Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove' Meets Immersive Theater in London

Or: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the Secret Cinema."

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22 March 2016, 2:50pm

The immersive Secret Cinema. Tell No One. experience recreates Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Image by Camilla Greenwell

Over the past month, nearly 20,000 people have been assigned new identities through the Department of Cultural Surveillance (D.O.C.S.), an organization yielding great nuclear power and the potential to launch a full-out assault on the Soviet Union, likely obliterating the entire world—after all, it just takes one deranged general.

With this in mind, February 17 through March 20 saw ordinary citizens becoming military personnel, world diplomats and— obviously—spies, who descended upon the D.O.C.S. War Room to assume active roles in a film screening like no other. Yes, film screening.

No, D.O.C.S. HQ wasn’t in Cold War America—while it could very well have been—but was instead, located in an abandoned 250,000 square foot South London warehouse reinvented to look like Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the latest immersive production to come from British events company Secret Cinema.

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Inside the fictional Burpelson Air Base. Secret Cinema. Tell No One. Image by Camilla Greenwell

“Essentially, the whole concept around everything is secret,” says founder Fabien Riggal, who's been putting on audience interactive screenings since 2007, anything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Back to the Future. For newbies to London’s all too hip scene, Secret Cinema does immersive storytelling through the recreation of movie-specific sets, getting audience members to play characters in a moving narrative that’s inspired by the choice film. A small cast helps bring the story along and eventually, the actual film gets shown. The screening location is classified and, if it's one of their "Tell No One" productions, so is the film.

“The way you contribute to the experience and become someone else, you realise you can change the course of the night,” says Riggal, his events usually running up to 8 hours. For this round of shows, Riggal tells The Creators Project, “We wanted to put something on in which the audience could be world leaders. The main concept was to create a summit.”

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To War or Not to War. Secret Cinema. Tell No One. Image by Hanson Leatherby

Recently, Secret Cinema has come under fire for canceled productions and over-the-top creations of Hollywood blockbusters, but the company’s use of Dr. Strangelove has brought the group back to its cultural advocacy roots, reclaiming spaces for the subversive.

“Our current world situation is so uncertain and as members of society we often just watch it go by in some respects,” says Riggal. “I think we have a responsibility culturally to debate these things and become activists through exploring film. This is a film that does that. It’s one of the bravest and boldest Kubrick films and I think that it holds the same relevance as today.”

If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, then you’ve probably been missing out on a bunch of cultural references, because Riggal is right, this film is iconic. Using satire to draw on Cold War tensions amid the fear of a nuclear apocalypse, a slightly paranoid US general orders a strike on the Soviet Union without permission from his higher command. While hilarity ensues, the film demonstrates the power of cinema to provide commentary to very sombre issues, like war.

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Secret Cinema. Tell No One. Image by Hanson Leatherby

“Culture should be something that defines politics in some ways,” says Riggal “It should be something that drives it.”

Secret Cinema aren’t strangers to politics, having set up secret screenings in difficult locations like Kabul and hosting others in the Calais refugee camp.

In the case of the Dr. Strangelove event, audience members travel through the factory converted army base, assembling in the War Room—an impressive nod to the Ken Adams original—making statements, alongside the actors, on whether or not bombing Russia is a good idea.  

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Inside the War Room. Secret Cinema. Tell No One. Image by Will Cooper

“All of them are connected to the narratives of Dr. Strangelove around this B-52 bomb that’s about to be sent to attack Russia,” explains Riggal.

Six different War Room screens project various imagery relevant to things like the Manhattan Project and Joseph Oppenheimer, illustrating what Riggal believes, as education through culture and non-commercial cinema.

Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, where are those films today?” he says. “Storytelling and giving people opportunities to feel like they do have a contribution to make should be a priority.”

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A truly unique film viewing. Secret Cinema. Tell No One. Image by Hanson Leatherby

24 performances of Dr. Strangelove took place, in support of War Child UK. Up next is horror, as Secret Cinema looks to create Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in what is sure to be a frightening experience. Find out more here and keep your eyes peeled stateside for screenings to come, hopefully sometime this year.

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