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What Makes Interactive Theatre So Fascinating?

Date: Apr 05, 2017

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things

Today, translator and dramaturg Maria Inês Marques geeks out with fellow Yalie dramaturg, Nahuel Telleria, about their shared passion for interactive and immersive productions. The discussion was sparked by their experience at Top Secret International (State 1), which was part of the Public Theater's annual Under the Radar festival. Here are the highlights from their conversation:

Maria Inês Marques: Back in January, we went to Top Secret International (State 1), an immersive piece by Rimini Protokoll, the collective moniker for theatre-makers Helgard Kim Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Daniel Wetzel, who are masters of modern interactive experiences.

Nahuel Telleria: Yeah, we traveled all the way to the Brooklyn Museum from our home in New Haven, CT! Finding the ticket booth was the first step of the experience. In this day and age of online tickets, the piece forced us to ask, "Where's the ticket counter? What's going on?"

Maria: We were given wireless headsets, and there were two voices giving us instructions throughout the whole thing. The premise was that we were secret agents, and they were training us on how to observe other people in order to collect information.

Nahuel: It was also about what actually constitutes information.

Maria: Yes, like, "What does their behavior tell you about them?"

Nahuel: What country did they talk about in your track? Because in mine, they spoke about an experience in Libya…

Maria: Me too! In the post-Gaddafi period. I think everyone had the same narrative, just pieced together differently. That part was actually the one I latched onto more, because it was about Western countries taking over the military and economic situation in Libya after the war. You're supposed to be a secret agent negotiating cheap weapons for Germany in a really dodgy deal. That narrative struck me because it felt real, contemporary, and relevant. I must confess I was a bit thrown off by some other parts of the piece that were too descriptive.

Nahuel: Yes, to me there was too much "information." By the time that the Libya story line hit, I had been in the museum for an hour and a half, and I was really tired. To me, the most interesting parts were when the second voice would interrupt the narrative and say, "Dance!" or, "Write your biggest fear down on a piece of paper," and then, eventually, you had to exchange it with somebody else.

Maria: In the first 10 minutes of my experience, I took apart the little wooden notebook they gave me to take notes on and found the cellphone they used to track me through the museum.

Nahuel: Me too! The second instruction was to get on the elevator, and it took me so long that by the time I got to the wing where I had to be, the reception or whatever they used broke down and a technician had to come to me, dismantle the little notebook, and take out the phone. To me, the most interesting parts were when the artifice of the experience broke down. Although I'm wondering, was there really artifice? Because there were another 30 people walking around with headsets on, trying not to look suspicious…

Maria: For us theatre-makers, the cool part of going to interactive experiences is when you have access to the system, and to how things work. That's one of the reasons, I think, why so many people go like six times to Sleep No More. You want to crack the code, to experience all the narratives and find the flaws. You want to go one day and find an actor who's not performing his part correctly. The allure for spectators is to breach the constructed reality and see who's operating the experience.

Nahuel: I remember you telling me about Sleep No More and the major takeaway wasn't the plot or the narrative experience itself, but the fact that you were run over by some other spectators.

Maria: I was! By a couple of hysterical girls who wanted to follow one of the actors.


Nahuel: I'm noticing a pattern in these interactive experiences that has to do with gaming. There's always a players' piece involved: the mask in Sleep No More, the headset in Top Secret International, or the token in Rude Mechs' Now Now Oh Now. That show starts out in a basement that looks like a living room. The actors tell you about how they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, a very important round, and then someone got angry about something and walked off and got hit by a bus. So in order to go to the second part and find out if the character lives or dies, you must solve a mystery with your teammates, with clues that reveal the location of part two of the piece. The clues weren't necessarily difficult, but people were always over-complicating the answers. Of course, there was someone from the production team to give us a hand. It reminded me of those experiences where you go into a room and you get locked in.

Maria: An escape room?

Nahuel: Yes! I went with a group of five dramaturgs, and we said, "Ok, we need to be very smart, because if we're not, it'll be very embarrassing that we can't get out of this library-themed room." Again, overthinking. The clues are easier than you think, but you add a twist of your own. For example, we spent five minutes trying to get out of the room after the last clue. You know what the problem was? We weren't turning the knob hard enough!

Maria: Amazing! We are the video game generation. I wonder if our fascination with interactive theatre comes from having played video games growing up, from our desire not to have a wall between us and the performance. We want to be in it, and we want to create our own path.

Nahuel: Even though we know that, just like in a video game, there's a predetermined narrative.

Maria: But still, that idea of cracking a code…

Nahuel: It reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Because there are multiple ways you can read a story, it invites you to do so over and over again, which is a very smart marketing ploy.

Maria: I was just thinking -- in terms of political or engaged theatre -- how effective interaction can be as opposed to a more traditional stage performance. For example -- we didn't go to this, but I would love to -- Rimini Protokoll's Situation Rooms. For months they interviewed people from all over the world whose lives had been disrupted or influenced by guns. They talked to a weapons dealer, someone whose family had been shot, many different people, and then they rented a warehouse and created an immersive experience where these peoples' lives intersected, and you played a character. For an hour or so, you walked in their shoes, going through the journey that they went through in their lives. You also met all the other characters based on the people they interviewed.

Nahuel: Was this all virtual reality? With goggles?

Maria: No. Players had an iPad and a headset. It was a mix of real space and virtual reality. What's more effective: a traditional play about guns (and there have been so many of late)? Or embarking on this interactive journey?


Nahuel: That ties back to Top Secret International. There's that Libya story line about guns and weapons and selling and being an ambassador and making moral choices and the secret underworld of mischievous international wrongdoing. Rimini Protokoll make two different attempts to be politically effective. One was what you just described, where they try to do the personal-political based on real-life stories, and the spectator gets to play those roles. The other was this museum piece where the narrative takes a more passive role, which doesn't seem to be as effective. The more interesting aspects of Top Secret International were the moral questions that they asked. To me, the core of that experience was me writing my biggest fear on a piece of paper and exchanging it with somebody else. Hopefully that person had written down that vulnerable thing, too. Importantly, that exchange happens in real time, face-to-face. It's a simple sentiment.

Maria: Which I didn't get to experience because my system broke down! But I saw other people doing it and I thought, "OK, this seems to be the culmination of the whole experience."

Nahuel: A lot of these theatre pieces we're talking about try to strike a balance between how much an audience member plays with the rest of the spectators -- or not. Sometimes, like in the museum piece, you really don't interact with the other audience members very much even though you are all very aware of each other. I always get more fun out of the ones where you really do have to collaborate with somebody else. That's why I get excited about those times when the person leading the whole experience has to break in and say, "Oh, I'm sorry we messed up. We need to help you here." I really like the ones where they force you to do a little bit more.

Maria: Rude Mechs' piece is a good example of that because they force you to be on a team with other people. And then in the second part, being around that huge table with fellow audience members --

Nahuel: All taking a shot of spiked orange juice!

Maria: -- creates community among strangers.

Nahuel: I'll never forget the face of the person with whom I exchanged my biggest fear at Top Secret International. But you also have to question to what extent you can create community from a one-time interaction.

Maria: Yeah, because that was a very brief moment. So are there any interactive pieces you're curious to experience next?

Nahuel: Maybe I'll just go back to one of those lock-myself-up-in-a-room events where I have to get out again. I respond well to the challenges. What about you?

Maria: I would like to do a Gob Squad one, because they always have the most fun ideas, like Super Night Shot.

Nahuel: They film people on the street, asking them to take part in a superhero improv, and then they play the entire reel in a theatre an hour later.

Maria: I would love to be one of those people!

Which interactive or immersive theatre experiences have made the biggest impression on you? Tell us in the comments!


Maria Inês Marques is a Portuguese dramaturg and translator. She's currently a third-year MFA student in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama.

Top image: Top Secret International (State 1) at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Benno Tobler.

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