Friday, April 28, 2017

You Get What You Put In.

Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to design lights for Rubber Repertory, before Josh moved to Los Angeles and Matt moved to Shanghai. And we did this odd, amazing production called Biography of Physical Sensations. Designing lights for this was honestly the safest way to "see" it. Josh and Matt are very...original...when it comes to audience interactivity. For Biography, each audience member bought a ticket and selected a specific size chair. Your chair size determined your level of participation - small chairs meant you were willing to dip your toes in the water, medium meant you were willing to wade in, and large chairs meant you were diving headfirst into the deep end of the pool, hoping it was filled with water. I never chose anything above a small chair. I knew what awaited the people in the others.

I don't want to go into a big thing about what exactly Biography was, because there are plenty of articles out there on it, but I can say that the experience of workshopping it was something I will never have again. I came home from rehearsal one day - even though I was "just the designer," I was part of the team creating it and would attend rehearsals to workshop the interactive elements - and Travis said "how was rehearsal?" I stood in the door, dropped my bag on the floor, and said six words:

"They set. My foot. On fire."

And by the way, Matt didn't ask first before he did that. I pulled the card with the sensation written on it - I don't remember the description but I'm pretty sure it wasn't "setting your foot on fire" - and said "uhh..ok" and agreed to whatever he had crafted. And then he did it.

I don't think that made it into the final show, but plenty, PLENTY of things did. Los Angeles people, you need to find Josh and talk to him about how to mount this, because I promise you, you haven't seen anything like it.

Set Design for The Chairs?

But the amazing, beautiful thing about Biography wasn't the weirdness or the thrills. It was this unexpected thing that happened at the performances. The audience - 25-30 people, seated in their differently sized chairs in a circle - actually became a community without even knowing each other. Part of this was that the chair assignments separated groups, and part was that everyone was going through some unknown thing that might or might not be awful or humiliating or weird or amazing or touching. It became an experience that you had with the entire group, not one you had with your friends, or by yourself. You bonded with the strangers sitting next to you and also with the ones you were watching - as your sensation was introduced, you were brought to the center of the circle, you went through whatever it was, and then were escorted back to your seat without any fanfare. Maybe Josh and Matt knew when they made it what was going to happen but I had no idea until the first audience saw it, and I was floored.

Why is this so difficult a concept to grasp in so much participatory performance - the audience experience? I'm not really talking about on the part of the creators or directors of a given show. I'm talking about on the part of fellow audience members.

Theater is not a me thing. It's an us thing. It's a communal thing, even when we're all sitting in seats in front of a proscenium and not talking, it's an experience we are having together. That moment will never be recreated. Think about the audience that was at Hamilton the night Mike Pence was there - they were present for something that will never happen again. Regardless of how you feel about Mike Pence, that was a unique moment. You can't get that from a movie. That's something special shared with the other people who were there and that's it.

From one hated VP to another

I know that everyone likes to think that immersive theater started last week or last year or seven years ago in Los Angeles or New York or London with Punchdrunk but it did not. We've been doing this awhile. The trend that is happening now in this country has been going on for about six years, and was popularized by Punchdrunk, but they didn't start it either. You can trace immersive theater and the breaking of the fourth wall through the work of Adrian Howells and Richard Schechner and Dionysis in 69 and the Living Theater and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Work that's about community, communal experiences, compassion and empathy, presence, truth. If you don't know those, and you do immersive theatre, you have some reading to do.  There is a massive British immersive scene that has led to the current rise in popularity in this country, and I'm honestly interested to know if British audiences have a different experience than American ones, because American audiences at immersive and participatory shows frustrate the hell out of me.

This trend has brought with it a new focus on audience agency, and audience agency seems to mean one thing to an audience member - it's about me. And so, we lose the unique experience that is theater, that shared experience, because we are back to wanting our individual experience. Add gamification into the mix, and theater becomes a reality show, with audience members trying to outdo one another to get their money's worth. Or in some cases their not-money's worth.

This is why I don't go to Sleep No More anymore. That first experience was magical and transformative, and the second and third ones were not - the third one was depressing, to watch what this piece of art that had changed my life so profoundly had devolved into. And Sleep No More was never really a communal experience anyway. The mask drew you into yourself and made it impossible to be with others - in fact it made it easy to turn others into faceless NPCs, once the number of people in any given room passed a certain number. Those people didn't count - your goal was to get to the people without the masks. I wonder if the behavior would change if the masks were to come off.

And now we have what Noah Nelson refers to as Alternate Reality Experiences - the merging of Alternative Reality Games with immersive theater. But what happens when you take that live performance to the internet? And allow it to exist on a forum? And give its participants voices, agency, and the ability to affect the narrative? Or even become central characters themselves? How about access to the creators? (Damon Lindelof just shuddered inexplicably.) Imagine theater taking place in the comments section. OK, it's not quite that, but some of that will exist - the internet gives an amount of freedom that "real life" doesn't. It's the digital/virtual equivalent of the Punchdrunk mask. People become whoever they want to become online and the rest of us have to choose how much trust to place in them. And if people aren't who they really are - can you have a genuine communal experience? Is there enough truth and honesty present for that, or is it swallowed up in...role playing strategies? Has the art of the experience been traded for figuring out how to survive tribal council?

When is something a performance, an experience, or a game?
What is the social contract that we agree upon when we enter each of these?

Of course I just left the theater (Macalester spring dance concert) and I talk about "social contracts" thinking they still exist. I would love to say that there are still basic social contracts about going to theater or going to the opera but I honestly don't know anymore. People don't observe the basic courtesy of turning their cell phones off. Or at the very least NOT looking at the bright, glowing screen in the darkened house while something is going on onstage. It's enough to drive a lighting designer insane. I want to believe that there are things that we just don't do in a given situation, but...Trump is president. Cats are marrying dogs. Who knows anymore.

When something has been heavily discussed and advertised as a community experience, one expects people joining the community to respect that element. When attending an artistic event, one expects audience members to respect the integrity of the art. What does not come before either of these things is one's own damn wants. That goes for cell phones being on and it goes for proximity to Hecate.

You get what you put in. This is the rule. Given that rule, knowing that rule, how can the following be heard so frequently?
  • But I'm not on social media
  • But I don't write for the Verge/No Proscenium/fill in the blank with whatever
  • But I don't have my own podcast/website
  • But I have no artistic skills
  • But I don't want to interact with the community
  • Why do they have to do things during the day when people have to work
  • Why do things have to take place in that area where it's not convenient for me
  • How are they going to know anything about me if they don't ask me 967 questions
  • Why can't I just get what I want while sitting on my ass doing nothing.
That last one - oh, that last one. To anyone, anywhere, asking of any situation why can't I just get what I want while sitting on my ass doing nothing - the answer is because others are willing to do things. Others are willing to put in what you are not. Others are willing to make, do, go out, visit, participate, interact, connect, write, record, drive, take the day off, take a long lunch, take a long weekend, fly halfway around the world. TRUST. Not make it about themselves.

Have their feet set on fire.

Sitting in the big chair

And, that is life, isn't it? That is why I am where I am, and you are where you are, wherever that is. You get what you put in. Many days, what I put in is feeding the cats and many days, what I get out of it is...cats. It's shocking when you do the math.

Can this be done differently? Can the audience experience and the artistry be preserved? Or does that require the audience to be so small, the entire venture becomes unsustainable? That's a different blog post. That one's coming too.

If you want to sit on your ass and do nothing and have theater handed to you, there's a whole industry for that. It's called musicals. They make LOTS of them. Have fun.

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