Conversation with Colleen Rua

Playwright and producer Samantha Mueller sat down with director and professor Dr. Colleen Rua. In the fall of 2015, Samantha produced The Great and Terrible Doctor Faustus (also referred to as Faustus) at Northwestern University, which Dr. Rua attended. A year and a half later, Dr. Rua directed An Awfully Big Adventure at Bridgewater State University, an original devised piece based on the novel Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, as well as historical records of Barrie’s life, which Samantha Mueller attended. Both performances were pieces of immersive theatre.

Samantha Mueller: Let’s just start by talking about what made us both want to create immersive theatre. We both saw Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell; you also saw Speakeasy Dollhouse, while I followed actors to a site-specific performance of And Then There Were None.

Dr. Colleen Rua: And I had already seen your show at Northwestern. I knew we could do immersive shows at Bridgewater State, so I applied for a grant from the Center for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship. I went to London to see a variety of immersive shows, to talk to people there, and went back to New York. In seeing so many shows, I had so many different kinds of audience experiences. I was more of a normal audience member in some, just a “watcher.” In some of those experiences, I was more of a character. It became about picking up cool ideas along the way and looking at the practicalities of how people are doing this kind of work.

Samantha: Faustus was also the first student-produced immersive piece at Northwestern. NU is no stranger to site-specific work, but this was the first time we referred to a project as immersive from the very beginning.

Colleen: And you had a whole dedicated space from the beginning.

Samantha: That was the beautiful thing. Sit & Spin Productions, one of NU’s student theatre companies, had secured the space before I even signed on to the project. We knew we were using Cahn Auditorium, a thousand-seat proscenium theatre on campus. The way it works at Northwestern is that the student theatre company picks a producer. The producer helps pick a director. Then together, the producer and director pitch three shows to the company to pick one.

Colleen: Was it always going to be immersive?

Samantha: Not necessarily. The only rules that Sit & Spin set forth were “don’t stage a proscenium show.” When we were interviewing directors, we asked them specifically what they were interested in doing. A great number of student directors were itching to stage immersive work, which was great for me because it’s what I wanted to do. When we signed director Alex Benjamin on to the project, we pitched three ideas that could take place in a 1940s theatre.

Colleen: At Bridgewater, faculty and students meet for play selection and the faculty directors pitch two to three ideas for their slot, and then everyone votes. I pitched in Spring 2015 before I went to London. I had some ideas for what the text would be and that was all I had. I remember our tech director asked the question: “What spaces will you use?” and I said, “All of them.”

Samantha: The school seemed pretty receptive to this kind of theatre from the beginning.

Colleen: I think especially because the students were so enthusiastic about it.

Samantha: I know when we were casting, the most accessible show that our student body had seen was Sleep No More. Is that true for your students as well?

Colleen: Very few of our students—I could probably count them on one hand—had any experience with immersive theatre. People came in not knowing what to expect at all. We started with the annotated Peter Pan. For example, the dialogue we used for audition sides was pulled right from the novel. We also used improvisation and each group got a set of rules: use a prop, use movement, and have a silent moment with someone watching—that kind of thing.

Samantha: For callbacks, we had everyone sing a jazz standard and we had instructed them to make some kind of connection with someone in the room. And then Kat Scott, our brilliant choreographer, led everyone through a movement workshop. We didn’t have a typical dance call; it was just everyone settling into their bodies together.

Colleen: We used this poem in callbacks called “The Boy Who Loved His Mother.” There was a boy who loved his mother, he met a girl and she told him she would marry him if he brought her the heart of his mother. So the boy cut out his mother’s heart. While traveling to give the heart to the girl, he stumbled, and his mother’s heart said “Are you alright my son?” This is a poem about love.

Familiar stories are helpful for immersive work because if you do end up taking away elements of storytelling, the audience can still be with you.

Samantha: That’s beautiful. We also used text in callbacks because we went into the process thinking we were using the Marlowe text in the final product. It was only when we got into table work that our director realized that all you needed to know coming in was the basic idea that Faustus was a story about selling your soul to get what you want. We didn’t need our characters to say anything.

Colleen: That made me think of two things. One, familiar stories are helpful for immersive work because if you do end up taking away elements of storytelling, the audience can still be with you. Also, a great learning moment is that it’s OK to kill the text, our babies. That was something we said at the first rehearsal because we all created the text of the show together. We were going to cut things we loved, and it was going to be OK.

Samantha: Similarly, Alex Benjamin had done an incredible amount of work over the summer adapting the text into different tracks, making Faustus a 1940s traveling magician, and creating characters around him. He got our framing device of the seven deadly sins from a scene in the original play. When we started working in the room, we realized the original text was just a jumping off point. After we cut the text, we were able to focus on how all of the tracks fit together.

Colleen: We had to make specific actor tracks as well. I knew we didn’t have the option of letting audience members freely follow people. We felt the storytelling would be stronger by assigning people to groups.

Stage Management Matrix
Samantha: The idea of a limited run also came into play for us. We wanted to guarantee everyone a full story. It was impractical to think that people could come back to see the show multiple times to piece together storylines because we only performed for a week. One of the variables we had to think about was how much of the audience experience we were prescribing from the moment they walked through the door. And we settled on the idea that the audience was to stay silent and stay with one character. The character they were following became the main character for the play they were seeing that night. We needed to make sure every audience member got a full story.

Colleen: But might I say, I think both of our shows did that pretty well.

Samantha: I think so, too! But man, was that nuts for our stage manager.

Colleen: Our stage manager, a sainted woman! The logistics of it are maddening at times.

Samantha: We had a big matrix. It’s show paperwork at it’s finest. We didn’t have any written examples of what the stage management paperwork should look like, but we didn’t seek any out. It was better for us to figure out what our show needed and create that paperwork.

Colleen: The only other paperwork I had looked at beforehand was yours. We started the process with a long list of scenes and moved them around, placing them in tracks to complete stories. Ryan, our dramaturg, was really the person who took on the matrix. He worked it out like a big logic problem.

a spreadsheet
Part of the actor tracking spreadsheet for An Awfully Big Adventure. Photo courtesy of Colleen Rua.

Samantha: We had one production stage manager on headset calling cues. She stayed on the main floor of the theatre. Then, we had two other stage managers, one in the basement level and another on the second floor lobby. We also had an assistant stage manager running between floors to make sure things were where they were supposed to be. Because we were letting people into spaces that Cahn Auditorium typically restricted, we had been asked to station a member of Sit & Spin in every room that would have an audience member. They were our safety fallback.

Colleen: We had a crew member on headset with each group, on the same track every night. They would walk with each group and be stationed for any music or other tech that happened in the rooms. We also had an eight-second ticking clock to warn everyone that things were about to wrap up in that space.

Samantha: I never realized that’s what the clock was signifying.

Colleen: I’m thinking back on my experience [at Faustus] and I feel like I didn’t even notice the safety people.

Samantha: There were times where they could tuck themselves away, so it looked like an empty space, which could feel quite eerie.

Colleen: We ultimately used thirteen different spaces. Onstage, we built six rooms with the façade of a building with functional doors. The actual business of dressing the spaces that are normally classrooms or meeting spaces basically happened in a week. I remember saying to the cast on opening night, “Fifty-three days ago, you had a blank piece of paper. Six days ago, you had nothing on stage.” One challenge for us was that when walking through the hallways, you were going to be in this institutional building. We ended up having quotations or passages from the novel all throughout the hallways to try to not take people out of the world.

Samantha: If you’re asking people in a Broadway show to believe that a girl is born green in a world where there is a place called Oz, you can ask people to think that while they walk through a hallway where they sometimes have class, they’ll have to suspend disbelief.

Colleen: In that moment, you’re in Neverland or London.

Samantha: The day we moved into Cahn, the elevator stopped working. It ended up being a gift in disguise because then we got to script some great interactions between characters who were now passing each other on the stairs. We were determined to make the show accessible, so we had a guy come in every night to hand-operate the elevator.

Colleen: We also had an accessible track.

Samantha: It was important to us. We had a low-impact track that we routed to the stairs and we asked everyone when they came in whether they needed the hand-operated elevator. No one did, so we were ultimately able to send the elevator man home every night. The last night, he asked if he could sit in the back of the auditorium and watch. He didn’t want to follow a character, but he wanted to watch everyone sing in the auditorium.

Colleen: Similarly, we have a fire detail for every show and apparently they were arguing at the fire station around the corner about who would get to be our fire detail. I think immersive can be for people who maybe wouldn’t go to the theatre otherwise.

Samantha: For people who love being taken out of their own world.

Colleen: People came back to see multiple performances. We had a lot of non-theatre majors come to see the show but we also had a couple of people who had never experienced theatre of any kind.

Samantha: We were coming across the problem of turning people away because we were capping the audience at eight people. We had to obey fire codes and different tracks could accommodate different amounts of people. You were following Collin Quinn Rice, who played Lust/Mephistopheles, and at one point if you remember, everyone had to fit into a small dressing room. Only eight people could have been in Collin’s group, whereas other groups could have up to thirty people. We ended up adding a show because the demand was there.

an actor in the show
Collin Quinn Rice as Lust/Mephistopheles in Sit & Spin’s production of The Great and Terrible Doctor Faustus. Photo by Justin Barbin Photography.

Colleen: We had fourteen performances because we had to have the same ticket availability as a normal spring show with onstage seating. Our first Saturday we had a show at 5 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. We had thirty minutes to reset and they just did three in a row. They would have done as many as we could have.

The most important and satisfying thing for me: to work with young actors who were so open. Part of our warm up was to stand facing someone and hold their gaze. And just to have that connection was important because we don’t get that very often, to have that human experience.

Connections and the Afterlife

Samantha: Our cast got incredibly close. We spent a lot of time at the beginning of rehearsals establishing connections with each other, a lot of nonverbal communication.

Colleen: That was the most important and satisfying thing for me: to work with young actors who were so open. Part of our warm up was to stand facing someone and hold their gaze. And just to have that connection was important because we don’t get that very often, to have that human experience.

Samantha: Is Bridgewater going to do immersive again?

Colleen: Oh my God, it feels like the only thing I can do now! Even if I’m not staging something immersive, I think there will be added consideration to the role of the audience. I would love for An Awfully Big Adventure to have a next life; so I’m thinking about that a lot.

Samantha: Faustus lived on in Chicago with a production with Striding Lion earlier this year.

Colleen: I think now that we’ve shown we can do this at BSU, we can make it work at whatever level we need to.

Samantha: What I learned as a practitioner of theatre from all of this is to constantly ask: “Why are doing this show, why are we doing it now, and why are we doing it here?” I think it was formative for me to still do this while I was in college. I would love for more colleges to know that they can not only do this kind of work, but also that the things you learn from it are not only specific to immersive.

Colleen: So many variables can be altered; I feel like we get to be so experimental.

Samantha: If we can start to fold this into a theatre education, the possibilities become endless. It’s about having more tools to tell more stories. 

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