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.