[De/As]cending: Immersion, Coercion, Mutiny.

I am a security guard. I stare down toward the woman I am supposed to drug and carry away. She is surrounded by an audience who is set on protecting her. If I try to take her away, the audience won’t let me. The story we wrote says that I’m supposed to take her away, but I see the looks in their eyes. They really won’t let me.

I take a breath…and improvise.

“Welcome to the bunker.”

This past semester, 31 MFA candidates, including writers, directors, designers of all hats and performers of all styles, set out to create an immersive theatrical experience in an art museum.

The first task was to learn about our space. Once you step out of the bounds of a proscenium theatre, you must consider crafting the theatrical experience in a whole new way. Mostly, there are a lot more questions to answer. Where will the audience stand? What can they see? How does it feel to walk outside? Where can we hide things? How can we transform the space?

If you’re in a proscenium, your answers are often straight-forward:

Where will the audience be? “…um, in the…seats?”

But where will the performers be? “Um. On the staaaage?”

The theatre world is wonderfully diverse, so how obvious these answers are varies dramatically from artist to artist.

“He’s coming! Quick, hide!”

So, for the first 7 weeks we climbed, yelled, stripped, ran, hid, jumped and generally tore around the art museum (sometimes to the deep chagrin of the museum staff, who, all in all, were insanely generous to all of us). Each movement and design exploration was meticulously cataloged so we could keep a treasure trove of what I’ll call “experiential dramaturgy.” We did something, we talked about it, we wrote it down.

The second 7 weeks of the semester were dedicated to crafting a holistic, unified experience. What was something that could tie this together? We sat down and talked. We talked and talked. We talked a lot.

I have a lot of energy and a lot of fun performing (given the first opportunity in this process, I decided to hang upside-down) so sitting and analyzing for long periods of time was often challenging. I like to work on my feet. We would finish a few hours of exploration and sit and talk about it for an hour. The perceived value of these discussion sessions varied from artist to artist, but overall they provided a lot of answers.

“Imagine a future with no thirst!”

We eventually landed on an encompassing story: This show will take place in a bunker in the future where water is a scarce resource. At the core of this bunker, there is a centrifuge that turns people into water (cuz, you know, it’s the future). Today is the day of the first sacrifice.

We split the performance into three simultaneous “tracks” that audiences could follow. One that follows the school within the bunker, one that follows the day of a typical family and one that follows the authorities within the bunker society. We would run the show three times each night, so people could follow all three tracks if they wanted. Each track, we decided, would culminate in a final moment where everyone would come together and three actors (one from each track) would be sacrificed and liquefied.

Or, so went the story we wrote.

“They are listening. We will help you escape.”

After a lot of rehearsal, writing, shopping, marketing, construction, programming, organizing and (a few) beers, we opened our two night run of [De/As]ending. 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.

So we tore everything down, (we had to construct and tear down everything each night, as we were doing this show in an operating art museum) and prepped for the second night.

The second night opened, as the first, to a sold out crowd. The first run-through goes well. Everything is in it’s place. Once the audience sees the sacrifice (the ascension of the elevator-turned-deadly-centrifuge) they are ushered out. The next audience then waits at the bottom of the pyramid.

As I stand guard over the audience (playing a minor role in the “authority” track I directed) I see that it’s just about the same crowd. People are waiting to see the experience again, this time following another track.

“Line up against the wall.”

The track starts, but something feels a bit…different. The audience is riled up. As we go through our security speech (in character) one audience member pours out the water we’ve given him and loudly proclaims “I will not drink people!”. Another talks over us as we perform, telling us he won’t be a part of our evil schemes. As performers, we’re flustered, but push on.

The scurrilous remarks continue through the run. With audience members pushing small acts of rebellion against us. They steal little things and hide them from us, they talk back to our instructions, and they openly question our motives.

The climax of our show grows nearer. As the guard, I was to drug and apprehend a scientist who I thought killed the leader of the bunker (in reality, her character is framed, a fact the audience witnesses.) The scientist is standing at the bottom of some stairs, surrounded by audience members who she is trying to “rescue” from the bunker.

I step down the stairs, start to perform our tightly choreographed fight sequence when all of a sudden my arm is grabbed by an audience member. She shouts “We won’t let you take her!” and pulls on my arm.

This is…not part of the show.

My mind clicks into “the show must go on” mode. 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, now fully expecting to get decked from behind from a passionate audience member.

After going through some doors, the scientist and I break character. I turn around to face the audience members who have followed us through the door. 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? What are you guys doing? We need to set up for the next scene. Are you…um? Hi. My name is Phil.”

They explain that they cannot stand by while we kill people. They explain that we are forcing them to be implicated in murder. They explain that they were trying to stop us.


I know that in about 20 seconds, the rest of the audience is going to come through the stairwell. This is not the place or time for a psycho-social debate.

I learn their names, usher them away from the performance path and say they should email us with their thoughts. I urge them away from our final climax of sacrifice; I need to get back in character and finish the show.

I enter the sacrificial chamber to find something else very strange: one of the three people on our sacrificial altars is…an audience member. An audience member wanted to be sacrificed to save one of the performers.

Something was happening. We were all entering new territory.

“What’s going to happen in there? What’s that machine?”

The second run finishes, the audience is ushered out and gathers by the pyramid. We have 10 minutes before the third and last run. I reset props, double check everything, walk to the top of the pyramid and find…it’s all the same audience. Everyone who went through is going through again.

I have no idea what’s going to happen to us.

The leader of the bunker steps to the top of the pyramid to introduce the show. The audience boos loudly. “Down with the bunker!” “You’re all evil!” “You’ll all die!”

I take stock. I am now about to act as a security guard, ushering an unruly audience through the path of an oppressive, authoritarian regime. I must kill the scientist, a person they’ve come to love and last time I tried that, I was accosted. The audience has been colluding to take us down. We have planned for none of this. We are all a little scared.

In the immortal words Quentin Tarantino, “just shit your pants and jump in and swim.”

The run starts similarly. Shenanigans, heckling, foolery.

When the audience is taken away into the “science lab” for the first time, I catch one of my fellow performers. He plays John Worthington, one of the bunker’s leaders.

“Move in an orderly fashion out the doors.”

“Hey,” I say, “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.”

“Deal,” he says. What a champion.

The moment comes. I come to the top of the stairs, ready to drug the scientist. I see flames in the audiences’ eyes. They shout “she didn’t do it!”, “I won’t let you take her!”. They grab the scientist and stand in front of her. This was it.

I turn back toward the leader of the bunker. We catch each other’s eye. A silent acknowledgement. I turn back to the gathered audience.

“This is what you wanted!” I dumbly improvise. I drug the leader. I drag him away.

The audience is silent.

“Liquefy and die.”

This last sacrifice looks…different than we wrote it. There is, again, an audience member who has stepped in to replace our “misbehaving child” sacrifice. One of our actors, it seems, has made it to the sacrifice unscathed. Then there’s the leader of the bunker, who I’ve just drugged, who is supposed to win, but I guess is now going to die also.

Bada bing Bada boom. Ceremony. Sacrifice. Audience leaves.

We all gather in a haze of fear, anger, euphoria and confusion. What just happened?

Over the next several days, we discussed, we decompressed, we complained, we yelled, we cried, we analyzed, we philosophized, we diagnosed. In a nutshell, we grad-schooled the hell out that performance. There are far too many opinions and perspectives for me to recount, but one thing was certain: something really happened.

Was it a team of highly-educated audience members who sought to educate us about process drama and interactive performance?

Could some audience members really not tell the real world from the world we’ve created?

Arizona is fraught with oppressive authorities and water scarcity. Did we hit a nerve?

What happens when you remove the typical social contract of the theatre seat? “You sit there, we perform here” is no longer the case. We invited the audience into our world and they didn’t like it. They wanted to change it. They were standing right next to us, watching us kill people. They just reached out their hands and stopped it.

The audience’s acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. My first thought was, “hey, we’re trying to perform here assholes!” This was joined by my second thought, “whoa, these people sound serious.” These thoughts were eventually joined, weeks later, by a realization that is unfortunately not evident sometimes: “performing can be very powerful.”

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. But if you yell out to an actor…hey, we can all hear you. “Hey, Romeo! Yo, she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping!” Audiences typically follow prescribed, unspoken etiquette. What happens if you get an audience inexperienced with that etiquette, or so experienced that they want to break it?

What happens if we ask an audience member to stand? To speak? To run? To die? To kill?

Each step we take out of the world of the proscenium is scary and exhilarating. Less rules means more risk. Less rules means more fun. Less rules means more danger. Do we enforce a new set of rules when we step outside the theatre? Or do we let the audience’s will, as their feet, roam free? Mario can save the princess, why can’t I?

DeAscending112As a director, I’ve had to throw out the question “how can I affect the audience for good?” and replace it with a much more basic and scary question: “how can I affect the audience at all?”. Theatre is 90% failure, 90% boredom, 90% I’d-really-rather-be-watching-Netflix.

If people walk away ecstatic, great.                                       If people walk away 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 by Tim Trumble–

[De/As]cending: Immersion, Coercion, Mutiny.

2 thoughts on “[De/As]cending: Immersion, Coercion, Mutiny.

  1. Rhoda Stoesz says:

    Holy Shit, what an experience that must have been! Thank you for writing this up, Phil. I love your 3 levels of responding to the audience.


  2. Stephani Etheridge Woodson says:

    Lovely processing of the question, “what happens when we change the social contract/audience engagement parameters?” Nice job.


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