Beneath the Surface

An immersive High School Drama production

This multi-grade UWCSEA Dover High School Drama production exemplifies the integration of various academic disciplines and showcases our educational philosophy of learning beyond the classroom. Students have immersed themselves in the true history of the Kursk submarine disaster, delving deep into research to authentically portray the profound emotions and dilemmas of the submariners. Collaborating with industry professionals, they've gained invaluable insights into both the human and technical aspects of submarine operations, enriching their understanding of the story. This journey has been intense, with students dedicating countless after school and weekend hours to perfect their performances. Their passion and commitment shine through in every aspect of this immersive theatrical performance, from their nuanced acting to the authentic representation of life aboard a submarine.

Andy Storey, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy Retired, sharing his Navy experiences with our students during a Zoom call.

Michael Little, LCDR USN Retired, came to watch the dress rehearsal and gave general advice regarding his experience with "life at sea" and shared with the students about what it's like to be in a uniform service, dealing with death and casualties.

LCDR Nelson McMillian, Royal Navy, currently serving and stationed in Singapore, came to watch the final performance. He complimented the students on their performance and met with them afterward.

About the Play

Kursk is a gripping and immersive theatrical experience that plunges the audience into the intense and claustrophobic world of a British naval submarine on a covert mission. Set against the backdrop of the real-life tragedy of the Russian submarine K-141 Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000, the play offers a poignant exploration of duty, isolation, and the human cost of military conflict.

The story unfolds aboard a fictional British hunter-killer submarine, patrolling the icy waters of the Barents Sea. The crew, a tight-knit group of sailors, navigates the pressures and challenges of their secretive mission while maintaining constant vigilance and readiness. The narrative delves into the personal lives and emotional states of the crew members, revealing their camaraderie, fears, and the psychological toll of their high-stakes environment.

The plot takes a dramatic turn when the British submarine becomes a silent witness to the catastrophic explosion of the Russian submarine Kursk. As the crew grapples with the moral and ethical dilemmas of their inaction, they face a profound sense of helplessness and guilt. The play powerfully captures the intense sensory experiences of life underwater, using innovative sound design, physical performance, and an evocative set to immerse the audience in the submarine's confined and tense atmosphere.

Kursk is not just a tale of naval operations but a human story of bravery, vulnerability, and the haunting effects of witnessing tragedy. It examines the invisible bonds between those who serve beneath the waves, the weight of decisions made in isolation, and the emotional aftermath of a disaster that could have been prevented.

What is immersive theatre?

It’s a performance art movement that aims to transform audience members from passive recipients to active participants. This genre is what literary theorist Roland Barthes calls a “writerly text”—one that encourages recipients to actively construct meaning. 

Like traditional performance, immersive theatre covers a variety of genres: drama, tragedy, farce, comedy, satire, burlesque, etc. Unlike traditional theatre, however, immersive theatre seeks to integrate audiences in some way, into the performance.

For the purposes of this performance, we elected to try and blur the line between audience and performer, as one of the most important elements of the genre is destabilising the actor-audience relationship. 

While there are many variations in this genre, Kursk has focused on two of the primary elements:

Leaving the stage behind

In this remarkable production of Kursk, the traditional boundaries between actors and audience dissolve. Instead of performing from a distant stage, the actors share the same space with the audience, blurring the line between observer and participant. Audience members are encouraged to move freely throughout the performance area, leaning into conversations and exploring different perspectives, though areas marked with hazard tape are off-limits for safety reasons.

As silent witnesses to the unfolding drama, the audience is asked to refrain from verbally interacting with the cast. This proximity enhances the immersive experience but requires a respectful distance to prevent distractions. Physical contact with the cast is also discouraged. At times, actors may need to navigate through the audience, lightly touching an arm or shoulder and giving a verbal cue to indicate they need to pass.

Sensory experiences

Crafting the desired ambiance for Kursk involves meticulous attention to spatial aesthetics, room temperature, lighting, colour, and aroma. This multi-sensory approach engages touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. The Black Box Theatre (BBT) has been transformed with innovative set elements, strategically placed speakers and lighting, and significant amounts of haze.

Immersive theatre offers a dynamic and personal experience, drawing audiences into the heart of the action. The freedom to explore and view the performance from varied perspectives makes each experience unique, often encouraging multiple visits to discover new dimensions of the story and environment.

In theatre, difficult subjects are not avoided but rather used as a lens to explore the human experience in all its complexity. Kursk does just this, delving into themes of human resilience and ethical dilemmas. The hope is that the performance will leave audiences with new insights, emotions, and a deeper appreciation for how immersive theatre can provoke thought and conversation, drawing them into the depths of the human condition faced in the most challenging circumstances.

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Closing

A message from Director, Jay Douglass

First off, a huge thank you to Irene Malone. It’s been an incredible learning experience for me to partner with her and observe her keen eye for detail, nuance, and layers when approaching scenes and design up close. Secondly,  thanks to her for introducing me to the script Kursk and sparking a deep fascination with submarines and the secret world they occupy–my Netflix and YouTube recommendations have been irreparably altered!

Beyond the technical challenge of creating an underwater world on the 5th floor, the part of this process that has kept me most engaged is the story. This play is more than a documentary piece about a tragic event. It’s about hope and the basic human instinct to help each other, even when we’re supposed to be enemies. That’s the real message here–no matter what divides us, our shared humanity can bring us together.

Finally a big shout-out to the students who’ve worked so hard on this production. Your energy, enthusiasm, and dedication have been incredible. You’ve all brought something special to this process, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you and watch you become the crew of HMS Tempest.

Thank you all for being part of this journey and helping bring Kursk to life.

A message from Director, Irene Malone 

It has been a joy to co-direct with my colleague Jay Douglass, a person of boundless creativity, energy and inventiveness, and whom I imagine is one of the few people I know who would immediately say ‘Yes!’ when asked ‘Can I build a submarine for the set’?

Developing this idea into a set piece which would allow for an effective representation of a very specific environment, and to allow the audience to feel as though they are present within it, was an exciting challenge. One of the things which has kept me engaged and excited has been the ability to break free from the lighting grid and bring portable film lighting into the set, and break the boundary of the proscenium arch. 

Having directed students in the College for the past 16 years, I am consistently impressed by their bravery, compassion and dedication to craft. I offer my heartfelt thanks to the cast for their work ethic, energy, trust, and passion. The crew of the HMS Tempest are remarkable!

I would also like to thank the Drama Department and the Drama Technical Team for their long hours, support and contributions.

Cast

Captain Mike ‘The Boss’
STOREY

Played by Rohan, Grade 11

Chief Petty Officer
DONNIE BLACK

Played by Isi, Grade 11

Lt DONNIE MAC

Played by Max, Grade 11

Petty Officer 'New Dad Mike’
AITCHISON

Played by Vidyuth, Grade 11

Sub Lt ‘CasanovaKen’
WILDE

Played by Julio, Grade 9

Sub Lt ‘DJ Sonar’
YOUNG

Played by Eddy, Grade 9

Midshipman ‘Cheddar’
ROWE

Played by Emmanuel, Grade 9

Midshipman ‘Nobby’

Played by Larry, Grade 10

Midshipman ‘Ankles’
ROPER

Played by Angel, Grade 10

Midshipman ‘Bolt’
HESFORD

Played by Emily, Grade 9

Midshipman ‘Buckles’
HANDS

Played by Laila, Grade 9