I first watched historian Simon Schama’s Power of Art in 2008 with my father. I thought it a bit overdone, but liked it enough to buy it and share it with a few people. I recently watched it again, this time also reading the accompanying book, and was struck with just how good and how compelling it is.
Simon Schama’s politics and mine are often sharply at odds, but that is irrelevant as regards this series’ brilliance. Presented as a tour of eight famous artists - yes, all from the West - and their fascinating stories, I think it is first and foremost an intelligent, accessible and engaging argument for the central and powerful importance of art in our lives.
Whether considering monuments of power, designed to uphold and magnify the status quo or as daring acts of revolution, conceived to jolt us and make us rethink our world, this series itself grapples with the same thing that great art does: our humanity; our societies; our perceptions; ourselves.
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 an increase in 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 first 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 will hear from directors, designers, and audiences in future articles.
THE DIRECTOR, Part 1
Our inaugural exploration into creating interactive theatre in the Twin Cities begins with interviews of a few of local directors and producers of recent interactive and/or immersive productions. We chatted 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 about their perceptions of the genre and its future in Twin Cities theatre.
“Interactive” and “immersive” are often used interchangeably when describing theatre that uses active audience participation to shape the arc of the story. What, if any, is the difference is between interactive and immersive theatre?
Ryan Hill (RH): To me, “immersive” implies a story is unfolding (not necessarily linearly) around you. “Interactive” means the story requires your participation. I think they're separate concepts. TIAWTLI was immersive, but not necessarily interactive. You [could] plant yourself on a couch and watch everything unfold with your arms crossed and still get most of the narrative. But you'd be missing a ton of nuance you'd get from participating.
Ryan Underbakke (RU): I really don't think there is [a difference]. Both the terms "immersive" and "interactive" are extremely vague and open to interpretation. A dinner theater show could be "immersive" to someone, or someone could describe an improv show as “interactive". I think these terms are used so much now because companies are trying to create shows that are in some way different than our usual theater going experience.
Joanna Harmon (JH): “Immersive” theater surrounds the audience within the action and accepts the audience into the world in which the story is unfolding. Audience members often walk around within the world on their own. “Interactive” theater involves the audience member in the action of the performance, and sometimes an audience member may even play a role within the action.
Immersive and interactive theatre seem to be enjoying an explosion of popularity around the country. How would you measure their current popularity and reception in the Twin Cities, and what do you think their future is?
RH: There's a need for being part of an event. Society is valuing participation over observation. It's not good enough for theatre just to appeal to your sense of literature; it’s got to physically move you.
RU: It's been interesting watching how entertainment has adapted in the digital age: music switched to a digital experience over the analog of the past, movies became a place of spectacle and epic-ness while television became the place to go to for hard-hitting, long novelist drama. Video games adapted into a place for interactive stories, able to evolve past the "B-Movie" plots of the past. And, weirdly, theater didn't do anything. Theater said "No, we're good." So I think its an exciting time if to be making immersive work. It’s still kind of the Old West with no rules because its all very new.
Matthew Glover (MG): I think theatre is changing, becoming more flexible. Television, movies, literature have changed to fit into bite-sized portions. They’ve had to. If it can’t fit on a phone, it dies. Immersive events are just one volley toward a different theatrical experience. And not a new volley, either. Its current popularity might be fleeting, just as any other trend can be, but with any other trend there are those artists who continue to do a certain type of work not because it is/was trendy, but because it inspires them. We’re nearing the first big dip in the most recent immersive arc: when smaller, more flexible companies have had a try at immersive events, and larger ones finally convince a board to let them have a go.
By and large, it seems like much of the Twin Cities immersive theatre experiences are produced by smaller theatre companies. Do you foresee a rise in popularity of immersive and/or interactive theatre with larger institutions, or are the parameters that dictate audience involvement too difficult for larger institutions?
RU: I think that's always the case right? Any new approach starts off amongst experimental artists and starts off as very radical, until it hits a mainstream audience and is considered "a new way to look at work" before it just becomes the norm and then ultimately rote. It sounds bleak but I find the whole thing a way to keep things exciting. There was a time when masks on stage was cutting edge. There was a time when using fabric on stage blew peoples minds.
JH: Practically speaking, it is impossible for the director to see every moment of an immersive production. The scope of one requires the directors to relinquish more creative control than they would have over a traditional production. Directors of immersive productions have to give an extreme amount of trust to their actors and designers, and this quality often exists amongst groups who adhere to the principles that ensembles are built upon.
Companies of all sizes create within constraints. Companies of institutional size often work within constraints that inhibit them from experimenting on as vast a spectrum as that on which smaller companies play. Now that immersive theater is proving popular, I hope institutions feel the courage to produce immersive performances themselves.
MG: I’m sure larger houses will try their hands at it, yes. Their risk is a lot higher, however, and that prevents it from being immediate and anything close to the cutting edge of an art form.
Perhaps the biggest difference between large and small (aside from budget) is whether a theatre company views an immersive show as a piece of art, or as a product. Are you making the show because you want to stretch your own artistic boundaries or are you trying to sell what’s hot? Small companies can afford to ask those questions and take those risks a lot more easily than large ones.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, examining the details that went into planning and producing 20,000 Leagues, This Is A World To Live In, and Crime and Punishment!
Article by James A. Williams
James A. Williams, or JayyDubb is a well-known and celebrated actor and director around town. He’s also a mentor, educator and advisor to so many others in the community. I don’t remember what show I was working on when we first spoke, or even what year it was (it was a while ago), but I do remember how it happened:
I knew who JayyDubb was, of course, but I hadn’t come up with the reason (read: courage) to speak to him. Then one day, while I was fiddling around at the Mixed Blood teaching myself how bench focusing worked, he walked in, walked right up, stood behind me and said, “You enjoying yourself?”
I’m honoured to have him write for us. - Wu Chen Khoo
Nearly 40 years ago I stepped on a stage on the West Bank of Minneapolis – The Firehouse – to be exact in Mixed Blood’s production of Horace Bond’s Mother April’s - beginning a journey that went from a vocation to a career.
Looking back at that inauspicious beginning, I think of the companies that came, thrived for a time, and then disappeared; of those that have managed to hang on despite the economic swings and turbulent financial times that rocked the funding world; of the legacy amendment and other changes in the theater landscape that I have not been privy to. One of the largest changes that I’ve seen is the idea that artists of color now come to the Twin Cities seeking employment opportunities. This fact amazes me because in 1976, when I walked on that stage the idea of making a living doing this seemed as improbable an idea as a black man becoming President of the United States of America. At that time there was the Guthrie, Cricket, Old Log, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres complex, and Actor’s Theater of St. Paul with year round programing and fledgling companies like Illusion Theatre, Palace Theater, Juene Lune, At the Foot of the Mountain, Circle of the Witch, Powderhorn Puppet Theatre (In the Heart of the Beast), or Performers Ensemble (if I’ve left anyone out please understand I’m writing this from my memory which is not what it used to be).
What I recall most about that the time was the political nature of us new comers. Using art to convey an alternative perspective on the changing political landscape or gender or race was far more common than in most reflections I’ve read. While most of the more established institutions seemed concerned with providing entertainment for the establishment, or purposeful pursuit of a particular segment of the art (New Plays, Classical Theatre, Children’s Theater, etc.), There was also a thriving community theatre population, including the venerable TRP in Minneapolis and the now defunct Chimera in St. Paul. The majority of these institutions didn’t acknowledge the existence of the black artist, let alone any other ethnicities, with one of the notable exception being the Shoestring Players: Bob Sample’s group dedicated to black theater, or the occasional TRP production.
By and large, companies searched for their audiences through their artistic mission. Some strove to increase awareness of environmental issues, some strove to build awareness of our community through sharing our stories while others sought to explore the complexities of our perceptions of gender in society. However, the overall view was, for a variety of reasons, white.
Into this mix led by Lou Bellamy came Penumbra Theatre Company with the mission of telling our stories, our way. In those early days we were an interracial group with varying levels of experience. I had one foot still in school and was looking for guidance to decide if I even wanted to be an artist. I’d come to attend college and was completely unaware of the community around me. Through contact with artists such Lou, Claude Purdy, the aforementioned Dr. Horace Bond, Phillip Blackwell, Mazi Johnson, Greg Williams, Jay Patterson, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Tia Mann, Laura Drake, Estelene Bell, Gordon Cronce, Faye Price and Ruth Lassila I learned about building community through art.
Memories that linger are our open rehearsal policy: that because we were in a community center, young people would run inside the building to get a drink of water from the fountain across from the theater hear our rehearsals and sit mesmerized, watching us work, and the joy of working years later with several of those young people who chose the arts because that contact planted the seed of a life on the stage as a possibility. As the organization grew youth came into contact with artists who were born in St. Paul and grew up the neighborhood. Terry Bellamy, Marion McClinton, and numerous others were artists their parents knew. They were living, breathing heroes for them to emulate. In those early days, before the pressures of grant writing, brand positioning and corporate sponsors, there was a different type of contact with the community we represented, we ate in their businesses, shopped in their corner stores, drank in their taverns. They got first glances at the works of Carlyle Brown, Charles Smith, and August Wilson, the art and the artists belonged to the neighborhood or ones like them. It was that contact inside the community itself that shaped my artistic growth.
Something has transpired in the time since then. The stores and shops are long gone replaced by coffee shops, boutiques wine bars. While artists and theatres are being praised and funded as saviors of communities or lauded as the advanced guard of financial recovery of neighborhoods, that community that I loved so deeply has grown to feel left out, uninvited to their stories. Reading stories of the two twin cities, one thriving, and white, leading the nation in economic growth, job recovery and graduation rates and another, brown, underemployed and has astronomical incarceration rates.
While in conferences and university we argue about what diversity in art - especially theater - looks like, I find myself walking in spaces where ideologically I feel less welcome than I did 38 years ago, spaces where I fight the same battles, have the same conversations. Conversations about points of view of the narrative, colorblind casting and/or my favorite, “How can we reach out to the ________ (Fill in the blank) community?” Don’t get me wrong, I love my career here, I love this community, worked with some great artists. Jack Reuler, Michael Robbins, Bonnie Morris, Stephen Yoakam, Michael Brindisi, Garland Wright, Ben Krywosz, Richard Cook, Noel Raymond to name a few. What excites me now is working with Jeremy Cohen and the Staff at PWC and Full Circle Theatre, a company I’ve helped start with Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, Laura Trujillo, and Stephanie Lein Walseth. To borrow a line from our upcoming show Theater: A Sacred Passage: “Let the adventure begin.”