In Focus: Interactive Theater - Part 2, The Director

Series by Katharine Horowitz

Audience immersion and interactivity have always been the mainstays of haunted houses and historical reenactment sites, but the genre seems to be experiencing a recent eruption of popularity in the United States with such productions as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, both in New York City. The last few years have also seen some impressive interactive theatre productions in the Twin Cities, but is there a lasting future for it here? And what challenges do companies encounter when building the kind of designs and stories needed to create a successful interactive experience?

This is the second in a series of articles examining the work involved to produce interactive theatre, and how we might foster its continued growth in the Twin Cities. We continue our discussion from last month with local directors of recent interactive theatre shows. We will hear from designers and audiences in future articles.

Children's Theatre Company production of   20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.   Directed by Ryan Underbakke. Photo by Dan Norman.

Children's Theatre Company production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Directed by Ryan Underbakke. Photo by Dan Norman.


Our exploration into Twin Cities interactive theatre began with interviews of some local directors and producers of recent interactive productions; this month we take a deeper look into the shows they directed. We continue chatting with Matthew Glover and Ryan Hill of Sandbox Theatre’s This Is A World To Live In (TIAWTLI), Ryan Underbakke of CTC’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Joanna Harmon of Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment.

How would you classify your show? (Immersive, interactive, site-specific, all three, or other?)

Matthew Glover (MG): It was always going to be immersive, and we worked very hard to make it interactive to the level each audience member dictated for themselves. Since we built our own world within the space, I don’t think site-specific is accurate for TIAWTLI. Classifying a production in these terms is something we had to do for grant proposals and it can help in selling the show, but rarely was it a concern for us to define it in creation.

Joanna Harmon (JH)Crime and Punishment is largely “immersive.” Audience members may walk around intricately designed rooms/environments that together form a collage of the world of the experience. It contains “interactive” elements because characters sometimes interact with an audience member through direct address or an audience member may engage with a physical activity that, in our case, had limited effect on the overarching action of the characters. It is “site-inspired” because it integrates the inherent architecture of the building into the theatrical design. For it to be “site-specific,” we would have had to integrate the detail of an industrial soap factory as an essential story element!

Which came first: The show or the venue? And how did the one lead the other in the choices you made?

MG: The show idea came first. We didn’t have a venue until two weeks before creation began. We sought nearly every dead and/or underused space in town, but landlords would rather a space stay empty for potential buyers than have life in it for a few months. We wanted a flexible space in which to build an entire world. Initially the thought was something maybe 1,500 square feet. A bit of serendipity came into play one day when I walked by a giant open space in the City Center. We asked the then-landlords about it and they said no. We tweaked things and pitched them again and they said yes. My mind was thinking we’d use a small chunk of their available space, but they offered it all. So we went from conceiving an intimate gallery to building a world inside 27,000 square feet. That kind of change in scope throws everything into question. Budgets, time management, etc. It’s hard to answer questions on what you want in a space when your plans were for a room 1/20th the size. It was an enormous leap of faith in an enormous space, and [scenic designer] Derek Miller did what he does masterfully: begging, borrowing, and scavenging everything he could to build something that really was pretty magical.   

JH: Noah’s relationship with The Soap Factory directing the Haunted Basement gave us access to “the basement” and our minds immediately knew this was the place to produce an immersive experience. The atmosphere of the basement is very particular, and Noah’s recollection of Crime and Punishment felt like a logical match. Those two inspirations were enough to set the thing in motion and we didn’t pause to consider another story.

How did you prevent losing control of the narrative?

Ryan Hill (RH): Bizarre characters, intense moments, loud sounds. The piece balanced between distraction and focus. We want you to drift and explore, but when we want to bring your attention back to a single thread, there will be a moment you can't ignore. We tried to strike a good pattern of "WTF is happening over there," and profoundly intimate moments.

Ryan Underbakke (RU): I feel like people tend to not cooperate if they feel like they are not being taken care of; If they are bored or if you are asking them to do too much, too quickly. So with that, you create a really tight show, a show where all the beats of the entire sequence are accounted for so the audience doesn't feel like you are wasting their time, or that you are doing some kind of improv show that they create. And with that the audience was usually pretty game for what we were doing.  

JH: Except for a few, extreme cases of unruly or inappropriate conduct, audience members were never uncooperative. Any way an audience member chose to engage with the experience was a “correct” way to engage with it. And, if an audience member chose to seek out a narrative, there were narratives to be found. But it was not our desire as creators to thrust a singular narrative on anyone or a narrative at all.

What, if any, boundaries or limits did you give your audience?

RU: With 20k, boundaries were essential. A few years back I tried to make 20k a free-roam show (Punchdrunk style); essentially the audience got to walk around and observe the Nautilus and its crew in their own time. And I hated it. I realized I couldn't control the experience, I couldn't create scenes and and environments through the lens I wanted them to watch it through, and I couldn't tell the story I wanted to tell. So I scrapped it all and made this entirely structure-based experience and I got an overwhelmingly positive response. There is something fun about structure to audience. It doesn't mean they have to follow it, it just means that it's there for them. It's a way of letting them know we are taking care of them, that with all the excitement of this new form we are still in complete control.

JH: Audiences have become accustomed to sitting in a chair to see a play up on a stage. Sitting in a chair is a boundary. Immersive theater, and we with Crime and Punishment, broke that boundary and we put in place a new one: a 12,000 square-foot basement within which the audience could roam at anytime during the hour-long experience. Also, audience members were required to wear masks. But, though this may be seen as a confinement, we put this rule in place to unlock a freedom for the audience. A mask acts as an invisibility cloak that unveils a curiosity not felt when one’s identity is known.

MG: Before we opened, one of our company members sat in on a rehearsal and offered up her thoughts on what we should expect from Minnesota audiences. She thought they’d be reticent to participate, that they’d have to be cajoled and coerced. Not really so. Once the show grew into itself, we had people dashing around the space looking for things to play on. We worked very hard throughout creation to take care of the audience. Give them the playground and the space, and let them dictate their own level of participation. Some were discomforted, but many, many more found themselves playing in ways they’d never dreamed. We received a ton of feedback from our audiences and a recurring theme within those returns was how surprised they were by their own level of participation.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series: examining the technical details that went into designing 20,000 LeaguesThis Is A World To Live In, and Crime and Punishment.