Has this meta/experimental theater concept been done?
October 8, 2013 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Well, it's rather self centered of me to think that this is an original idea in any sense. Particularly since it as a whole is inspired by a musical concept/experiment done by The Flaming Lips. So I guess the question is moreover has it been done in a manner resembling my own idea? Basically, it would be the story of one especially dramatic night in a house full of young creative types age 21-32 in Portland.

The gimmick for lack of a better term, would be that the performance is done in an actual house. Inside the house, there would be taped off paths/seating areas where people are free to up and move at any time. The script would be written with every actor having something to do 100 percent of the time, even if no one is actually there paying attention. The paths of the actors/roommates crisscross organically, sometimes communicating via passive agressive post-it note or a pounding on the floor/wall and sometimes having nothing to do but quietly seethe in their room. There would inevitably be at least one part written as the wholly detached stoner/loner who through the whole evening just sits in his room watching television and occasionally masturbating to internet porn and/or the sounds of one of his roommates particularly loud lovemaking.

The idea, like Zaireeka, would be that the path you choose to take in viewing the play would change your perception of how the events unfold. You could stick with the masturbating stoner all night and see one perspective, or you could follow the drama queen/instigator and see a whole different one.

Again, I'm sure this has been done before. I'm just unaware of it and how/when/where, and wouldn't know how to Google it.
posted by mediocre to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's been done a number of times, most recently and successfully with Sleep No More.
posted by xingcat at 4:55 PM on October 8, 2013

Many times, though I don't have a great term for it besides "environmental theatre" or "site-specific theatre" or perhaps "interactive theatre." That Wikipedia link provides a number of international examples, though a number focus on works where the non-traditional location is a key part of the experience, while you're more interested in a "promenade theatre" type of situation where the audience walks around.

Another popular example is Tony n' Tina's Wedding, a zany wedding comedy where the audience acts as guests at the wedding and reception (usually done as dinner theatre with food served at the reception) and interacts with various cast members. Years ago, my parents took my grandparents to a San Francisco production, which was performed in an actual church and adjacent hotel, tricking them into thinking it was a real wedding of some business colleagues they barely knew. They completely bought it and were absolutely horrified, thinking that someone would actually have a wedding like that.
posted by zachlipton at 5:10 PM on October 8, 2013

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm familiar with Tony 'n Tina's Wedding. I know its along the same lines, but not really as fully immersive as what I was thinking. At least thats why I didn't mention it in my post.
posted by mediocre at 5:17 PM on October 8, 2013

I've seen performances like that, but not many. Theater remains largely a local art, so it will likely seem highly original to much of your potential audience.

The Saint Plays and Djinn at Annex Theatre in Seattle were performed with variations on the staging concept you're describing. Not exactly the same though.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 5:22 PM on October 8, 2013

Yeah, this is trendy as hell right now, but people love it. If you do it well the performance should stand on its own without needing to be a unique shtick necessarily. Sleep No More was probably the progenitor of the current trend, and Then She Fell is another one going on right now in NYC.
posted by telegraph at 5:25 PM on October 8, 2013

Yeah, don't worry so much about being seen as ripping other folks off, but it would probably be a good idea to see and/or read about some of this type of theatre to get ideas and see what's been done already.

There's a lot of writing online about Sleep No More. Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco is mounting something similar called The Speakeasy.
posted by roll truck roll at 5:51 PM on October 8, 2013

The Delusion is another one you might want to check out. It's a haunted house themed play that Neil Patrick Harris saw and loved so much that he's now one of the producers or something.

I saw a student production of Macbeth that had some of these elements. One thing you need to think carefully about is how to balance the freedom of the audience, the reactive improv of your actors, and the coherent ness of your plot. No matter what path your audience takes, they expect some sort of "complete" experience.
posted by tinymegalo at 6:16 PM on October 8, 2013

Best answer: The idea, like Zaireeka, would be that the path you choose to take in viewing the play would change your perception of how the events unfold. You could stick with the masturbating stoner all night and see one perspective, or you could follow the drama queen/instigator and see a whole different one.

I think the term you're looking for is "immersive theatre" or "site-specific immersive theatre," in general. Punchdrunk (of Sleep No More fame) has really popularized it in NYC (and the rest of the USA), but it's been a trend in the UK for much, much longer. I live in NYC so I'm going to give you my perspective as an immersive theatre fan in NYC.

Punchdrunk's take on immersive theatre always includes audience exploration and multiple, simultaneous storylines aspect, but it's difficult to pull off logistically unless they have a giant space to work with, so they weren't able to take their work to NYC until a few years ago (thanks to very rich investors).

In Sleep No More, while they refer to the setting as the "McKittrick Hotel," but the set is gigantic and encompasses a graveyard, multiple bedrooms/apartments/suites, hospital ward, ballroom, hotel lobby & dining area, and the main street of a small "town" with a taxidermist, speakeasy, funeral home, candy shop, tailor's, etc. This is set in a series of former nightclubs and the building is 6 stories tall. The build-out reportedly cost millions of dollars and took months.

But you need that huge amount of space if you're selling 300-400 tickets a night. A lot this is due to the way people explore and view the action--you end up with herds of people hovering over actors. Over a dozen people crowded around a desk to see someone typing a letter, that sort of thing. Or folks in lemming mode: one person starts looking at something and soon enough everybody is staring at it.

Sightlines aren't always the best at Sleep No More (especially for short people), and the smaller rooms and narrow hallways get crowded pretty fast. So your typical home residence probably wouldn't be the best setting for a play like this, unless you severely restricted your audience size.

Sleep No More is also not terribly handicapped-accessible or friendly to those who can't spend the entire night walking around and climbing stairs. The audience does get pretty sweaty, especially if you don't have good A/C and circulation.

I'm not certain what the official occupancy is at Sleep No More but the fire code for your area is another thing you'd have to deal with doing promenade theatre.

Also in Sleep No More, the entire audience is guided towards the finale of the play by stewards, so they typically have a large gathering area built into the set (like a ballroom). Otherwise, Punchdrunk found, some patrons wouldn't ever figure out that the play was over, and would keep exploring for hours.

A production like this also incredibly draining for the cast because there is literally no down time (no bathroom/water breaks) and no backstage. And they have to deal with things like audience members moving or taking props, standing in the wrong place, sitting where they aren't supposed to, or being in the way in general. Most actors in Sleep No More play multiple roles, some more draining than others, so they can do a less demanding role on their "off nights."

This type of production does lend itself to repeated viewings. You can make your experience different every time, but that has it's own problems--people who make it a challenge try to see "all" of the show or try to "complete" a bunch of achievements like a video game. And there will always be those who don't like the serendipitous and non-linear nature of such works.

I think Woodshed Collective's The Tenant is closer to what you are looking for. Characters in lived in an apartment building (which was actually an big old run down church). And the TV was on in at least one bedroom, showing relevant footage, during key scenes. Audience members could go in the apartment building's "backyard" and "common areas" to view the action. They had a pretty small audience size, so when you were in a character's "bedroom" you could usually see what was going on, but not always. And much of the time, it was really, really hard to hear and understand dialogue. Sometimes it was simply because the character was too far away. Other times it was because the walking and moving around of other audience members was loud. Or because there were actors yelling in adjacent rooms at the same time. (Sleep No More doesn't have this problem because it's mostly silent.)

AliveWire Theatrics did something similar but with a meal at the end.

And Habit got around these problems by making all audience members "peeping toms" and watching the action from the outside.

Characters in Roadkill lived in a multi-story brownstone and almost the entire story took place inside the house. However, the play itself was much more structured and you were essentially led from scene to scene by stewards.

I don't think Then She Fell really counts as what you're looking for. While I love the show, there is no exploration allowed, at all. You're literally led from room to room by a cast member. The whole thing is very structured. There are several "tracks" that audience members are assigned and sometimes you are left alone in a room with an actor, but you are expressly told not to leave/open doors/explore/etc.

(There are a bunch of other recent "immersive" productions where you're sitting on stage, or the stage is around you, or you're following the cast around (but there's still a single main storyline), but I don't think that's what you're looking for either.)
posted by kathryn at 7:46 PM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995) features a play like you describe, albeit rather more fantastical. It's set on a ship docked in London, I believe.
posted by mumkin at 11:20 PM on October 8, 2013

« Older Best newbie fish for a ten gallon aquarium?   |   Why don't laundry detergents rinse clean? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.