In Focus: Interactive Theatre - Part 4, The Audience

Article by Katharine Horowitz

Wandering through a dimly lit hallway, vaguely aware of action happening in the distance, orders were suddenly barked at us to run down the hall and into a waiting elevator. Shadows flickering on the concrete walls, we packed ourselves in and waited tensely for our next orders. The doors closed with a deep bang. Lights began to move upward in rapid sequence as the elevator seemed to shoot down into a rumbling abyss. Doors behind us opened up as the ride stopped and we stepped out into a vast room full of machines and an intimidating staff dressed in military uniforms. A little boy whispered his amazement. Discombobulated but ready for the next chapter, we awaited the scene before us to play out.

We were in the middle of Children’s Theatre Company’s production of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Directed by Ryan Underbakke, the show took place in nearly every corner of CTC’s large building except its two actual stages. We shot past offices on the fourth floor, awaited orders in a transformed coat closet, tunneled through the orchestra pit, and watched tense scenes play out in the equipment rooms located in the bowels of the building. Video, sound, and lights enveloped us at every turn, fleshing out a fantastic achievement of immersive technical design and storytelling.

After developing the storyline, creating the space, and merging the technical elements, all performances eventually come down to the audience. This is the fourth and final article in a series 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 audience members of three recent interactive theatre shows.

AT THE TOP OF THE SLOPE

Local actor Ryan Lindberg was getting a bit tired of the dormancy of traditional theatre with a passive audience, so he was intrigued to see Live Action Set’s production of Crime and Punishment. He’d seen Punchdrunk Theatre’s Sleep No More in New York City and had a sense of what was possible in this kind of immersive theatre. He wasn’t disappointed.

With a performance space scattered throughout the cavernous confines of the Soap Factory, the set (designed by Sarah Stone and Donna Meyer) allowed audience members to walk around rooms that formed a collage of the world, and that integrated the architecture of the building into the theatrical design.

“Everything seemed to fit together extremely well,” Lindberg said. “Each room or space had a strong character to it, and the rooms felt real and extremely lived-in, not necessarily like sets at all. It honestly sort of felt like this creepy basement-city with several different distinct neighborhoods in it.”

Audience member Jim Larson, who also attended Crime and Punishment, agreed.

“We knew we were into something new and amazing,” Larson said. “Like being on the top of a ski slope that may well be more than we can handle, but exhilarated nonetheless.”

CREATING THE EXPERIENCE

Crime and Punishment and 20,000 Leagues audience members were led by a guide through the many playing areas, timing their arrival to the action taking place. Though Larson was game for being shown the way, Lindberg wished he could have explored the Crime and Punishment space on his own a bit more than the experience allowed. However, he appreciated the disbursement of audience members (as opposed to being moved in one large group), as well as the proximity to the performers.

Crime and Punishment co-director and producer Joanna Harmon tried to make sure that audiences felt a freedom to explore.

“Any way an audience member chose to engage with the experience was a “correct” way to engage,” Harmon said, noting that many participants returned for another show. “And if an audience member chose to seek out a narrative, there were narratives to be found.”

However, 20,000 Leagues director Ryan Underbakke learned early on that boundaries for his show were essential. Having done an earlier, more interactive version prior to the CTC production, with audience members allowed to walk around at their own pace, Underbakke found that he couldn’t control the experience or tell the story the way he wanted. When approaching the CTC production (and keeping in mind that much of the audience is children and the story is set in a military environment), he scrapped the idea of a free-roaming audience and instead made a structure-based experience.

“There is something fun about structure to audience,” Underbakke said. “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.”

In contrast to the structured experience was Sandbox Theatre’s This Is A World To Live In. Set in an empty retail space in Minneapolis’ City Center downtown, the production allowed for a free-roaming, highly interactive experience. Audience member Scott Pakudaitis described his initial experience upon entering the space as “mind-blowing.”

Peter Heeringa, Derek Lee Miller, Heather Stone, Kristina Fjellman, Theo Langason, Tim Donahue in This Is A World to Live In. Photo Credit: Richard Fleichman for Sandbox Theatre 2013.

Peter Heeringa, Derek Lee Miller, Heather Stone, Kristina Fjellman, Theo Langason, Tim Donahue in This Is A World to Live In. Photo Credit: Richard Fleichman for Sandbox Theatre 2013.

“It was just so striking,” he said. “Nobody moved. It was like: All of a sudden here’s this new world that we’re entering. It was just a really bold and vivid moment.”

Wandering around Derek Miller’s set, Pakudaitis recalls participating in a photoshoot, painting art on a wall, playing music, and generally making his own experience in the world of the performance.

This Is A World Project Lead Matthew Glover said his team worked hard to take care of their audience.

“Once the show grew into itself, we had people dashing around the space looking for things to play on,” Glover said. “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.

DESIGN ELEMENTS

Aside from the storyline and performance, Pakudaitis was particularly taken with the scenic elements of This Is A World and 20,000 Leagues, taking special note of the sheer amount of props scattered throughout the playing areas for 20,000 Leagues.

“Walking through those rooms with all the equipment, the sound, the lights, everything was just so meticulous and well-handled,” he said. “I felt like I was in a submarine. It was a very well done experience that way.”

Lindberg was impressed with the lighting design for Crime and Punishment.

“This was all taking place in a massive basement, and without the proper lighting to create the mood and work as both theatrical and practical, the illusion of immersive-ness would quickly wear off,” he said. “I feel like it really helped to create the experience of the world while simultaneously setting the mood to tell the story.”

IMMERSIVE VERSUS INTERACTIVE

Having seen both This Is A World and 20,000 Leagues, Pakudaitis describes the former as a more individual and interactive experience, while 20,000 Leagues was more communal and immersive.

Glover said they attempted to make both.

“It was always going to be immersive,” Glover said. “And we worked very hard to make it interactive to the level each audience member dictated for themselves.”

Harmon described Crime and Punishment as largely immersive, but containing interactive elements. Elaborating on that definition, Lindberg felt his experience with Crime and Punishment could be defined as more individual than communal.

“There were certainly communal moments,” Lindberg said. “But for me it was mostly trying to piece together the details of what was happening, and staying open to my senses and feelings as the action unfolded. I wasn't as concerned with the rest of the audience, so it was very individual and introspective to me.”

THE FUTURE

The precise definition of when a show is immersive versus interactive remains as much in question as the future of the genre in the Twin Cities.

Though the demand for immersive shows, or at least the curiosity for them, is present, the longevity and ultimate success is unsure.

“I would wager the future is relatively unstable,” Lindberg said. “A show like C&P requires a massive stage and cast at presumably a significant expense both for setup and upkeep, and a dedicated space. For something like Sleep No More in NYC, you had a dedicated space and a really long run that helps to offset the startup costs for building the set. I think that's a challenge [in the Twin Cities].”

20,000 Leagues designers Sten Severson and Craig Gottschalk agree. While the show sold very well percentage-wise, both men noted that the limited audience capacity versus the amount of actors, shows, and tech was not enough to get a good return in ticket sales.

“I think it was successful in a lot of ways,” Gottschalk said. “The broader question is whether or not there are companies out there that can make this financially work. As with any season, you need to find balance of projects that are worth doing versus money-makers that help inject your season with the finances to stay afloat. I think to do something [like 20K] again we’d have to find some underwriting to do a production that would help offset [the costs].”

Pakudaitis, Lindberg, and Larson believe the demand is there.

“For me it’s certainly a more appealing theatrical experience than sitting in a seat watching people in a living room talking,” Pakudaitis said. “It’s more interesting and engaging. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s getting so popular. It kind of completes with the video game generation. You’re not passive, you’re active, and I appreciate that as a theatre-goer.”

The desire for theatre companies of all sizes to push past their comfort zones and experiment with interactive theatre is palpable among audiences and producers. However, whether or not they have the courage to move past the challenges of such productions remains murky. For the time being, the genre remains largely in the realm of small theatres who have the ability to explore and experiment. And in the end, it may be those small theatres who ultimately guide everyone else through the experience.