Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 29 Jan 15 16:44
We'd like to welcome Liz Fisher and Robert Matney, founding directors of Whirligig Productions. They launched their company with the recent world premiere of Deus Ex Machina, a live, choose-your-own-adventure performance that gives total control of the plays storyline to the audience via SMS messaging. Written and directed by Liz Fisher, Deus Ex Machina rips characters from Greek mythology and throws them into a gladiator ring. Through the power of Zeus, the audience is transformed into gods and battle it out like clashing titans to determine the fates of the infamous characters of the House of Atreus: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes. This malleable roller-coaster of a narrative ultimately tracks to 1 of 12 potential story lines, plus even more opportunities to exercise dramatic omnipotence for 12,288 possible experiences. Robert Matney, technology designer, and a small team created the digital backbone of Deus, affectionately called Mount Olympus, which served a branched cueing system that could also display real time voting results for this ground breaking theatrical production. Katherine Catmull, who appeared in Deus Ex Machina as Clytemnestra, will be leading the discussion. Bios follow...
Liz Fisher's bio (jonl) Thu 29 Jan 15 16:46
Liz Fisher is a founder and co-Artistic Director of Whirligig. She is an interdisciplinary theater artist based in Austin, working as an actor, director, writer, and producer with some of Austins most lauded companies, such as Breaking String Theater, Capital T Theater, The Hidden Room, Hyde Park Theatre, Bedlam Faction, and many more. She is an award winning actress, with multiple nominations for B. Iden Payne and Austin Critics Table awards. She recently wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Deus Ex Machina for Whirligig and was a visiting guest artist for Southwestern Universitys Sarofim School of Fine Arts. Liz has run arts incubators, produced five play cycles, and managed interdisciplinary, new work festivals. Currently, she is the Program Coordinator for Shakespeare at Winedale.
Robert Matney's bio (jonl) Thu 29 Jan 15 16:47
Robert Matney is a co-founder and Technology Director of Whirligig. Robert is also Technology Director for Hidden Room Theatre and a Board Trustee for Austin Shakespeare, a multi-award-winning stage and voice actor and director, and a web technologist with Polycot Associates. You can battle Roberts voice as Doctor Psycho in the video game DC Universe Online. Robert was a featured speaker or presenter at South By Southwest Interactive 2013, 2012 and 2011, as well as Fusebox Festival 2011.
Katherine Catmull's bio (jonl) Thu 29 Jan 15 16:48
Katherine Catmull was first on the Well as kate in the early 90s; she returned in 1996 as katecat. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she has been an actor for almost 30 years, in plays ranging from Shakespeare and Pinter to newer and more avant-garde work. In Deus Ex Machina, she played Clytemnestra, the angry and ever-bloodstained queen. Katherine is also a voice actor (DC Universe Online, Wizard 101), an arts writer, a playwright, and a young-adult novelist whose first book, SUMMER AND BIRD (Dutton Juvenile/Penguin) was named one of Booklist's 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth. She is also the co-author of a collection of scary short stories, THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014). Her next novel comes out in Winter 2016.
(katecat) Fri 30 Jan 15 06:58
Helllloooo Rob and Liz. Rob it seems like just yesterday I was mopping up your sacrificial blood from the floor while blood-spattered priestesses whirled around me. (For those who didn't see the play, each night the play opened with Rob giving a curtain speech that was . . . interrupted.) can y'all tell us briefly what got you so excited about interactive theater that you decided to put in the insane amount of work that must have gone on to mount this show? I came in for just the last two and a half months of that five years and that ALONE was an insane amount of work. or do you call it something catchier than "interactve theater"?
Robert Matney (robertmatney) Fri 30 Jan 15 10:36
How I miss those days, katecat. I tend to call our work something even less catchy, "Digital Interactive Theater," to distinguish from other theater approaches whose interactivity take on a different form. Our roots are in Shakespeare and in an approach that seeks to historically recapture some of the stage approaches we believe were in use in 1600 England. This included a healthy amount of direct address to the audience and a circular outdoor space that immersed the audience in the world of the play. With gallant audience members occasionally sitting on stage to be looked at next to the actors, this was interactive theater, and I believe is something that theater is now generally seeking to re-capture (consider the booming popularity of immerse works by Punchdrunk, and the many experimental "promenade" pieces that take audiences on a tour through public and private spaces). Five years ago, Liz and I were collaborating with Beth Burns on some projects that focused on digital connection. One piece was split between London and Austin and livestream to the web, with actors and audiences in all three locations connection by video conference and text inputs; another piece drove the plot forward with the revelation of projected QR Codes revealing digital clues and narrative ephemera across different digital platforms. And so with these questions in the air and with our interest in interactivity, our conversation quickly turned to ways that we could turn over to the audience as much agency as possible in the context of a rehearsed and carefully prepared play. This goal drove us forward, and evolved into a goal to create a artistic and game vocabulary for how to create a play that the audience gets to "play." Deus was our first effort towards this.
(katecat) Fri 30 Jan 15 11:45
I feel like any moment, people will jump in who want to know about some of the technical aspects of how this all works. For DEUS, for example, I know the audience texted in their votes at dozens of decision points in the play, and also activated some Easter eggs via text. All of which sounds vaguely, handwavingly "easy," but I know in reality it was monstrously complex and difficult. However! those people haven't jumped in yet, and I'm more interested in the human aspects of interactive theater that the audience can "play" like a game. You mentioned Punchdrunk--they're the folks who did that insanely popular "Sleep No More" in NYC, right? Where some old abandoned hotel was turned into a sort Macbeth-based movement piece, with different parts of the story playing out in every room, and you wander from room to room? Have you seen that? (I haven't.) What do you think is the source of its appeal? How is what you're doing different/similar? I'm going to follow up (GET READY) by wondering about some of downsides as well as the upsides of this kind of theater.
Liz Fisher (liz-fisher) Fri 30 Jan 15 16:47
Great first question, Kathy. The short answer: we're crazy. Or maybe just gluttons for punishment. :) In addition to everything that Rob already mentioned, the initial idea for Deus came from that same place that so many other great ideas come from: the "Wouldn't it be cool if..." place. In the beginning, I don't think either of us know if this format would actually work. Sure, we knew it was theoretically possible. Improv companies have proven that you can tell a compelling story with nothing more than a suggestion from the audience. We also found evidence of other theater companies doing "choose your own adventure" style plays. So we knew this wasn't a "new" idea. Heck, Charles Dickens' unfinished novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" created a hugely successful choose your own ending musical theater production of the same name. Again, proving that an audience driven narrative is a popular idea. But we never found an example of someone creating a scripted play with this many instances of audience input, resulting in this many possible outcomes, combined with the use of technology. Hence, "Digital Interactive Theater."
(katecat) Sun 1 Feb 15 06:44
oh great examples of audience-driven (or at least audience-affected) plays. I wonder WHAT the appeal of theater like that is. Do audience members secretly (or not secretly) sort of long to be on the stage with the characters? But now that I say that I think that's wrong, as theater that involves audience participation in that sense is fmously dreaded by most people. "Didn't think it was going to be one of 'THOSE' kinds of plays?" you have Zeus say to the audience member he's tried to engage in dialogue. "Well tough shit, I just MADE it one of those plays." is it generational? is there something about growing up with video games that makes you less interested in narratives that flow on without you? or is it something about the influence of reality television--or does it have the same _attraction_ as reality TV, that sense of uncontrolled authenticity (however false, in the case of most reality TV)? my great-grandfather had a theater company that traveled around the mountain west doing plays. He had gimmick where in a new town he'd find an engaged couple and offer to have their wedding onstage as part of the climax of the play. This was crazy popular and great at getting butts in the seats, as one says, as all the wedding guests were obliged to pay to see the play. Anyway somehow . . . I dunno, it feels like all these mixings of reality/unpredictablilty/authenticity and theater are kind of connected, somehow?
Robert Matney (robertmatney) Sun 1 Feb 15 13:21
Yes, katecat, Punchdrunk <http://punchdrunk.com> are the folks doing the insanely popular "Sleep No More" in NYC, which Liz has caught, as well as "The Drowned Man" in London, which both Liz and I have attended. They have a great pedigree of highly immersive theatrical worlds that transpire across many rooms and many floors in a building, with the audience free to guide their own experience throughout the building. There is little if anything that is "network digital," however the audience can "control" the narrative by moving the camera of their eyes/head around and by interacting physically with the set and props. I think there is something generational going on, and I think it is about restoring from an anomaly. Historically, theater *has* been interactive, there was just an aberration of "realism" and proscenium structures that lasted for 150 years. In other words, I think this is a correction that is utilizing the technology of the day, rather than a new conceptual direction.
Liz Fisher (liz-fisher) Sun 1 Feb 15 13:38
Yup! Punchdrunk is the mastermind behind "Sleep No More" and many other brilliant pieces of theater. I actually saw Sleep No More with Matt Radford (a supremely talented actor who played Agamemnon in Deus.) Rob and I would later see their show, The Drowned Man. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a fan girl of their work, and while I'm honored to be mentioned in the same category as them, I don't think there are many similarities between our shows. Sleep No More allows the audience total control of their POV of the show by building a comprehensive world - down to the garbage in different rooms' garbage cans. It is a fully realized world that is not the "real world." It is possible to spend three hours in their performance space and never see an actor (it's harder, but not impossible to see another audience member.) Punchdrunk also encourages (and works hard to) isolate audience members, so audience members can experience the play as a deeply personal and individual experience. But instead of allowing the audience to control their camera view of the world, Deus shifts the entire storyline. I told a friend of mine it's like the difference between playing Myst and Heavy Rain. Sure, you get to control parts of these games, but if you live a character in Heavy Rain, you don't always to stay with them. The game or your decisions will force you away from them. But you stay in one of the world of Myst for as long as you want. This is a core difference between these two shows and highlight an interesting split in ways that performance can be "interactive." It's funny to me that video games identified this split years ago, but theater artists are only now starting to realize these differences. Rob, what other differences do you see?
Robert Matney (robertmatney) Mon 2 Feb 15 12:35
This split you identify, Liz, I think does loop back to a question Kathy put earlier about what we learn from video games and then expect/seek elsewhere. Though I demurred on the point in my last comment, saying that "interactivity" in theater was a correction rather than something new, I *do* think we have learned from video games more about the various ways that interaction is possible between narrative and individual. A related set of questions: * Is the world of the narrative multi-threaded? * Do all threads take place regardless of how the audience interacts, or alternatively, do some threads only exist in the performance based on audience interaction? With Punchdrunk, the narrative is multi-threaded, with various stories playing out in different rooms, that all patch together into the complete whole. I believe that, with the exception of minor private interactions that happen depending on whether the moment is right between audience and actor, that all of Punchdrunk's various threads happen uniformly regardless of the interaction, and the interaction therefore is about what the audience chooses to see. With Deus, there are multiple threads, but only one is alive at any given point in time, exciting the very end, when an extra thread is spun out if a set of the audience chooses to leave the venue and follow that thread.
(katecat) Mon 2 Feb 15 17:26
before I continue, I wanted to say to those reading us off-Well that you can send in questions for Rob and Liz in one of two ways: 1) Tweeting @TheWELL or 2) email firstname.lastname@example.org Either way, we'll post the questions here. Please do join in!
(katecat) Mon 2 Feb 15 17:27
Liz I love the distinction you make between your work and Punchdrunk, it's very helpful. Rob, > I think there is something generational going on, and I think it is about restoring from an anomaly. Historically, theater *has* been interactive, That is fascinating--it leads to all sorts of new questions. In DEUS, I remember our goddess stage manager Stephanie Delk saying that when noisy groups started yelling how they wanted to vote, sometimes it would make everyone else stop voting. I feel like it will take some people a while to get used to the new/old model. > Do all threads take place regardless of how the audience interacts, or alternatively, do some threads only exist in the performance based on audience interaction? The former being something like the wander-where-you-will SLEEP NO MORE, the latter more like the whole-audience-most-vote branching of DEUS EX MACHINA? In 13 performances we never did perform six of our twelve endings, if I recall correctly. Those are quite different exeriences--one is individual, and in another you're arguing it out with your group. (I thought DEUS did a lovely job of exploiting the potential for argument, by the way, with people lobbying at intermission and giving "offerings" to make their votes more powerful.)
Liz Fisher (liz-fisher) Mon 2 Feb 15 21:06
Kathy, have you ever read The Onion article about audience interaction? In case you haven't: http://www.theonion.com/articles/oh-no-performers-coming-into-audience,2685/ I think lots of people experience this kind of feeling when actors suddenly begin walking into towards them. Because when audience interaction is forced, we get reactions like that. You have to plan and rehearse audience interaction - it's a set of skills, no different than movement or voice. The actors have to figure out how to make a genuine connection with a stranger and respond to whatever curve ball they might throw. Lowell Bartholomee (who played ZEUS) was very patient as Lily Wolff (our AD) and I threw every reaction we could think of at him during rehearsals. And still, our live audience members reacted in ways that we could never have imagined. My favorite example of this: just before Zeus turns the audience into gods, he asks for an offering of a first born son "or just his balls." An audience member stands up and starts walking to the stage. Lowell had to improvise a way to keep the guy's pants on, get him back in his seat, keep the at moving forward, and not squash future moments of audience participation. And he nailed it. You also have to make sure that audience interaction fits inside of the larger narrative each piece is trying to express. Direct address is (to me) an essential part of Shakespeare, but wildly out of place in Chekhov. We designed Deus from the ground up to be about a specific kind of audience interaction. Sure, some audience members wanna be onstage with the actors, but it's not always the ones you expect. Ages, race, gender, background - doesn't matter. I know plenty of theater people who hate audience participation. Part of me hopes I can never figure out which audience members will be the ones who love to participate - keeps some mystery in the game.
Mike Godwin (mnemonic) Tue 3 Feb 15 06:03
What a pleasure it is to see three of my favorite Austin theater people here in inkwell.vue! Thank you, Jon, for setting this up. Liz and Robert, you two and I share the transformative experience of discovering ourselves in theater. I wonder if you would be interested in sharing a bit about that here, and about how what we learn in theater work builds out to our lives outside of theater. (Incidentally, I will be at SXSW for six days or so, so would love to meet up with Winedale alums and other Austin theater folks as appropriate.)
(katecat) Tue 3 Feb 15 06:29
Shakespeare at Winedale conversation alert! Actually I'd be interested to know whether your Winedale experience influenced the kind of theater you're making now. (but don't forget to tell people ahat it is) Liz that Onion piece is delightful. And I agree that your play, and Lowell's adorably bossy charm as Zeus, helped lead the audience gently into "you are going to participate" land. The audience member perfectly willing to sacrifice his testicles reminds me of the other problem with audience participation, The Boundaryless Audience Member, who can create problems or even danger for the actors. I've heard a couple of alarming stories from plays like SLEEP NO MORE and the revival of DIONYSUS IN 69 that the Rude Mechs did in Austin a few years ago. I am interested in how you establish boundaries when in theory you're breaking them down. to go back to my original example of a few shouters shutting down the vote, is there a way to keep the more boisterous bits of the audience from scaring the rest of them? or is this just an extension of the audience dynamics we see in any play, when some chunk of the audience -- the enjoyers or the haters or the laughers or whoever--win that initial audience-wide struggle for How We Will Respond To This Play?
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Tue 3 Feb 15 08:32
I'm kicking myself for missing this production! I also feel obligated to out myself as a theater goer who, in general, despises audience interaction. Keep that fourth wall up and unbreachable! In the late 80s-early 90s, there seemed to be a bit of a fad for audience voting--Edwin Drood was popular in New York and Shear Madness seemed to run forever here in Austin. I have hazy memories of seeing Drood when I still lived in NY at some point. In those cases, the audience voting aspect seemed very gimmicky to me and as a theater-goer, unsatisfying. I am sure there are more interesting ways to approach it than what I've experienced, but, least in the mainstream stuff, i think it deflates narrative momentum and inserts a big so what to my reaction. So my question is--what was your purpose in incorporating audience voting? Was it a desire to introduce an element of indeterminacy? Did y'all only go with majority rule or did y'all play around with that? One of my problems with the voting is that it is always a majority wins--and that's not always so interesting. I'm not aware of anyone who has played around with that--using voting to structure the plauy but not letting the audience know beforehand how each vote will be used. Different strategies could be afloat so that any one vote could have one of several unknowable meanings.
Paula Span (pspan) Tue 3 Feb 15 08:36
Wait, how DID Zeus respond to that guy walking forward, about to de-pants (we asssume)? Watching via video stream during one performance (so, a skewed view), I figured one of the appeals of your approach was that audiences could participate (by voting) without actually having to go on stage and do something or be singled out in their seats (which I, among others, find so uncomfortable). But that apparently wasn't always the case, right?
Paula Span (pspan) Tue 3 Feb 15 08:38
And btw, I too saw "Drood" on Broadway (I was taking a stagestruck niece, OKAY?), and it did feel gimmicky. The whole musical unfolds in the same way every night -- actors in Austin who had a lot more lines to learn may feel free to Bronx-cheer here -- with the audience only voting on which brief scene provided the ending. And I don't even remember how we voted...Paper?
(katecat) Tue 3 Feb 15 09:05
going to let ROb and Liz respond to most of these excellent questions but I can speak to a couple of small points. paula, the non-voting audience interaction was mostly Zeus--who always directly addressed the audience--asking questions (not of specific people) and getting people to volunteer answers. Like "no the vote didn't go the way I wanted, I wanted more vengeance." Or whatever. > Did y'all only go with majority rule or did y'all play around with that? they DID play around with it, in two ways. First, one vote was entirely cancelled out by Zeus and done over -- the Mulligan Vote--with new rules, which randomly gave some people's votes more power and allowed other people to earn voting power in different ways. Then after the last big vote, Zeus gave people who had lost their vote the opportunity to leave the theater with him and . . . well it wasn't super clear. You had to be brave. All you knew was you would not come back into the theater, an dthat maybe you'd get to see something like the ending you had voted for.
Liz Fisher (liz-fisher) Tue 3 Feb 15 09:22
Hello mnemonic! What a small world it is. I'd be happy to talk about Shakespeare at Winedale - I'm sure Rob will have his own thoughts about this as well. Shakespeare at Winedale is a program in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin that explores Shakespeare through performance. It started as a university course (in 1970) that students could take in the spring or summer that took place on UT campus and at the Winedale Historic Center, just outside Round Top, Texas. University students (during the summer) live at the Winedale Historical Center and spend every waking moment working on three (or four) Shakespeare plays in the theater barn. That's right - the theater that Shakespeare at Winedale students perform in a 19th century hay barn. The students are responsible for every element of the performance: they must make their own costumes, choreograph their fights and dances, write the music, hang the lights, and so on. The students have six weeks to put these plays together before performing them for four weeks, in rep. Six shows a weekend make for very grueling schedule. Then the students head out on a two week tour, facing the challenge of adapting their performances to different theaters in different cities. This year, the program turns 45 and has grown beyond that original university course to include an Outreach program that works with elementary school students across Central Texas, a two week residential camp for middle school students, and a presenting relationship with two professional Shakespeare companies. I was a student in the spring and summer program, taught in the Outreach program, and currently serve as the Program Coordinator for Shakespeare at Winedale. While it might sound overly dramatic, I can absolutely say that Shakespeare at Winedale changes my life. I had very little interest in theater before participating in this program - when I performed as Antonio in my spring class's performance of The Merchant of Venice, I'd only been onstage one other time in my life. I never planned on staying in Austin, and yet, I've been in Austin for almost 16 years. And many of the people that are nearest and dearest to my heart (including my partner in all things: Rob) came into my life because of this program. But the funny thing about Shakespeare at Winedale is that it doesn't create actors. I would argue it doesn't really create theater makers - it creates humanists. It creates people who look for different ways to craft narratives of experience, whether that's through educating the next generation, crafting the laws that define our nation, or discovering new methodologies for treating illness. It challenges your beliefs about yourself and what is possible. It proves that with enough hard work and sweat, you can accomplish great things. It teaches you to be accountable to not only a group, but yourself. It reminds you that there are few absolute answers in this world and most of the time, you won't get it right. But that's ok. Because you can try again tomorrow. Who wouldn't want an experience like that as an impressionable undergrad? Or at any point in your life?
(katecat) Tue 3 Feb 15 12:38
slipping into midst of Winedale discussion to say that (pspan) has been graced with a response from Zeus himself, Lowell Bartholomee: >> Wait, how DID Zeus respond to that guy walking forward, about to de- >> pants (we assume)? > Not as well as he would have liked. The response I came up with five > minutes later was a lot better, but too late. This was, of course, the > night all of the improv people came to see the show. (The gods are > merciless.) There was a great deal of l'esprit de lescalier in this > show. I second the comment about l'esprit de lescalier in this show. There was always something going completely haywire, and we'd confer afterwards: NEXT time that happens, we'll do X, Y, and Z . . . and of course next time was a whole new haywire.
kali (kali) Tue 3 Feb 15 12:54
Hello and thanks to both of you and to (katecat) for doing this! I really liked what (katecat) said a half-dozen posts back about the intra-audience contest to decide how one should respond. I've sometimes found it really interesting to be in the minority contingent, in ways that sometimes shift my view and other times absolutely don't. (The conversation in the queue for the ladies' at half-time can be dispiriting....) Not really in the form of a question, but one of the places in which I've seen some really cool audience interactivity of highly unpredictable kinds but not necessarily unpredicted by the company is innovative children's theatre. I don't mean interaction like "look behind you!" or "clap for Tinkerbell," but a much wider range of things, inc finding ways of giving even very tiny children ways of interacting and influencing what happens with the technology, as well shows in which making the tech visible has seemed to *enchant* kids and hook them. So in the form of a question, I guess I'd ask if there are flow-throughs between your show and stuff you've seen in children's theatre or children's media more generally (which I think is a little diff than the game influences tho I wouldn't actually know for sure). I have not seen your show and won't be able to, given locational issues (I'm in Scotland and when I'm not here, I'm in Michigan), but I'm also really intrigued by it as perhaps to some eyes being in the same family but actually a hard-core opposite of the use of "clickers" in university lecture halls. Is this a technology of which you are aware and that you can redeem for me? Also interested in why the Oresteia!
(katecat) Tue 3 Feb 15 16:04
kali! I don't even know what clickers are, but perhaps Rob & Liz are more up to date on academic date than I (it would be hard to be LESS up to date). Meanwhile didn't want pdl's question back there in #17 to get lost: > So my question is--what was your purpose in incorporating audience > voting? > Was it a desire to introduce an element of indeterminacy? Did y'all only > go with majority rule or did y'all play around with that? I've addressed the last question a bit but's all a good question. I will say, my impression (pretty skewed as I was an actor in the play) is that people enjoyed the voting rather than finding it gimmicky. The one complain I ever heard was that the oracles were so oracular-ly worded that they felt the did not always understand what their choice was. R&L, to me DEUS _does_ feel different from SHEAR MADNESS or DROOD or whatever, but it's hard to say how. Help me!
(katecat) Tue 3 Feb 15 17:57
> more up to date on academic date ?? I think by "date" I meant tech
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