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Writing for Immersive and Site-Informed Experiences

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OjO was mounted by Bricolage Production Company in Pittsburgh in 2014, then again at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival in October 2015. T his blog is the fourth entry in a series elucidating the process from the creative team’s perspective, beginning with our initial iteration in Pittsburgh to our sold out run at the Festival in La Jolla.

Monday June 2, 2014
Just arrived home from a Storylabs Lecture I gave at Stanford on using physical/movement techniques to generate narrative. Back in Pittsburgh, the OjO team has been busy for the last four days putting the piece up. Taking a break in the middle of a production gave me some distance from the piece, and I’m eager to bring this perspective to the process. Immediately upon my arrival, the beleaguered team bombards me with “language” questions. After an initial walk through, I begin solving the big text problems and fine-tuning the spots that need a polish. We open our immersive experience for first previews/beta tests tomorrow. We’ll continue to make script and structural adjustments through the first week of beta-testing and feedback sessions. There’s one word that describes the script process as we open the first production of this piece: alacrity.

March 28, 2015
Just received word that we’ll remount OjO at the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) Without Walls Festival. Jubilation. This means I’ll get a second crack at the script and that as a collective, we’ll get a chance to refine the entire experience. Our team for the first meeting includes Jeffrey, Tami, Sam, and me. We discuss the main differences in locale: Pittsburgh’s production began on a street downtown, while the La Jolla Playhouse WOW production will begin on the festival grounds. We need to guide our audience through a series of obstacles (or tests) that draw their attention to navigating the seeing world before we ask them to participate blindfolded.

Sunday July 19, 2015
Sam Turich and I are in San Diego attending the Dramatists Guild National Conference—I’m the Pittsburgh Regional Rep for the DG. Two days ago, we presented a panel on site-specific and immersive work that included a tour of the Without Walls sites led by Without Walls Associate Producer Marike Fitzgerald. Today, I meet Bob Kanish, who was born blind. We’re interested in casting him in the role of “The Seer.” I will interview him at length and then, based on his personality and talent, create his script. One of my favorite aspects of the work is writing roles for specific performers. It turns out Bob plays the harmonica—definitely incorporating that.

As immersive, site-specific, and interactive theatrical experiences gain popularity we, the greater theatre community, are re-visiting the writing process. To writers out there who are just dipping a toe into this sort of writing, I offer this: You will be met with a glut of opportunities.

Monday July 20, 2015
Today we’re meeting again with Marike Fitzgerald of LJP. She and Teresa Sapien, Artistic Assistant and Local Casting Director, have assembled a group of actors for a callback. At the callbacks, Sam and I guide the actors through a series of ensemble exercises and improvisations. The work we create requires actors who are both talented and possess a certain kind of personality because the audience will never see most of the performers. Meeting the actors—and determining their roles—is the penultimate step in finishing a draft of the script for the WOW production.

This time around, I’m writing monologues and long improvisational scenes as prompts for the moments that involve the most audience interaction. In Pittsburgh, our first disorientation for the audience was a character who only spoke Spanish because we have a comparatively small Spanish-speaking population in the Steel City. Since La Jolla’s audience will contain more Spanish-speakers, we are hoping for a language that fewer participants will know. We’ve lucked out because Teresa and Marike found actor Crystal Cole, who will greet folks in Departure Gate C speaking Cantonese.

September 28—October 5, 2015
We arrive in La Jolla. Hannah Nielsen-Jones rejoined the team over the summer, so we’re all together again. Production Manager Alicia DiGiorgi is a livewire of constant production activity and I am writing and re-writing every day based on exigencies of the location. Crystal Cole has translated her script into Cantonese and with the help of her family, has suggested alternatives for some of my phrases. In an email she explains her changes. I’ve suggested: “‘gwa yeuhng tauh maaih gau yuhk’” (hang a sheep's head and sell dog meat), but Crystal improves with: "sut tauh goh sik lat tsew" (knee eats hot chili sauce), which
is used “in defense against someone who thinks they can trick me because they believe I'm so small-minded, naive, foolish, or dumb. Can be used directly at someone or mumbled under your own breath.”

a group of people with VR goggles up
Participants entering pedicab area in "Mumbai" during Pittsburgh production, 2014. Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

October 6, 2015
We’re running beta-testing audiences through sections to determine whether our timing on paper matches the real time of the experience as participants actually move through it. Sam and I confer over a section of the piece in which a group of ten people is divided into five pairs. Participants have arrived at Departure Gate C. They proceed into a long boarding gangway where they don their blindfolds. They are then led in pairs to take a ride on a pedicab. We only have two pedicabs, which means the first four participants spend the briefest amount of time in the gangway, while the last two participants spend an extra five to seven minutes there. We have an opportunity (Marike, in her Zen-inspired way, reminds us during this phase that problems are just opportunities in disguise) to provide a unique experience for participants 9 and 10 who are still waiting too long for a pedicab ride. I have to find Tami Dixon. Out of all of us, she is most likely to have an immediate, moment-based creative solution. Tami suggests we make the blindfolded participants unpack luggage. She says one of our actors can play a TSA agent and accuse the participants of smuggling something. Sam has returned and he likes the luggage idea, but he doesn’t think we should accuse participants of wrongdoing shortly after we’ve blindfolded them. We all agree that Tami’s luggage idea is a winner, but what do we say to the participants?

As we ponder, I’m reminded of a recent experience I had in the theatre. I was entering a non-traditional theatre piece that was site-specific. There were about ten ushers on duty, but they weren’t part of the experience: they were employees, or volunteers of the theatre. The line was moving more slowly than they’d anticipated and people had to wait around with nothing to do. Each usher apologized to me as I walked past. At the time, I remember thinking: this is its own peculiar experience, effusive apologizing. This idea of effusive apologies, and putting the participants in a situation in which everyone acted deferentially toward them, amused me. Rather than accusing participants, we asked the actor in charge to lead participants 9 and 10 into the small backstage space where we’d set up a table, and asked them to place their hands on a suitcase and on a bunch of clothes, shoes and other props. Meanwhile, the actor apologizes profusely, “We are so, so sorry, but there was an incident with your baggage. Please repack it.”

Then, we asked any actor passing by the two blindfolded participants to apologize again, “We’re so sorry for this inconvenience.” We even co-opted the stage manager from the other show that was running in the basement of the same theatre. He had to pass through the space for one of his cues, so Sam told him “Just apologize to the blindfolded people loading the suitcase.” Everything made sense, except I realized that we needed a line or two to close this experience. I told Sarah Wheeler, our actor on hand, to tell the participants as she led them away from the suitcase, “We’re so sorry. That wasn’t your luggage. Our apologies. So sorry.” To my surprise this one line almost always elicited a big laugh from the participants or sometimes outbursts like, “I didn’t think that was my bag!”

As immersive, site-specific, and interactive theatrical experiences gain popularity we, the greater theatre community, are re-visiting the writing process. To writers out there who are just dipping a toe into this sort of writing, I offer this: You will be met with a glut of opportunities. To face them, arm yourself with these words: flexibility, tenacity, and alacrity.

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Thoughts from the curator

Jeffrey Caprenter details Ojo, an immersive experience which aspires toward a traveling, non-visual theatre.

The OjO Experience


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