I am a security guard. The woman I am supposed to drug and carry away is surrounded by an audience who is set on protecting her. I take a breath...and improvise.
This past semester at Arizona State University, thirty-one MFA candidates including writers, directors, designers of all hats, and performers of all styles, set out to create an immersive theatrical experience at the ASU Art Museum.
The performance that emerged after fourteen weeks of devising was called [De/As]cending. Born from the seed of Dante’s Inferno, spritzed with the theme of water scarcity, and encapsulated by an oppressive regime housed in a bunker, it was the kind of show only exhausted, relentless graduates could imagine.
The show had three simultaneous “tracks” the audience could follow that ran three times a night, and culminated in one final scene, Sleep No More style, with one actor from each track being sacrificed and turned into water.
Or so went the story we wrote.
The first night went off with nary a hitch. A few missed cues, a bit of improvising, and some wonky timing, but hell, it's theatre.
The second night opens, as the first, to a sold out crowd. The first run-through goes well, but as the second run starts, something feels...different. The audience is riled up. As we go through our security speech, one audience member pours out the water we've given him and shouts "I will not drink people!" The scurrilous remarks continue through the run. They steal little things, talk back to our instructions, and openly question our motives.
At one point in the show, I am to drug and capture a scientist who the audience has come to love. The scientist is standing at the bottom of some stairs, surrounded by audience members who she is trying to "rescue." I step towards her when, all of a sudden, my arm is grabbed by an audience member who shouts, "We won't let you take her!"
This is...not part of the show.
I shake the audience member off, pick up the scientist, and climb the stairs. From behind me I hear, "We're going with them! We can't let this happen!" I walk a little faster, expecting to get decked from behind by a passionate audience member. After leaving the room, the scientist and I break character. I turn around to face the audience members who have followed us. They look...surprised?
"Oh...she's okay," one says, referring to the now fully not-drugged scientist who is running down the stairs to set up for the next scene.
"Hi," I say to them. This is a little absurd. I struggle for words. "Um...what are you doing? We need to set up...um? Hi. I’m Phil."
They explain that they cannot stand by while we kill people, that we are forcing them to be implicated in murder, that they were trying to stop us. I know that in about twenty seconds, the rest of the audience is going to come through the stairwell. This is not the time for a psycho-social debate.
I leave them and enter the sacrificial chamber to find something else very strange: one of the three people on our sacrificial altars is...an audience member. Something was happening. This is not what we had designed.
After the second run, the same rebellious audience is ready to see it one final time. As the bunker representative steps to the top of the pyramid to introduce the show, the audience boos loudly. "Down with the bunker!" they shout.
I turn to the bunker president and whisper, "Hey, I don't think they're going to let me kill the scientist. If I get a bad vibe, I'm just going to kill you instead." He looks at me. "Deal," he says. What a champion.
The moment comes. I am at the top of the stairs, ready to drug the scientist. There are flames in the audience's eyes. “There are more of us than there are of you!" they shout. The president and I exchange a silent acknowledgement. "This is what you wanted!" I improvise. I drug him and drag him away. The audience has saved the scientist.
This last sacrifice looks different than we wrote it. Only one of the original characters we intended to kill is there—the other two have been replaced with an audience member and the president I just drugged. Ceremony, sacrifice, the audience leaves.
We all gather after the performance in a haze of anger, euphoria, and confusion. What just happened to our show? Could some audience members really not tell the bunker from reality? Were they trying to teach us something? Did our oppressive regime hit a nerve?
What happens when you remove the typical social contract of the theatre seat? We invited the audience to walk in our oppressive world and they wanted to change it. The audience's acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. Were they assholes or heroes?
How should people touch the worlds we create? As theatre artists, we are uniquely positioned to create challenging answers to that question. You might yell at the movie screen when Snape kills Dumbledore, but that's not going to save him. Yell out to an actor and we can all hear you. "Hey, Romeo! She's just sleeping!"
Audiences typically follow prescribed, unspoken etiquette, but what happens if we ask an audience member to stand? To speak? To die? To kill? Each step we take out of the proscenium is scary and exhilarating. Do we enforce a new set of rules for immersion? Or do we let the audience's will, as their feet, roam free?
Live performance is so often plagued by indifference. Theatre is 90% failure, 90% boredom, 90% I'd-rather-be-watching-Netflix. If people walk away ecstatic, great. Furious? Great. The biggest thing we have to fight is mediocrity. Take the audience out of their seats. Let's show them something.
All photos from [De/As]cending, credit: Tim Trumble.