. So, next time you have the choice between buying a new gimmick or choosing a new experience, something that challenges or excites you, choose the experience. You can never lose an experience or break it or upgrade it, you will always have the memory and that’s where its true value lies. (TP)

- Tom Patterson

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Hungary’s Escape Games Craze

The Masterpiece of a Simple Life

What do we truly need in our lives?

Does that object ‘spark joy’? The Japanese Art of Decluttering - Washington Post

Buy Experiences, Not Things - The Atlantic

UK Recycling and Rubbish Facts

Great Pacific Garbage Patch - Guardian

Party Skills for the End of the World

An apocalyptic party with dodgy cocktails but thankfully no rabbit vol-au-vents. This is party-planning overkill, with labryinths of classrooms teaching childish or frivolous arts and crafts alongside more sinister survival skills. This feels like being trapped in a Butlins holiday camp at the end of days, or a Freshers Week gone horribly wrong. 

Sirens and explosions are the soundscape as people stroll or lurch around the corridors and stairwells. There is a sense of confusion and nervous curiosity that might be only partly what the creators intended. Later, as we are herded into the dimly lit basement, a more authentic sense of urgency is evoked. The band are playing in a disused storeroom where plastic wrapped corpses are stored and tiny bottles of water cost £2. Our leader takes to the stage to give a speech as we sit obediently on the grubby floor. He talks of many of our worst fears and nightmares. It was depressing and bleak; as a psychotherapist, I was seriously concerned for anyone emotionally vulnerable who was present. 

Party Skills raises the question of what skills might we need to survive? Would we make that trap then kill and skin a rabbit? Would we revert to a child and make balloon animals, or turn up the volume and party? The event is cause for reflecting on what skills or knowledge we might actually need. Wandering around it was interesting to think what survival skills life has already given me.

I’ve been vegetarian for over 30 years, yet I suddenly recall how to catch a fish and wring a chicken’s neck from growing up in the country. Coming from Northern Ireland I know to open the windows wide in a bomb scare, and clean up a village shop if that bomb explodes. I know how to make tea and sandwiches if a platoon of soldiers land a helicopter at the bottom of the garden. As a parent I can always entertain bored children or mend cut knees with the contents of my handbag. As a psychotherapist I know the things to say to lessen suicidal thoughts. 

Part of the unfocused feel of Party Skills might be because it had been rapidly altered as a response to the Manchester Arena bombing. Perhaps the best testament we can give to those affected is to embrace our strengths and learn from all our past experiences. A celebration of our resilience in adversity is truly a cause for a party. (AD)

- Amanda Dunlop

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Party Skills for the End of the World - MIF

Survival Skills - Making a Trap

How to Skin a Rabbit

End of World Anxiety

The Northern Irish Border


Party Skills for the End of the World

What do we do when the end of the world arrives? Party Skills for the End of the World says that it’s coming, and that we need to prepare for it. The show makes the case that we ought to learn how to sing songs, pick locks, make paper flowers and gas masks, throw knives, punch, play records, and other sundry skills. Held in Salford’s Centenary Building in what amounted to a takeover of the entire space, Party Skills first overloads attendees with these skills by scattering lessons on them throughout the building. Then it bombards audiences with ways in which the possibilities of life may remain forever unfulfilled, through a ten-minute monologue that considers what people are afraid of. Without determining how to handle such fear, the show turns to the body and stages a dance party. Exhausting this option, a cast member then recalls the pied piper, improvising a moving trumpet solo that leads attendees to a hopeful coda.

Attendee reactions have been mixed. Perhaps that’s because Party Skills sought to combine two different forms of dystopia - an Orwellian one in which our lives are run by fear, and an Huxleyan one in which our lives are run by desire. As social critic Neil Postman writes, while “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information”, Huxley “feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism”. Party Skills toys with these two dystopian registers. Echoing Orwell in its form, Party Skills offers attendees no information about what skills can be learned and how to negotiate the building, except when led around or directed by the cast. Echoing Huxley in its content, the show overwhelms attendees by the choice of skills, impossibility of mastering each one, and extensive listing of fears, leading to the dance party that recalls Postman’s characterization of the result of Huxleyan dystopia: “some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy”.

Perhaps this ambiguity has led to some of the more confused reactions of audiences and critics. Immersive approaches to work often contradict the idea of a unified storyline, and shows that experiment with this form may seek to challenge expected notions of what theatre is. This oscillation between theatre and performance, Orwell and Huxley, pain and pleasure, is precisely the negotiation that Party Skills attempted. It may have been imperfect, but it's likely that the end of the world will be as well. (AM) 

- Asif Majid

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Party Skills for the End of the World - MIF 

Huxley Vs Orwell - Webcomic

Neil Postman's Predictions - Guardian

Preparing for the End of the World - The Independent