Rules and Rewards of Participatory Theatre

The 7 Layers of Bastian Bachman, City Council Meeting, and Appointment.

The Seven Layers of Bastian Bachman began with a rule. When I first arrived at The Ice House of Phoenix (an old warehouse now used as a rentable “cultural centre”) I was pointed to a basket of safety goggles and surgical masks. All audience members had to wear them for the duration of the two and a half hours of immersive theater experience.  The host doling out goggles told me there would be an ending. “I guess I assumed there would be an ending?” I responded. She explained the entire performance would happen twice in a row, but there would be a finite last scene after the second iteration. I attended closing night. Apparently, on previous nights when the show started looping back people assumed they had seen everything and left.

eight actors on stage
The Seven Layers of Bastian Bachmann. Photo courtesy of Alice Stanley Jr. 

Before entering the warehouse a tour guide gave my group more guidelines. She explained the various levels of the space and the freedom we had to explore it. She cautioned, “You’ll be able to encounter more if you travel alone.” Read: don’t be afraid to ditch your friends. She explained that we would possibly be touched by the actors (referred to as “memories”), but all we had to do was “put up your hand and the memory will back away from you.” After telling us where to find the bathroom, we were let loose into the warehouse.

The play is set inside esteemed musician Bastian Bachman’s decomposing mind (no pun intended) in his final days struggling with a brain tumor. Important figures from his life and six versions of BB himself inhabit the space, acting out various fragments of his psyche as he tries to finish his final fugue. Upon entering, I went up a staircase. More guidelines: a butler handed me a tag to return when I came back down as a method for avoiding too many people in the small second level. I was whisked away into a world where BB’s protégé and moody daughter Juliana discuss the sick man with competitive tension. His ex-wife Marie guiltily expresses her own pain. BB’s doctor performs a rock surgery complete with a band and chorus of singing and dancing nurses.

Scenes are free-flowing. Actors repeat lines, make abrupt movements, sing unexpectedly. Audience members experienced different plays depending which character they followed, which rooms they lingered in. I felt plopped in the middle of a story, and despite all the guidelines I was given, I was worried I would miss something crucial by watching BB in a bathtub for too long. I hoped my wandering would leave me with an understanding of the narrative by the time the ending did come, but I was unsure. At one point, I bumped into a friend, and we paused by a window on the top floor. We saw BB’s daughter leading an audience member around the outside of the property. My friend (not a traditional theater-goer) exclaimed, “Oh, shit! We gotta be down there!”

Director Megan Weaver spoke directly to the “stress” audiences can feel when there are too many options. “I could tell many wanted to move around more freely than they were…If I could go back and do it again, how might I empower the audience to truly follow their interest fully, without fear of breaking some social norm or missing some crucial bit of information?” During the first elaborate and loud surgery scene, I was sitting outside alone with BB’s ex-wife and their neighbor Lillian. They shared a tender moment, but half my brain was thinking, “I chose wrong, didn’t I?” In that sense, though, the jumble is far from a flaw in the work. The mental tug and worry of missing pieces parallels the existence of a once-brilliant man’s mind falling apart. Indeed, Weaver told me, “Music has the ability to cross-connect a forgetting and malfunctioning mind. 7 Layers was our attempt to imagine that experience from within, from the perspective of a mind that has been defined by music, and to invite an audience to experience it too.” That said, I much appreciated Weaver’s choice in having a second iteration of the scenes. I had double the opportunities to understand the intricacies of plot, and I definitely made sure I was in the operating room for that loud thing I missed during my first go.

Ultimately, in theater that is created beyond the construct of typical linear proscenium there are endless choices, but there are also optimal ways to experience it. Perhaps that is debatable, but I would venture the person who wandered the entire warehouse would have a more fulfilling experience than someone who only camped out in the second-floor bathroom even when it was bare of performers. There is also something dangerous about allowing audiences to breach the performance membrane.

Ultimately, in theater that is created beyond the construct of typical linear proscenium there are endless choices, but there are also optimal ways to experience it.

I was in a room full of paper piles when an actor came in asking, “Have you ever had a night last an entire year long?” An audience member gave a hearty “Yes.” For some reason it rang as awkward to the small group present, and everyone had trouble holding in their giggles for the remainder of the performer’s passionate breakdown. I was reminded of another piece of immersive theater I saw last year that went slightly awry when some audience members’ interpretation of their participation veered off from the play’s intent.

I saw Aaron Landsman’s City Council Meeting last spring at Gammage Auditorium. View the HowlRound TV archival video hereCCM is a scripted performance modeled after real city council meetings and using real transcripts from across the country. Unprepared audience members are the main performers. At the beginning of the piece an instructional video tells everyone how to participate by volunteering to be a member of the council or a speaker. People who volunteered for roles were given cold scripts and prepped by “staffers,” who silently whispered directions into the participants’ ears. I did not choose to play a “role,” but everyone in the general audience remained active as “supporters” via instructional cards that had instructions to, for example, keep cell phones on or “clap when someone else claps.”

The bit of discord between audience and the work came about because some audience cards instructed people to “stand in support” of the Urban Leadership Council. The Urban Leadership Council segment of the meeting happens to be a heartfelt testimony by a young black woman. A small pool of audience members decided to show their support by hooting, hollering, and semi-stereotypically responding in Ebonics. To be fair, part of the purpose of the participatory nature of the piece is to strip down the images that come with people’s words. How do we listen differently to an old white man speaking the words of a young black girl? Can we fault an older white crowd for doing what they considered “playing their part”? It comes back to the rules of unconventional theater.

Landsman explained in the creation of CCM he had to preemptively troubleshoot problems. But, “each new audience throws us a curveball.” In hindsight, he told me he would have added a rule “no audible displays of support” to sidestep the whole issue. He added, “We're asking [the audience] to submit to our structure. To a degree at least. And then, where and how they choose to adhere to, or break that structure is where it gets interesting.”

This spring Landsman returned to Phoenix to develop and produce his work Appointment—“an ongoing series of micro-theater performances… often interactive, and often presented in working offices, blurring the lines between ‘work’ and ‘art.’” The piece was presented in a suite of offices. In the hour running time individual audience members enter rooms with one performer who shares an experience with the audience member. Audience members might find themselves conducting an interview, listening to a Phoenix-specific monologue, or playing a game of Jenga with a character meant to be the viewer’s subconscious.

“Invariably, the first piece would run short,” Landsman told me, “no matter which piece people started at.” The audience had to warm up to their part in the experience, their rules. However, by the final piece, performers sometimes had to rely on someone coming in the office to officially close the meeting because the piece was running over. Despite Appointment being more “open” than most theater, it still functions through structure. Landsman offered, “we tried to make the rules inherent.” Let people know their boundaries, so they can walk right up to the edge of them.

It seems like there are so many rules to make new forms of theater work, but it’s important to remember all theater actually has rules—we’ve just gotten used to most of them. Most likely, the jostle to audience and artists’ comfort alike is worth it. In 7 Layers there is a scene in which Juliana offers a private hand-rolled cigarette to an audience member. Weaver reminisced, “Many politely refused and parted ways with her, but on a few instances the audience member accepted the cigarette and sat outside with her, smoking and looking at the stars.” In participatory theater there may be more rules, but there may also be more rewards.

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Note: If you are interested in Appointment coming to your city, please check out the website for more details!

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