Take a Chance on Me: the Rise of Interactive Theatre
It wasn’t until nearly four hundred years after its earliest concepts that opera evolved into the incarnation that comes to modern mind. By comparison, the contemporary notion of musical theatre is nascent at best having only recently come on the scene within the last century. Art isn’t easy to predict, and it’s harder still to cultivate a trend, but if you ask me, the theatrical arts are beginning to swing a different direction these days.
For the last hundred years, theatre has been slowly breaking through the fourth wall into the beautifully bizarre realm of interactive theatre. More and more, audience inclusion in theatrical proceedings is becoming a commonplace practice. And why shouldn’t it? Theatre excels because of its ability to suspend our disbelief and transport us into the story. What better way to ensure willing belief than to bring the people closer to the action.
Two years ago, the Punchdrunk Theatre Company opened Sleep No More on Broadway to a resounding burst of praise and adoration. The retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth without words and without boundaries caused one of the grandest stirs in New York’s performing arts scene to date, and it’s easy to see why. One hotel, no backstage, and the audience roams the full set following whatever story they stumble upon. Through this clever merger of atmospheric set and aleatoric storytelling, no one comes out of the theatre without being changed by the experience.
Certain musicals have come around, climbing past the proscenium to give the audience a new experience. The famed revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood adapts the unfinished Dickensian novel to be completed by the audience. Every night, a vote from the ticket holders chooses how the musical finishes the story and comes to the rousing conclusion. Keeping several different endings on hand and being ready to perform each keeps both audience member and performer in the moment of the work.
Of course, these aren’t the first attempts at interactive theatre, but they are probably the most recognized. One of the more obscure phenoms of the genre is the little known Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Called by original founder Greg Allen as less a play and more an “continuation of daily life,” this 1988 hodge-podge of art boldly attempts 30 short plays in 60 minutes. The catch to follow: the options are chosen at random by the audience.
In my opinion, there are few better ways to advance audience interaction than this. If art is to hold the mirror up to humanity, then the reflection must go deeper into chance and coincidence. In Too Much Light, everything from the short plays performed to the names of the actors and even the ticket price falls upon the literal roll of the dice from the attendees. Plays that aren’t performed during the evening can be removed by dice rolling and not performed at the next performance. Truly, it is art as a genuine reflection of humanity with its loss and gain and spontaneous presence.
There will always be a place for traditional theatre in this world. To be honest, I hope we never lose the ability to enjoy sitting in a proscenium theater and watch Romeo and Juliet die in each other’s arms or Peggy Sawyer tap dance her way to the lead of 42nd Street. Art must always be able to remember what’s behind it in order to boldly step forward into the future. However, I cannot wait to see another a truly chance encounter in a theater and see what entirely random wonders continue to blur the line between reality and performance.
Header via theater.nytimes.com