Time and The Afterparty

poster for Afterparty

The Afterparty was presented at the Bricks and Glitter Festival in Toronto from September 16 to 26, 2020. Creator/performer Jordan Campbell recovers and reminisces.

Creating and performing The Afterparty taught me a lot about Time — slowing down, catching up, playing with time, taking my time, syncing up and disconnecting.

This piece was inspired by the COVID restrictions. It was designed for a single audience member, standing in a two-metre radius chalk circle in a public park. The audience member is listening to a track through their earphones, which is synced up with the track playing in my earphones. It’s a solo performance, but also a one-on-one interactive journey of dance, drag, outfits, reveals and surprises all around the parkette. The piece is about two queers meeting each other in a park. It’s 30 minutes long and it’s very intimate.

Nothing about making this show was easy. We had to negotiate with the weather, strangers walking through the park, and the necessary public focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. On a personal level, this piece saw me through a partner moving across the country, a death in my family and the closing of my favourite queer bar slash all-in-one community refuge. The theatre community in Toronto has been mourning, cancelling, re-inventing and reckoning with their own structural shortcomings. And my friends have each been going through their own personal crises. All of this against the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic, unpredictable and strange.

And yet, the creative process was incredible. Amidst all of this uncertainty, time slooooooowed down. I worked with my dear friend and collaborator Elizabeth Staples, who co-created and directed the show. We were originally creating this project as a Pride event in June, but when that no longer felt appropriate, we just started working on our own timeline. We worked on the piece when we were inspired, and without a deadline. The piece got so much deeper, darker and weirder. It was able to hold all of our feelings. We worked on the piece out of a need to express ourselves, and a desire to create a moment of face-to-face connection for the public. This felt really important.

I’ve never felt so free and unhurried in a creative process. I can imagine a world where every project was on its own timeline; where artists were just paid to work on their stuff, and they shared it when it was ready to be shared. Really great stuff can’t be rushed; slowing down is at the core of my creativity. This is a difficult model to monetize, but that’s the point.

When we finished creating the show and it felt right for this moment in time, the last piece of the puzzle was finding a reliable way to sync up the audience’s track and my track. We were able to use the Cohort app to do this very elegantly. It may seem quite simple, to have two iPods play the same thing at the exact same time, but for us it was the last bit of magic we needed. All of our low-fi tricks became so theatrical. The audience was asked to close their eyes, then when they opened them, I appeared in a new outfit. The strangers in the park also got a silent show, but the one audience member was in on the secret.

As we got closer to syncing up our tracks, I started to play with time even more. Could I slow down certain moments in the performance, or speed up the choreography to hit certain marks in the track? How could I make sure I wasn’t getting ahead of my own track? If the track was half a second out of sync, did the audience’s brain sync it up anyway? Again, Time became very subjective and fluid.

I loved performing this piece. I could feel all the joy and pain of the audience. It was deeply cathartic. We found our own timeline together for each performance. As we develop new technologies for live performance, we can’t forget that live art isn’t technical and precise; it’s subjective and abstract. For technologies to be truly creative, they have to be malleable. They have to have their own Time. It wasn’t about syncing up our tracks, it was about syncing up our human energies.

We did eight shows at the Bricks and Glitter Festival, which means eight audience members experienced The Afterparty. People kept asking me, “isn’t it disappointing to do all this work, only to have it seen by a small handful of people?” That wasn’t the purpose of this. We really invested deeply in those eight people and gave them each a really special evening. I could not have gone as deep as I went if there had been more people. I didn’t have Time.

Now I am resting. After all of that vulnerability in public, I need a week alone in my bedroom. I am so grateful to have gotten to create this show in these tumultuous times. I’m deeply thankful to my generous collaborator Liz, to Cohort for the technical support, to the legendary Bricks and Glitter Festival for the production support, and to all the people who walked through the Brandon Avenue Parkette and held the space for us. It was the Time of my life.

headshot of Jordan Campbell

Jord Camp is a queer performance artist working in dance, drag and theatre. He is half of the POP ART performance duo xLq with Maddie Bautista — together they create interactive theatrical playgrounds with a queer pop aesthetic. Jordan also teaches inclusive drama classes with Purple Carrots Studio, specializing in neurodiverse programming.

Director Elizabeth Staples writes about her Afterparty experience here.

The Rough and Tumble of Tech

Sébastien Heins is an actor, writer, producer and director based in Toronto.
Torien Cafferata is an immersive theatre artist based in Saskatoon.

Instigated by Cohort, these artists undertook an email exchange about immersive theatre, technology and the cultural sector. We edited, but not much. Here’s the first of four parts of their extended conversation.

On Sat, Aug 8, 2020 at 6:41 PM Torien Cafferata wrote:

Hi Sebastien!

My apologies, our Fringe-but-actually-Not-Fringe Fest just ended, as did our fest run of Play Fail Win (PFW). There is as good a place to start as any! PFW is an interactive first-person play experiment in which a Zoom room of players voice-commands The Guy (a live performer) in an outdoor sandbox adventure game all about embracing embarrassment and satirizing rewarded incompetence. Our biggest challenges:

a) giving the performer access to the player HUD [heads-up display] made thru Open Broadcast System while also being able to climb trees and roll down hills, and

b) how to navigate the public social character-building / dialogue without it becoming too awkward or unwieldy, without the use of NPCs [non-player characters]. Definitely things that can be resolved with more resources as we grow the project and test out better AR gear; super curious about Oculus VR headsets, haptic input from player to performer or vice versa (gloves, vests, etc.), allowing players to take turns being each other’s real-world avatar.

I’ve found myself feeling way more at home with this project, despite the rough-and-tumble tech, because it speaks more to my gamer logic and game studies brain, even though my training is in theatre acting. What sort of challenges have you experienced specifically in the most interactive and digital of your works?

Thanks again for doing this :)

T

On Sat, Sep 12 at 3:32 PM Sébastien Heins wrote:

Dear Torien,
Thank you very much for the trip through your journey thus far making immersive, auditory, tech-powered experiences! I really enjoyed your videos and project breakdowns — your Overhear looked beautiful and was so life changing for its audiences. Congratulations on all of the well-deserved success, and for completing your fest run of Play Fail Win. It sounds like we share a lot of interests and curiosities with our projects.

Our project, The Itinerary is a live action video game that lets you control a stranger’s actions on a very important day of their life. Using your smartphone, you help them explore exciting memories, their imagination, and an emerging harsh reality sitting just below the surface. Groups of six players at a time jump into a story about the Caribbean Windrush generation, living the dream of “young, gifted and Black,” and a lifetime of joy and tragedy a hundred years in the making.

The Itinerary: Playtest, which we did in residency at The Kick + Push Festival in Kingston, Ontario, was a version that allowed us to test a number of theories, including tech infrastructure, media connectivity, story containers, and provided all sorts of opportunities for problem solving. The visuals for the meat of the game (the main character doing activities in a room reminiscent of the Hotline Bling music video meets a cliffside cell) were streamed over Zoom. Using multiple cameras in two rooms we set up a Mission Control room and the Sound Stage. For COVID purposes, we designed the running of the show around the goal that no two team members should be in the same room at the same time.

Mission Control was for our Stage Manager, the excellent Alice Ferreyra, who used Isadora, as set up by Melissa Joakim, our amazing Production Designer, to cue lighting shifts denoting times of day, weather, the radio starting to play, sound effects to signify an audience’s choice had been made, as well as video overlays which served as transitions between major story points.

We also used Switcher Studio as our video mixer, researched by the brilliant Jacob (he’s so smart, eh?), which pulled multiple live camera feeds from Cohort iPods set up in the Sound Stage to pick up the performer as well as in front of the mini games that comprised our climax, “The Dream” (think Mario Party and The Sims meets Big Fish).

For sound and team communication, we relied on a capricious mixture of a wireless Lav mic on the performer (who also had Cohort AirPods to keep them in connected to the SM and the production team if need be) and two Discord audio channels, one set up for the production team, and one for the performer, plus the Zoom audio feed which served the audience/players. We’re going to have the opportunity to give the show its world premiere in Q1 of 2021, online and potentially in-person, in accordance with the most up to date COVID guidelines.

The Itinerary: Playtest at the Kick + Push Festival was an opportunity to test some major questions:

  1. Can we develop a reliable, web-based app which allows the audience to effectively control the action?

  2. How will they know if it’s their turn?

  3. How will latency affect the audience’s enjoyment of the show?

  4. How can we mask latency?

  5. How do we improve the internet speed in a building with a cap on internet infrastructure? (Answer: We ended up getting a Bell Mobile LTE SIM, which we routed through Cohort’s TurboHub)

Best of all, we got to have real audience members trying out the game at home, and learned from their home-gaming habits, like what happens to the web-based app if someone gets a text message, etc.

Right now, we’re having a great time working with Cohort to develop free tools for live performance makers who are also interested in audience-to-performer control, overlaying mo-cap video effects, and low latency side-channel feedback loops.

Sébastien

Torien & Sébastien’s exchange continues in The Rough and Tumble of Tech - Part 2.

Plays You Play: No Time Like the Future

image from Project )

Immersive theatre artist Torien Cafferata of It’s Not A Box Theatre offers up five things about plays that he wishes he had known five years ago.

It’s a hot August night in 2015 and I am holding my breath in a mess of three sweating bodies in the dark. Six hands pull a single door knob to keep the audience member on the other side from opening it. They had followed us to the exit — and why shouldn’t they? They had been following us around the gallery for an hour and we purposefully had no curtain call. Our only hope now is to keep the door shut tight enough to convince them it’s locked — that it can lock, which it cannot. “What if they get in?” we thought to each other in panic. “I don’t know,” we replied.

I still don’t know.

That was Project O, our first immersive theatre show as It’s Not A Box Theatre. It’s surreal to think about now that just seeing characters on TV shake hands or hug makes me cringe with a mix of anxiety and longing. But this might just be the best time to get into digital immersive theatre. If that sounds intimidating, you’re in good company; the more I do it, the less I know. So time to open the door a crack and let out Five Things I Wish I’d Known Five Years Ago (And Still Might Not) about plays you play.

1. Play it Safe

I wish I’d known that safety means many many things.

Yes, Sleep No More is supposedly very cool but it has also been the gross and not fun kind of dangerous despite being a show that could easily afford to be made safe (and I guess can afford not to).

During our first run of Overhear, our app-guided promenade-style documentary theatre show about personal secrets (yikes), we were short on ushers (more yikes) and one of our performers was verbally harassed by a bar patron across the street. The audience member was standing right next to the harasser but did nothing, assuming he had to be part of the show because the story was about an abusive partner (all the yikes).

Needless to say we changed a few things about staging, ushers, etc. for the future, but nothing will change the fact that this lesson was learned through the suffering of someone working for us. That is a risk you and everyone on your team must understand and mitigate. Give your actors and audiences the tools to protect themselves and others: codewords, consent gestures, panic buttons on apps, clear expectations in the prep, reminders throughout, etc. I promise you can do all these things and still “serve the story” (see #4). Besides, if your audience cannot safely access or exit a story, who is the story for?

image from Overhear
Photo by S.E. Grummett

2. Less is More

I wish I’d known how literal that phrase has no business being.

When my co-AD Amberlin Hsu and I started It’s Not A Box Theatre we had no money for a venue, no audience to fill one, and no idea what immersive theatre was (we still don’t, but that’s not important). The world was ours. Amberlin designed entire universes with light and paper maché, and I wrote words to lure people into them. As it turns out, limitations make audiences more creative too.

Example: interactivity. In everything from video games to salad dressing, capitalism tells us that more choices = more freedom. This has long been disproven, and as someone with ADHD I can assure you: choice is not freedom, the structure required to make a choice is. Promenade theatre and any show that uses an app has taught us that audiences only have so much labour to spend on moving, pressing buttons, looking at a map, listening to instructions, remembering, thinking, responding, appreciating sights, sounds, bodies, etc. Play with one or two of these, start with low-stakes choices, and prepare to be surprised. Your SM might spare you in the night too.

image from Its Not A Box Theatre

3. Gamify the Things

I wish I’d known what “diegetic” meant.

Theatre and game design are secret long lost cousins. How secret? I was a gamer in theatre school and I didn’t discover their treehouse antics until I was done school. Not cool. Many game design lectures and video essays later, it feels like I’m still studying theatre.

“Diegesis” (from the Greek “to narrate”) is already a concept in theatre, literature, film, etc., but in game design it is essentially the art of sneaking the “how” inside the “what.” Examples: a treasure map you see your character actually holding, a health bar built on your character’s advanced spacesuit, or a player tutorial disguised as a health check-up (achieved hilariously in Portal 2).

For digital immersive friends, read: “how do I tell the audience to do the Thing but make it fashion theatre?” The good news is that you are all experts at this already; our audiences are always in the same world as the actors, and boy do we love narrators!

Where it gets tricky is if the Thing requires digital technology and your story is not The Story of an Audience Member Who Used Their Phone. You could try lo-fi trickery like “antique” radios, or you can hide phones in pockets and set audio cues via Bluetooth or GPS. In Overhear we went the opposite direction: we personified the tech, the audio narrator acknowledging that he existed inside a recording inside a phone, so “please be careful don’t drop me.” I recently saw a horror Zoom play that was a “live unboxing gone wrong,” and a horror podplay of our own is a guided “creepypasta” ritual.

If the tech is on your stage, you might as well cast it as a character. Speaking of which…

image from Overhear

4. Cast the Audience

I wish I’d known what I was asking for.

So I’m in your audience and I’m watching your immersive show and then I notice Janet across from me just ten feet away who is also watching you and now you notice Janet too and you talk to Janet and I realize I could be next because we are all on stage with you and now I’m asking “who am I?”

Cue Mad World by Gary Jules.

This is another theatre thing you’re already good at, but I needed five to make a listicle. If the audience is “immersed” in your stage space, you have a greater opportunity (responsibility?) to acknowledge them as part of the world, especially if you want to pre-code in certain behaviours and tasks for interactivity (boom, diegesis). Perfect example: murder mysteries. Scoff at dinner theatre all you like, the sheer amount of conditioning it required to prime a casual theatre-going population to not just be capable of but also enjoy solving complex murder plots with strangers is a staggering feat of game design and theatre.

That said, if you’re like me and live in a community nearly bereft of immersive theatre, most audiences are terrified of any kind of participation. The more interactive, the more they will be silently asking “What if I look stupid? What if I make them look stupid? What if I break the show? What if it’s ‘too edgy’ to be accessible?” We like to cast them in a role that’s diegetic, but one they can get behind; a simple witness, an investigator, a partier, a jury, a ghost, a cryogenically frozen passenger on a starship, etc. — any role that makes them easier to teach — and to implicate.

image from Overhear

5. Do It Your Way

I wish I’d known that the pinnacle of immersive theatre didn’t have to be entire warehouses or hotel floors where everyone’s within groping distance of each other (second jab at Sleep No More, oops).

My first immersive experience was wandering alone in a new city with nothing but a hand-drawn map, an iPod shuffle, and the phone number of a single stranger going through the same show at the same time over 5,000km away. LANDLINE is still the one of the most intimate experiences I’ve ever had — and it literally could not be more socially distanced.
Digital immersive is massive. Digital immersive is micro. It is personal, precarious, and pretty easy to screw up all the time. Immersive is also a spectrum, not a genre, which is why the term only feels useful in marketing and kinda nowhere else. This is a time to embrace the kinder uncertainties of our field and find new forms that feel like you. At first it might not be, and that’s okay — let’s imitate and innovate on each other! Our most recent work was a mash-up of our frustration with Zoom plays and our love of RPGs, inviting audiences to give voice-commands to a performer in a livestreamed outdoor adventure. It was the most fun I’ve had in a while because it felt like us.

To me that makes this the perfect form to respond to our world and it’s already happening, from the Very Cool to the Very Absurd. Not how I thought our revolution would go, but I am grateful; for the new friends coming to play, for the mentors, for the quiet panic that I’m already behind the curve, and for watching a burgeoning political art form learn itself, like a ship being built as we sail it (maybe we’ll even save its soul). There was a lot I didn’t know five years ago (and still don’t). Today I am grateful to know even less.

P.S. Any chance we could un-discontinue the iPod shuffle?

headshot of Torien Cafferata

Torien Cafferata is an immersive theatre producer, actor, playwright, and dramaturge based in Saskatoon, SK. He co-founded the award-winning company It’s Not A Box Theatre alongside designer-dancer Amberlin Hsu, with whom he experiments at the intersections of interactive play, mixed-reality, and justice.

Also coming up on the Cohort blog: Torien’s 4-part email exchange with Sébastien Heins, Associate Artistic Director of Outside the March. The Rough and Tumble of Tech - Part 1 drops next week.

An Introduction

photo_iphones_laptop

Thirty years ago I stepped into a dance studio for the first time. Twenty-eight years ago, I wrote my first line of code. And ten years ago, I had an idea for a dance/theatre work that would need a specific technical capability: cueing portable, synchronized, multi-track headphone audio. Working with an awesome creative and production team, we realized that technical capability (and a few others), and created the show Jacqueries around it.

After all that trial and error (and error and error!), I wanted to make those capabilities available to other creators, and did that in a designer role on several productions. Though all the projects were quite different, I started to see common needs, and found a way to reuse and build on my own work from project to project.

When the Digital Strategy Fund was announced by the Canada Council, it seemed like a good idea to assemble a network of the performing-arts companies I’d worked with, so we could improve and formalize the shared technical infrastructure we’d built, and share it with the wider community of artists and producers experimenting with new modes of presentation. In COVID times, that community has gotten much bigger, as every performing artist has been forced to explore new ways to create and share their work.

I’m very excited to announce the launch of the Cohort Blog, which will feature accounts from and conversations between artists making adventurous works involving mobile devices. Our first post is from producer/performer Torien Cafferata of It’s Not A Box Theatre in Saskatoon, discussing work on immersive projects like Overhear and Play Fail Win.

We’ve spent several months working with our partner companies to develop and prepare the software components that powered their shows for public sharing and use. We’re currently engaged in the first closed beta test of our code toolkit, which makes it easier for performing artists to integrate smartphones and mobile technology in their works. Our partners have used these tools to many ends —including :

  • offering closed captions for live performances (adelheid / LOT X)
  • cueing 3D 360 videos in black-box shows (bluemouth, inc / Café Sarajevo)
  • creating sound walks and geolocated storytelling (It’s Not a Box Theatre / Overhear)
  • sending audience members push notifications with production-created alert sounds (adelheid / LOT X)

To help artists experiment and workshop their concepts, we’ve also built a small lending library of hardware, including wireless and wired headphones and freshly-released iPod Touches. These have been used for multicamera livestreaming; for synchronized, socially-distant, one-on-one performance, and for prototyping virtual instruments and AR – and will be available for rentals to the performing arts community.

And finally, we’re gearing up for our first public event, Cohort Confab, which will happen in mid- to late-November. This will be a gathering of artists, presenters, stage managers, software and gaming folks, and theatre techs and designers. We’ll discuss how Cohort’s been used by our innovative partners in their works, discover new and evolving presentation formats, and develop new connections.

I’m proud of the work that our team and partners have created, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you over the next few months and onwards.

Jacob Niedzwiecki, Project Lead – Cohort