Theatre audiences are donning period costume to revive an institution that was the social network of its time, as Caroline Bishop explains
Elegant 19th-century Parisians attending exclusive salons to hear the progressive ideas of the day could never have foreseen the online networking that takes place now, but director Stewart Laing of theatre company Untitled Projects sees a connection. “That was the social media of the day. I think [salons were] about introductions, about meeting new people, about new ideas and moving up through society.”
The Scottish director/designer is the brains behind The Salon Project, an immersive theatrical experience which re-creates the concept of a Parisian salon during the late 19th century, with every audience member dressed in the fashion of the era. It plays at the Barbican Centre in London in April as part of Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain, a season celebrating art and neuroscience in collaboration with scientific charitable foundation The Wellcome Trust.
Ticket-holders spend the first 20 minutes dressing up in bespoke period costumes (you must submit your vital statistics in advance, so the outfits can be made) before being shown into the salon. There, you will be entertained by live music (the late 19th-century French composer and pianist Erik Satie is a favourite of Laing’s), listen to guest speakers from the arts and sciences and, hopefully, enjoy cultured conversation.
The idea may be rooted in the past, but the speakers are all genuine experts and the line-up changes each night. “It’s very forward-looking,” says Laing, “I didn’t want to produce a period re-creation, something that was backward-looking and sentimental. My understanding is that there were a lot of forward-looking ideas in those rooms.” So why make people dress in 19th-century clothes? “It’s like wearing a mask,” he explains, “it gives people the confidence to behave in a more outgoing way.” And just think of the Facebook photos.
The Salon Project is at Glasgow Citizens Theatre (tel: 0141 429 0022, www.citz.co.uk) from 15-23 March and at the Barbican Centre in London (tel: 0207 638 8891, www.barbican. org.uk) from 4-14 April.