It’s no surprise to see bottles of colourful alcoholic liquids at the Kings Cross Hotel.
Liqueurs, brandies, single malts are ranged across the shelves behind the bars.
What you don’t usually see here are bottles of alcohol with pieces of human tissue suspended in them.
“I think this one looks like a very small uterus,” says John Harrison, one of the co-creators of Visiting Hours, an immersive promenade performance poised to take over this grand, century-old Kings Cross landmark.
“This is an intestine … this one is a lung … brain tissue … and this one looks like a very small uterus.”
Harrison is walking me through one of eight spaces in the hotel about to be transformed into a bizarre medical facility overseen by a doctor with some very strange ideas. The spheres of medicine and theatre are usually worlds apart but in Visiting Hours they are made to collide, Harrison says.
“In researching this I read about the quack doctors in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and a lot of what they were doing was showmanship, pure theatre,” says Harrison. “For example, you had people like Franz Mesmer, who travelled the world with his so-called magnetic therapy. He even used to operate in a costume, in silk pants and a gold jacket.”
Originally made for Sydney’s Vivid festival in 2016, Visiting Hours is being revived on a grand scale across five levels of this labyrinthine multi-storey edifice. The performance will take audiences from the hotel’s subterranean Dive Bar all the way up to its Moorish-style tower that overlooks the city.
“It’s going to be quite trippy for the audience and the performers,” says Harrison, who is co-artistic director of the building’s resident theatre company bAKEHOUSE.
“A lot of people won’t have been in these rooms before. They definitely won’t have experienced some of our doctor’s therapies.”
Therapies? What kind of therapies?
“Oh, just some physical stuff … some mental stuff,” Harrison smiles. “Our doctor has pulled together different methodologies in service of humanity. He’s all about curing the sickness of the modern world, like anxiety, depression and fatigue.
“If you undertake his therapies, you’ll be able to reach your potential. One interesting side-effect of his therapy is that if you sign up for his advanced program, you’ll get to live forever.”
In Visiting Hours, groups of 20 audience members are led through a maze of corridors and stairwells into environments brought to life by designers Anna Gardiner (set), Benjamin Brockman (lighting) and Tegan Nicholls (sound).
With just a few days to go before the first performance of Visiting Hours, Gardiner, Brockman and Nicholls are up to their eyes in the fit-out.
“When you are working in a non-theatre space and you don’t have all the usual equipment and rooms that often only have one power source, you have to think very creatively,” says Brockman. “You have to think in terms of what is there already and how you can manipulate it to create different effects. It’s a completely different way of thinking.”
Nicholls agrees. She’s been designing an immersive soundscape that follows the viewer. “What I wanted to do was give the audience the sense they were surrounded by sounds all the time and that each time they move on, that the ante has been upped in some way,” Nicholls says.
“But in the stairwells, for example, there is no power. I had to go online and buy up a load of rechargeable MP3 players and set them up all over the place.”
All three designers are highly regarded in the independent theatre scene. Brockman designed the lighting for The Laden Table at bAKEHOUSE, and Diving for Pearls at Griffin. He’s also down the road creating the many moods of Metamorphoses at the Old Fitzroy.
Anna Gardiner has worked extensively with Sport for Jove creating versatile, moveable sets (Cyrano de Bergerac, Taming of the Shrew) and she transformed the Old Fitz space into a pub within a pub for Louis Nowra’s This Much is True.
Tegan Nicholls has created soundscapes for The Angelica Complex (Invisible Circus), Osama the Hero (Tooth & Sinew), This is Not Mills and Boon (Glorious Thing) and most recently, Measure for Measure (Sport for Jove).
All three are filling the Kings Cross Hotel with “worlds” for the audience to move through, atmospheric spaces filled with electronic sounds, otherworldy lights, a wealth of visual detail and classic smoke and mirrors.
One of the spaces being used in Visiting Hours is what Suzanne Millar, bAKEHOUSE’s co-artistic director, jokingly calls “the bada-bing room”.
“This one hardly ever gets used,” she says. “It’s got stripper poles in it!”
By the time the show opens, however, it will be transformed. “Each room will be a total surprise,” says Millar, “This particular room is our big reveal. All I can say is that we will be asking the audience to scrub up and use hand sanitizer.”
After the “bada-bing” room, the audience will be guided into the Kings Cross Theatre space. Regulars will be hard-pressed to recognise it, however. The makeover is total, to the point where even regulars may find it disorienting.
“As the audience moves through the spaces, they are drawn into the story,” Millar explains. “They also become part of it, and by the time we get to this room and this point in the performance, we want to prompt the audience into thinking about everything they’ve seen and the more esoteric side of medicine, what happens beyond treatment.”
The design team has reconfigured the room into a space that allows the audience to view the story they’ve seen unfold from what Nicholls describes as “the other side”.
“You’ll hear lots of disembodied voices from other parts of the show,” she explains. “You’ll feel like you are on the other side, but you won’t know where that is.”
The scale of Visiting Hours makes it the most ambitious project bAKEHOUSE has staged: an entire building; a cast of 29 actors and musicians occupying eight spaces, each performing their scenes five times a night while isolated from their colleagues.
“It’s going to get pretty crazy,” says Harrison. “But what we discovered last time we did this was a great sense of bonding between the audience and the performers. I can’t tell if it’s the thrill of a shared experience or the early signs of Stockholm Syndrome.”
“The whole project is such a tribute to the generosity of spirit in the arts community,” Millar adds. “To have so many people come together to create to create a unique experience for an audience is something really special.”