"Everything worthwhile is done with other people"—Mariame Kaba

As a teenager, I spent most weekends in London. This wasn’t due to affection for the capital, merely because, at that time, theatre in Manchester was decidedly limited so London was the only option. The process generated a lasting resentment. London not only gobbled up theatrical resources but other similar (author and poetry readings, art displays) events as well. Recall feeling in the unlikely event of Manchester ever being in a position to offer such entertainments, I’d grab the lot.

This may explain why I keep getting involved in productions for the Manchester International Festival (MIF) despite having strong reservations about the festival. I’m sure the likes of Oldham Coliseum or the 24:7 Theatre Festival, both buggered by lack of funding, can see the funny side of the construction costs of The Factory (as Aviva Studios was originally named), the MIF’s venue, going over twice its original £110m budget.

MIF also demonstrates the downside of seeking to emulate London. For a city to afford to stage international productions, it must cater for tourists with more money than sense rather than residents who might prefer more modest shows. It brings out a social consciousness in me—when in the audience at MIF shows, have to restrain myself from asking neighbours the part of Cheshire from which they originate.

Still, it is hard to resist the opportunity to take part in Free Your Mind, the official opening event for The Factory. This event reimagines The Matrix movie through dance and immersive design. More significantly, it is directed by Danny Boyle who put together London’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and a couple of culturally significant British movies. The chance to meet, yet alone work with, such a massive talent is sufficient motivation. I may not be alone in this attitude—spotting one actor from the Manchester Fringe amongst the volunteers.

Past experience dictates the initial gathering of volunteers will be a slow start. After having a headshot taken and given measurements for possible costumes, it is a matter of hanging around while the paperwork is processed before anything happens. After an hour, Danny Boyle opens with a speech which combines inspiring motivation with clear-eyed practicalities.

Boyle tackles my reservations head-on. The intention behind involving so many local people in the opening of The Factory is, he explains, to give Mancunians a sense of ownership—that the venue belongs to them rather than being just a haunt for celebs. Accordingly, the process acknowledges those participating may have work or family commitments, so full-time involvement is not required, nor is any past acting or dancing skills. Just as well.

Boyle explains the degree of participation will be determined by the choice of the volunteers. The basic costume will be the iconic Khaki Warehouse Coat (AKA 'The Open All Hours Shopkeeper Coat'). Have to say I am not attracted to what sounds like a glorified usher role, offering guidance to audience members at the venue. Readers may recall in the movie, the human race is reduced to batteries—their brainwaves used to power the computers which have taken over reality. Free Your Mind will, therefore, involve trained acrobats riding barrel-sized batteries through the Manchester streets towards the venue accompanied by khaki-coated volunteers helping to promote the event and deter troublemakers. Being tall and broad-shouldered, have a feeling this might be a role I’m offered. I’ll play as cast, but really if I’m being involved in a production at a theatre, I’d like to be on stage. Boyle does, however, make clear a professional attitude is required and guidance will be given to ensure those on stage do not become distracted and greet visiting relatives with "hello, aunty".

After the opening remarks, the chairs are cleared, and participants given the chance to take part in exercises to give a hint of what might be involved and to build team spirit. Inevitably, the process over-runs so I do not get a chance to have a go at acting in masks, which will be required for those participants willing to take on the role of White Rabbit (you’ll recall The Matrix cribs from Alice in Wonderland).

Boyle leads exercises which (as a non-actor) I imagine are intended to break the ice, build trust and help strangers work together while offering some rudimentary acting tips. We are required to stand on one side of the room or the other depending on whether or not a statement is true. Not sure if the process helps build trust, but the results are certainly amusing with Boyle identified as the only twin in the room. Strangely, it does not occur to the organisers of an arts festival the people attracted to the event might not follow football, so the request to identify the team they support leaves some volunteers who do not have a preference in the centre of the room.

There are a number of occasions during the evening which highlight my limitations not as an actor or dancer but as a person. My social skills are minimal and by nature I’m standoffish. An exercise in which the volunteers throw a bean bag to someone they have named illustrates my rudeness—I can never remember anyone’s name and at one point end up holding two bean bags desperately searching my memory.

Volunteers are led through a series of dance moves. In this case, I have an advantage over my fellow volunteers—not that it does me much good. The scale of the production is such that several choreographers are required to teach the dance moves to the ensemble. To ensure the choreographers have patience and tact, part of the interview process involved teaching non-professionals who may not have danced before.

Earlier this year, I received something of a backhanded compliment from MIF. They were holding interviews for the choreographers and needed people like me, gifted with two left feet, to test their skill and discretion. The idea being if they could teach and tolerate someone as clumsy as me, they might be up to the job. So, having been part of that process, I am already familiar with the dance moves. However, simply dancing is not all that is required; the choreography requires us to interact in a natural manner—pretending we are at a disco, moving around, making eye contact and giving the impression we are enjoying ourselves. As I’m concentrating on muttering "right, left, up, down, clap" this is not easy.

I’d be a lousy actor as I can never lose myself—take on a personality different from my own. So, although I can replicate mimed movements of a scientist pondering a problem, investigating and finally reaching a solution, I am self-conscious and never really comfortable.

The evening ends with what feels like an improvisation. To pounding disco classics, we are invited to strut, one by one, across the room and shake Danny Boyle’s hand. It is a celebratory end to the evening, and I try to enter into the spirit, but can’t deny, having seen some folks turning cartwheels, I’m very aware of my limitations.

In the movie, a ‘woman in a red dress’ serves as a distraction for the hero. I later find that the confidence shown by participants dancing towards the director was noted and helped determine if they might be suitable for that role. Am stunned to think that what I perceived as a way of winding down the evening had such a serious purpose, and the creators were effectively casting the show and assigning roles from the first moment. Clearly this is not going to be an event in which anything is left to chance.

Mind you, in Free Your Mind, there will be multiple versions of the ‘red dress’ character, and some it is intended will be male. Not sorry my lack of confidence deprived me of the role—the sight of me in a slinky red dress would turn stomachs rather than heads.

Formal rehearsals for Free Your Mind are held at the atmospheric Sackville Street Building. One route to the venue involves walking past the Alan Turing Memorial. This turns out to be appropriate.

At the rehearsal, we are given bare bones details of the plot of Free Your Mind. The Matrix has not only been turned into a hip-hop dance but tweaked to be relevant to Manchester. It will open, almost anti-climatically with a lecture on Turing’s theories. We’re told the first example of machines being programmed were the looms in the Lancashire cotton mills which worked according to punched cards. The intention is that the lecture will be interrupted by a massive screen being turned into a gigantic punch card by volunteers (that’s us folks) punching through pre-scored holes. We rehearse this movement and even without any sound effects it makes a strong impression. I can’t get out of my mind the image of the Cybermen bursting out of their tombs in Doctor Who.

The first rehearsal involves a series of activities designed to make us comfortable working together and, well, performing. Some are designed to build reflexes while others are intended to make us less self-conscious. The latter includes pretending we are waiting for a bus. As this is a role I play every bloody day, it should be as natural as breathing, but my stock prop (a book) is not allowed and, more significantly, the intention is to act while not seeming to act. All exaggerated movements—looking at watches—are banned. The idea is to build up a mindset so that if, during the actual performance, we are interrupted by an audience member, we do not become distracted and remain in character. I can appreciate the intention and hope to achieve the objective.

One thing that surprised me was during an exercise where we crossed the room in twos or threes interacting with each other; I observed the discipline of moving together as a unit, but when music was played, I lost myself and began moving purely in rhythm to the music. Most unlike me.

I’m always aware of the burden my refusal to engage with modern technology imposes upon other people. When an update on the arrangements for the second rehearsal is issued, my tiny, years-old pay-as-you-go mobile phone cannot cope with the volume of information, so the text re-transmits on a loop. For hours, the poor phone beeps as the message constantly repeats.

The second rehearsal is exhilarating with a sense of things clicking into place. During the actual performance, the punch card will be lit from behind so light pours through the holes as we knock out the pre-scored sections. We try, therefore, moving at speed, helping each other get out of the way, and trying to knock out as many holes as possible. More significantly, we repeat an exercise from the induction session trying to guess the social status of a partner from their physical movements and this time get much better results—100% in my case.

We also try on the Warehouse Coats we will be wearing during the performance, which are surprisingly good quality material. We are encouraged to consider what might be kept in the pockets. The only time I have worn such a garment was in my after-school job at Tesco’s where I once found a previous staff member had left a tie in the pocket. I decide my character will be short of money and working two jobs necessitating changing clothes on-site. Not sure if this will help me maintain character, but feel like I am taking the process seriously.

The performance will be immersive, spilling off the stage, so we will be in various roles in different parts of the venue, raising the possibility of direct contact with the public. The importance of not being distracted and remaining in character is emphasised as we try sweeping up the rehearsal space. Takes me back, again, to my after-school job in Tesco’s—don’t grip but hold the handle loosely with one hand to guide the brush and use the other hand to push from the top.

We are introduced to the only non-naturalistic ‘acting’ movement we will be allowed. At one point during the performance, there will be a ‘glitch’ in The Matrix—a verbal clue to give the audience a hint things are not as they seem. The movement is a sharp twist of the neck with exaggerated wide-open eyes and mouth and then continuing as if nothing untoward has happened.

Decide I really ought to re-watch The Matrix. In High Fidelity, a character organises his substantial record collection autobiographically; so, to find a disc he must recall the specific events taking place at the time it was purchased. As the movie is relatively old, it will have been purchased at a time when I deceived myself collecting books, comics etc was a hobby and not the obscene obsession it has become. I figure, therefore, the DVD will be in the part of my collection where things are stored neatly rather than just dumped on the floor in defeat and find the disc in seconds.

The technical rehearsal is held at The Factory. There is a sense of things getting real. After a health and safety briefing, we are taken onto the stage. God, the place is massive. An oddity about the Aviva Studios is that the stage is low, barely above floor level. When I’ve been in the audience, on the lower stalls seats, the impression has been intimate. However, looking upwards from the stage allows the full size of the theatre, taking in the upper circle level seats, to be appreciated. Having barely recovered, we are led to the Warehouse where the second half of the show will be held. It feels like entering an aircraft hanger, the ceiling just goes up and up.

We rehearse the punch card scene—the gigantic prop now includes magnetised covers over the holes which we are to punch out. Different speeds are tried before Danny Boyle suggests, as the play will open with the villains discovering the hero seated in the audience and chasing him onto the stage, we should try and replicate a ‘Mexican wave’ so the lights which appear as the holes are punched will seem to be chasing him as he flees.

An issue is we might be visible to the audience through the holes, so we are coached in stepping silently out of view and filtering into a ‘safe’ area behind the stage where we won’t trip up the professionals.

Boyle is determined to ensure we get the full experience. The show is immersive, spilling into the gigantic foyer in which various props have been constructed. One is a false staircase leading nowhere. Possibly hoping to capture the vibe of the famous photo "Lunch atop a Skyscraper", we will be issued with lunches in 1950s-style lunchboxes and flasks, to be eaten during the interval while posing on the steps. It is hoped audience members might take the opportunity to interact with us.

It is not mentioned, but I wonder if events in Free Your Mind may be taking place during the 1950s. A boxy television set from the period is stage-centre as the show opens. The idea may be, as in Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, Alan Turing remained active in that period and ensured technology advanced at a more rapid rate.

Building work is continuing around The Factory, so when I leave, find the route I have taken before is blocked. Danny Boyle spots me looking confused and cheerfully walks me to Quay Street. Hard to think of another Oscar winner who would be so down to earth—can’t imagine Spielberg walking a participant to the bus stop.

At our next rehearsal, costumes—the warehouse coats—are distributed with the idea wearing them before the actual show will create a creased ‘shop soiled’ look. More importantly, we get to watch the professionals rehearse the end to act one where, in an effort to deprive the machines of solar power, the sky is ‘scorched’.

It is stunning. We watch various groups rehearse in sections of the stage—dancers to the rear march in a military manner while to the front others riot. Inevitably, the two groups clash resulting in fatalities watched over by an angel of death in a red dress and leading to an aerial acrobat scorching the sky and extinguishing the sun. With all the dancers moving in perfect unison, it is amazing the choreographer spots part of the stage not being fully utilised and gently moves a dancer into position. This is more like being in 42nd Street than just getting a glimpse of a show coming together.

The punch card is rehearsed again but this time with the professional cast performing to the front of the prop, which adds to the tension. It adds also to the distraction—terrible temptation to peek and see them in action.

The dress rehearsal is over-subscribed, so I’m not needed to perform. On the plus side, get to sit in the audience and watch the show. The cheeky Manchunian references continue. In his initial appearance, the hero, Neo, wears a heavy coat reminiscent of the young men with a weight on their shoulders, and the visual film montage which opens the second act features Manchester landmarks and has New Order on the soundtrack.

My main interest, aside from the spectacle of course, is how well the immersive elements—which involve us participants—work. Immersive theatre is hit and miss at best. The emotion I most associate with the technique is boredom as there are long stretches where nothing happens, and that is an issue with Free Your Mind. However, always feel with immersive theatre you only get out what you put in, so am determined to check out the various features.

The immersive features are the only part of Free Your Mind which do not always seem to go as planned. There is no sign of the Room of Tranquillity which, during rehearsals, we were told would be a quiet area featuring participants as ‘living statues’; instead, these are simply situated in the foyer.

The living statues are participants in costumes familiar from the Matrix movies caught in ‘bullet time’, crane pose floating in mid-air or dashing up a wall. The physical discipline in holding the pose is impressive and the effect on the audience is interesting. A performer who sticks to the concept—behaves as an immobile statue and ignores the audience—has an intimidating effect and puts people off interacting, while one who smiles or waves at the crowd attracts people wishing to pose and take photos. There is a discrete circus / carnival hawker 'step right up' vibe at the prop, which allows punters the chance to have a go at assuming such a pose themselves. Having always regarded MIF as too arty for its own good, am surprised at this relaxed and welcoming attitude. The prop is, however, not robust enough to take the weight of one patron and requires repair before the preview performances are over.

No sign of any ladies in red dresses slinking through the audience, and trust me I really did look for them. A couple of days later, the reason for their absence becomes apparent—a rack of red dresses arrives.

It is possible the idea to have workers eat lunch and chat with the audience while posing on ‘the stairway to nowhere’ is overtaken by practicalities. The stairway is behind the glass doors leading to The Warehouse and these are locked until the start of act two. Lunch is, therefore, eaten on steps outside the theatre at dress circle level. This extends the community participation beyond the foyer, but is not as visually striking. The problem is resolved initially by having us eat lunch on the stairway to nowhere while the audience watches through the glass, as if we are exhibits and later moving the display to the higher level.

At a later ‘lunch’, I chat with a patron who was unaware he was seated next to the actor who would be dramatically revealed as Neo, the hero of the show. In a wonderful remark, the then-anonymous actor said he was only there because he knew someone who was in the play.

An egalitarian gesture opens the show. The Keymaker, one of the community performers, is making keys and posing for photos in the theatre foyer. At start time, the idea is he offers an audience member a key and invites them to open the theatre. The mood is low-key (sorry about that), and although there is an announcement, the volume and wording are not especially dramatic and prompts The Keymaker rather than the audience and, thus, does not really draw attention to the event; so unless you’re in the area and keeping an eye out, it will be missed.

The arrival of the acrobats riding the batteries, while without fanfare, is broadcast on the wall-size video screen so is visible to more people and also draws attention to the White Rabbits—participants in superb headgear with whom audience members are happy to pose.

A short pep talk at the start of the event reminds the audience this is a rehearsal and delays are likely. For some reason, the opening of act two is delayed. This is particularly unfortunate as participants in overalls are in the background painting the entrance archway; inevitably provoking comments that the opening to the second act is like watching paint dry.

During early rehearsals, we were taught a dance move entitled "There is no spoon"—raising a hand aloft as if holding a spoon, offering it to others, suddenly losing and gaining control of it before releasing it and embracing freedom. Am stunned to see the move, albeit with a lot more jumping and kicking, appear in the final scene as Neo learns to move beyond logic and accept things are not always as they appear. It is oddly humbling—bringing a sense of being a member of the actual company however undeserved.

It is the penultimate preview before I get to perform. Danny Boyle gives a few brief notes. It was pointed out at one of the previews a forgotten disc was knocked out of the punch card after the scene had ended. Boyle explains this is a health and safety issue—the card rises into the theatre flies so loose discs could drop out from a height and be dangerous. Boyle has the perfect response to a performer jittery with hyperactivity: "take the blue pill."

As if making up for lost time, am assigned three roles: operating the punch card, eating lunch under observation and painting the archway. Well, it’s better to be occupied than sitting in the green room eating snacks. There is a carefully worked-out schedule for issuing costumes and directing us to and from the stage. Can’t help but feel if the backstage staff had been in charge of the UK during the COVID pandemic, the crisis would have been sorted out a lot quicker.

During rehearsals, the punch card prop was level with the stage but has now been raised up a couple of steps onto a platform. Manage to avoid tumbling down the steps when walking backwards and the only real problem is a second or two of complete darkness when trying to file off the stage into the safe area.

The concept behind us sweeping the theatre stage and painting the archway around the catwalk / platform in the warehouse is that we are workers, behind schedule and rushing to finish so the show can go ahead. Danny Boyle points out how to sweep in a convincing manner: use the small brush for corners, nudge the dirt off the stage. Good idea in theory but, as is often the case with immersive theatre, so much time is allowed, it is hard to generate any sense of urgency. Find it hard to fool myself the audience won’t notice we are painting and walking on areas which have already been ‘painted’ while trying to fill the time. As with everything in the show, enormous attention is paid to detail: our white overalls are suitably grubby.

Actors are reputed to be second only to politicians in self-regard. Yet this reputation is belied by the professionals we encounter backstage, all of whom are gracious and appreciative. As I’ve done little more than eat biscuits, can’t help but feel a bit of a fraud.

The backstage rituals are lovely. We are applauded by the staff as we file out for the curtain call. This is not as traumatic as I’d feared. Having seen the show twice at this point, am aware variations have been tried. We get lucky and are allowed to simply walk across the massive Warehouse catwalk without stopping but while paying respects to the professional actors and the audience. As this can be achieved while looking directly ahead, it is possible to pretend we aren’t being watched by hundreds of people. Not looking terrified is the best acting I’ve managed so far.

Manchester has changed over the decades since I was a teen. What was once Piccadilly Gardens is now a thriving shanty town. The city can now attract spectacular touring shows like 42nd Street but also thoughtful and prestigious productions like Akram Khan's Giselle, which, come to think of it, originated at the MIF. Hamilton and The Life of Pi will be arriving in the next few weeks. But home-grown theatre lost, and has yet to regain, momentum during the COVID pandemic.

There is a real opportunity for The Factory to serve as a focal point for artistic productions in the region and, based upon the number of people willing to give their time to take part in Free Your Mind, a demonstrable appetite for such a facility. Come to that, the community aspect of the facility is appealing. Arrive early for a performance to find the foyer taken over by local students offering repair / refurbishment of electric devices. Kick myself for not bringing my mobile phone which has gone dodgy, and one participant asks to borrow a tenner to buy a refurbished lamp.

It's doubtful I’ll ever be completely comfortable with the high-minded / ambitious approach taken by the MIF to attract audiences to the city. But at least Free Your Mind and The Factory demonstrates Manchester has a venue which can host large-scale artistic events and save audiences the trouble of travelling down to London. It is about time.