The Immersive Actor

As a young actor, I remember wanting nothing more than to be on any stage telling stories, examining humanity, and hearing that applause. I envisioned a life for myself in the theatre ever since I saw my first play in fourth grade, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds at The Cleveland Playhouse. I saw myself reflected on that stage and for the first time in my life felt like a person who mattered. The stage made me feel alive, whether I was watching it or performing on it.

As I grew older though, I noticed the actor was usually the last person invited to the creative table. By the time I arrived the crucial artistic decisions had been made, and I was sent home after tech while other artists gathered to solve the creative problems. Yes, the actor is the artist the public sees, but that exchange wasn’t satisfying anymore. It’s not that I needed more applause; my relationship to the craft changed, and so had my relationship to the audience.

When I left the New York theatre scene to become Bricolage’s Producing Artistic Director, I inherited a seat at the creative table and never looked back. Acting will always be my first crush, but I found myself enjoying the process much more than the performance. Except opening night, opening night will always rule!

As an actor in immersive work, however, everything is different. It’s opening night every time, and every time could mean every twelve minutes. In immersive work, the actor begins at the creative table. From the first day of rehearsal where she’s asked to improvise on the script to the second day of rehearsal where she’ll encounter a “guinea pig,” (a beta audience member), the actor is empowered to make decisions based on instinct. By the time we get to the first performance the intention of the scene is “set,” but everything else “relies on the kindness of strangers.” That is because your scene partner is a stranger.

When we remounted OjO: The Next Generation of Travel at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival, the creative team had seven days to familiarize thirteen San Diego actors with this non-traditional process we’d been honing for the past three years. San Diego OjO-actor Rachel Nicole Pierce described it like this:

"When your scene partner is a stranger you must assume very little and listen carefully to every reaction or mode of body language. The unspoken favor was creatively asking them to play along with you, trust you, and consider you their old friend."

a group of people with goggles on
Jennifer Parades and OjO participants. Photo by Tami Dixon.

September 2015— Out of the Frying Pan…

OjO’s rehearsal schedule is tight, even with three directors. Our creative team works towards consensus and though the directors are assigned specific rooms, everyone helps shape the encounter. We bring the guinea pigs in early, for some actors on their very first day. Encountering participants immediately is the only way for the actor to really understand her space. It’s a waste of time to prolong this part of the process; the actor must know what the encounter is like from different viewpoints—no two participants will respond the same. Tara Kostmayer played Farika Azmi, a firecracker street merchant who hawked her wares in Mumbai, said:

"Acting in an immersion piece is a much more collaborative process between the audience and the actors. It's sort of like one of those build your own adventure books. The actors' next move is dependent entirely on how the audience member responds."

We always say without an audience you’re just rehearsing. A major part of our philosophy is that the audience plays an integral role in the completion of the work. It’s crucial they know who they are and why they are there. And it’s paramount the actor care deeply for each participant. If an audience member chooses not to participate, their experience will reflect that choice. We are not here to trick, tease, or harass participants. We only ask that they get on board.

Comparable to a live video game, immersive acting provides a freedom that empowers the actor to empower the participant. The actor and the audience member are part of a living, breathing moment, and they must work together to finish the story.

an actor performing in front of an audience
Bob Kanish and participants. Photo by Tami Dixon.

October 2015—The Rubber Meets the Road

The performance schedule inside a festival setting is especially daunting. We aimed to move ten participants into the experience every twenty minutes. The show runs in a round-robin fashion and the complete experience lasts between seventy-five and ninety minutes. For the actor, that means every twenty minutes she’s “on” for twelve minutes, give or take a few minutes depending on how the encounter with her “scene partner” goes. It’s a feat for a triathlete, and insists an actor remain mindful and focused. Flora Sophia played Zabel, OjO’s Portuguese pedicab driver, chauffeured participants through Mumbai. She said the following of her experience:

"As the festival progressed, I became fully present and available to what was happening at every moment, responding accordingly. It felt like one of my yoga practices. I just had to breathe and all else would fall into place."

Comparable to a live video game, immersive acting provides a freedom that empowers the actor to empower the participant. The actor and the audience member are part of a living, breathing moment, and they must work together to finish the story.

In immersives the line between reality and fiction is purposefully blurred. My favorite anecdote from OjO comes from Markuz Rodrigues, our Uncle Jose and the first actor the participants encountered. Hundreds of people strolled the grounds of the festival, and Uncle Jose was positioned in the middle of everything—bedecked in a Hawaiian shirt, surf trunks, and a beach visor, sitting under an umbrella, sipping juice from a three-foot long party cup. He was a sight to see, something LJP’s more traditional theatregoers couldn’t comprehend. Markuz recalled:

"For the listening actor, an immersive piece is a thrilling, infinite series of opportunities to live honestly from moment to moment, and when a theatre patron mistook me for a vagrant and called the police to have me removed from the premises, I believe we all felt accomplished that we were truly dancing on the line between art and reality."

Opening Night 2015 Be Here Now

Standing in a circle before the first participants arrive, I look around the room astonished at the beauty of this magical group of artists. The theatre gods must have been smiling on Bricolage because each actor embraced this insane endeavor and approached the process with respect, dedication, and a child-like sense of adventure. Still, it’s a strange thing to ask actors to slow dance, serenade, and hug 600 strangers. As OjO River Goddess, N’Jamah Camara put it,   

"Sensitivity is heightened for both the actor and the audience member. We were in each other’s faces and in our brief moment together I was able to really see my audience as I felt them truly seeing themselves."

Jennifer Parades, Sara Wheeler (OjO Production Assistant), and participants. Photo by Tami Dixon.

Closing Night 2015 Vow to Always Be Beginning

And just like that, three days and fifty shows later, it’s over. But, over is not exactly right. The powerful ripples created by an immersive experience resonate far beyond the run. Bob Kanish, who plays Bob, said it best, "This experience was deeply moving and made me feel more alive than I've felt in a long time."

While it is true the immersive actor has a greater stake in the creative process, there are certainly sacrifices one must make. Nobody is waiting at the stage door for an autograph, and there will be no standing ovation, in fact you might go unnoticed all together (especially if your audience is blindfolded); however, there will be love—a deep love that comes from a participant being profoundly altered. Most audiences in traditional theatre experiences leave a show saying things like, “You were great!” “You really transformed into that character!” “You looked beautiful in those costumes. How did you memorize all those lines?” But for our participants, sometimes leaving the experience is not an option. We’ve heard things like, “I don't have words to convey the enormity of yesterday. I was literally mind-blown. It was two hours that will forever shape my experience. How do you say thank you for that?” or “Thank you for OjO. It is the first thing to allow me to experience Brian's blindness. And because of it I can see him better.”

We’ll take that over applause any day.

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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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