Alexander Wright: “We did a lot of adventuring together.”

Adaptor and director Alexander Wright tells us about the creation of The Great Gatsby, which has just become the longest-running immersive production in the UK.

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“We were stood in an empty pub.

“The walls were covered in shiny, black, crumbling wallpaper. The carpet tiles lifted from the floor had left acres of glue behind. The windows were covered with the previous business’ transfers and the beer cellar was flooded.

“This was a pub we had lovingly called The Fleeting Arms. It was an empty pub in York that we’d been given the opportunity to run for local artists, makers and the creative community.

“It turned out to be glorious. We were due to run The Fleeting Arms for six months, and with an army of local friends we turned it into a haven for grassroots arts.

“Six months came and went. As December loomed we thought we’d better do something exciting. We’d produced no work in the building ourselves and had no idea when we’d next have a three-storey building to play with.

The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

“So, in a spur of imagination, we decided on a freeform, building-wide, multi-narrative version of The Great Gatsby. Easy.

“I texted my mates and rang the people I love and trust (and have taken stupid risks with before) and the show started to roll into motion. We made cocktails, painted rooms, ran sound cabling, begged and borrowed furniture to turn The Fleeting Arms into our own version of Jay Gatsby’s mansion.

“We’ve been making immersive work in various guises for years, since a time when people thought immersive meant you did plays underwater. But we’d not done anything on this scale, and nothing like this had happened in York before.

“We boarded up the front of the building, asked our audience to come in 1920s dress, and sent them all round the back, through the car park, over the roof and in through a fire escape. In they came, to our drugstore speakeasy.

“Those early shows were skin-of-your-teeth stuff. Some nights we’d have 50 people. Some nights we’d have five. But every version was exhilarating and scary – the good kind of scary.

The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

“I loved watching an audience forget the world outside and start to live in our jazz-age world of love, scandal and tragedy.

“By the time we closed on New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

“One of the things I’m most proud of about this production is that it is still owned, run, managed and made by that same group of people who poured their souls into those early shows.

“The Great Gatsby has been performed more than 500 times to more than 70,000 people. And the Gatsby family hasn’t changed; it’s grown, but we still think of it as a family.

“The show has been staged in tunnels, empty shopping centres, stately homes, warehouses, theatres, a hotel and two empty pubs. In each version, it changes and moulds to accept its surroundings. The setting is like another character and it offers a unique atmosphere each time we play in a new location.

The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
The Great Gatsby (Image: Helen Maybanks, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

“The success of The Great Gatsby really comes down to the alchemy of story, space and audience. All of us are in love with F Scott Fitzgerald’s incredible tale. And in each new space we get to run around, discover and play. But what we get to learn anew every night is how to play with that day’s audience. It’s about how we invite, care for, surprise, invest in and listen to them.

“We haven’t played to five people recently, but the show can do that because it’s like being at a party. Sometimes that party has 200 people, sometimes it has 60; the story shifts to allow for the reality of that.

“The first audiences we met were smiling, apprehensive, dressed up and willing. They were ready for the adventure and, in all honesty, we did a lot of that adventuring together. We’re incredibly grateful to those audiences who helped us learn, explore and grow.

“They are loyal people, our old friends and our new friends who support us and become our community. The word ‘audience’ always suggests a large group. In reality, an audience is always a collective of wonderful individuals who bring their lives, imaginations, energies and expectations to the show.

“As we welcome beautifully dressed folks into Gatsby’s Drugstore night after night, I often think about the early days in The Fleeting Arms. We’re years on from that, and the Gatsby family is pretty big now, but I think the heart and the soul of the show, and the heart and the soul of the story, is still the same. And the audiences are as glorious as ever.

The Great Gatsby runs at Gatsby’s Drugstore on Long Lane until 31 December. BOOK NOW