Next Wave Immersive

This episode showcases Pittsburg-based theater company Bricolage, known for performing innovative immersive productions in unusual locations including a science museum. We also get a glimpse at the show “The Raven”, which uses surround sound technology and just one actress to explore the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

AIRED: April 15, 2020 | 0:23:31





Gismondi: This is the future of theater.

This is what everyone should be doing.

Like, I almost divorced myself from traditional theater forever

after seeing my first immersive show.

These are experiences you should be having.

These are going out into a world

that doesn't look the same as it used to

in terms of being a performer.

We live in a pretty interesting time now,

and the world has a lot going on,

and there's a lot of stressors

and a lot of things happening in the world

that I think people are feeling very, like, frustrated about

or feeling very, like, they don't have a voice in.

I think there's probably some draw to being like,

"Ooh, I get to participate?

I get to, like, play out a fantasy?"

You know, that kind of thing.

I think there's a lot of draw to, like,

embrace a voice they may not already have themselves.

Childs: This whole immersive world,

it's putting together pieces that have existed

but in new ways and seeing what new forms come out of it.

Ultimately, it's about the audience

and trying to have them connect with an idea

at the highest point

where they can come into the story

and it can reflect their lives.

Lieberman: I love that feeling that anything could happen.

You know, what is going to happen in this moment

that's full of potential?

Carpenter: I mean, I think this is the age-old immersive question.

How much agency can we give an audience

before it's absolute chaos?

Skirpan: Where do you put the mixer

between the, like, open world full agency

and the voyeur-guided narrative?

How do you create the correct interaction design

so that people can play however they want to play

and still walk away with something really meaningful?

Carpenter: It begins and ends with the audience

and putting the audience at the center,

giving them a stake in the story.


Carpenter: "Bricolage" is a word that means

making artful use of what's at hand.

We have always been intrigued

by the idea of trying to create

a heightened sense of involvement for an audience

so that it wasn't just the audience sitting in the dark

while we performed for them.

We were very much interested

in how do we engage an audience in new ways?

Throughout the years, that grew to mean

more putting the audience at the center of the experience

from which everything else spins.

Say goodbye to shifting between apps and screens,

to drowning in documents of information.

Skirpan: For years, I've been a super-big sci-fi fan,

and I have loved sci-fi,

and I think it's a really interesting way

to explore narratives that we feel constricted by,

given the sort of limits of today's society.

I was also going to immersive theater pieces

in New York at the time,

and I was, like, you know, really astounded

by how immersive theater, after the show,

got people talking and got people sharing,

and I was like, "That's something I really would like

to do with technology."

I would like to actually tell a story

that helps us understand a little bit more

under the veil of our modern era of sharing data,

where it goes when it goes into the abyss,

who's mining it, what they're doing with it, why.


In Project Amelia, you are an invitee to Aura's secret lab,

and Aura is a tech giant, a future tech giant

in the not-so-distant future

who's invited you to the product launch

of their next big intelligent product.

Hello, world, I look forward to getting to know you.

Wrzosek: Amelia is an artificial mind

embodied in a lifelike, interactive apparatus,

so I am an artificial intelligence.

I think there is something very childlike about Amelia.

She has a sense of wonder about her,

and people do respond to that.

I trust you, but you do not trust me.

She will ask questions that seem very obvious

like a child would ask, like "Why is the sky blue?"

or, you know, "What is your purpose in life?"

While it's a very simple question to her,

it can be a very complex question for a human being.

I've just had some fascinating conversations with people

that if I were to encounter them on a street as a human,

I don't think it would be the same.

Probably the biggest challenge of the show

is every night is different,

and that has to do with the people in the space,

the energy in the space,

how much they're willing to interact.

Different choices by different groups or endowments

will change the course of the show every night.

Once we show you all the tropes,

the amazing keynote speech by the eloquent CEO,

the amazing, flawless product,

you then slowly start actually --

We just start destroying those tropes.

Don't you guys want to know?

Don't you want to know what they're doing with your data?

I also want to know.

There is a whistleblower from the company.

They kind of create the tension for the night,

and then that allows many, many issues

to sort of unfold from there.

It becomes this open-world game where you then can decide.

Will the company need to be held accountable?

Am I going to, like, push and go over the line

in order to try to make this company seem accountable?

Am I going to help the company and maybe sort of, like,

actually look through the lens of the businesses

that I probably support right now and say,

"You know, actually, what's been done here

is no different than what's happening already.

Why would I just completely pull this, destroy this company?"

How do we know what she did?

She could have planted a bomb or a virus or worse.

Oh, I'm sure. I have no doubt that Aura

is making the best and safest decisions... We are!

...when it comes to deploying...

We are! ...a very powerful AI system.

Yes, we try to do the best we can with our technology.

Skirpan: We have press, which has been fascinating

because you have people who really want to think

about, like, the singularity and AI

is, like, the smartest thing that ever happened to humanity,

and then you have other people who are so ready

to, like, dig into the details,

find out what the whistleblower was all about,

and then people who just want to walk around

and interview and take notes,

and you can kind of take it where you want.

And then we have agents,

and those people are ultimately the ones who,

if they want to be really hard-line,

they can stop almost all the subversion

if they're really, really --

They work as a team. They lock it down.

Their leniency can ultimately

also be what lets the whole show blow up.

Tongarm: They are actual active participants,

so pretty much, like, every night,

you have, like, a new castmate. Anything could happen.

So 70% of what I do in the show is completely improvised.

Sometimes the press people are just like,

"Yeah, I'm going to sit here," and sometimes they're like,

"Oh, I have some questions for you. Like --"

You know, they're like flies on honey,

and they're trying to break into rooms,

and, like, it's kind of crazy.

Wrzosek: You really are in control.

If you want to sit back and observe,

if you want to go places and steal documents

and help the press team, you can do that, as well.

Every night is exhausting.

I really love that chance to just step into something.

You don't know what you're going into.

You don't know what direction it's going to go.

Yeah, I went all-in. I mean, at one point,

I was crawling around on the floor

trying to find files that would reveal information

about the testing that was done,

and I was caught by security

and forced to leave the office.

Gismondi: What the heck just happened to me, right?

What was that? How was it related?

Was it related? We don't know.

Sachdeva: Like, there have been other shows I've gone to

where I felt like, okay, I'm having some

really interesting interaction with the actors,

but this one was definitely, as the night went on,

there was more and more

of me just talking directly to other audience members

because everyone was so involved in whatever their role was.

You get caught up in the moment,

and you're a part of the story.

You are not just watching other people.

You're there. You're in it.

You are essential.

Nobody knows until a given point in the show

where we're heading.

So far, we've come up with seven different endings

and a variety of algorithms

to where the audience input

actually influences the outcome of the show.

The technology itself is --

I mean, now we have the actors on their phones

actually can call cues.

Skirpan: As a show, we're trying something,

and Bricolage is trying something

that's open-world idea,

and many shows, you know, "Sleep No More,"

or something this, that's open-world,

but it's all voyeur open-world.

You can only be opted in by some cast member

to do something special, and it's short-lived,

and it's not going to change the plot,

but in our world, you know,

once you start realizing things like,

"Wait, this filing cabinet is open,

and this woman told me I could dig through these

and find something,"

you start really realizing the extent

of your agency in this world.

I think that it activates a lot of people

in a really exciting way

that I've not personally seen in immersives yet

and I'm excited to be a part of.

Wrzosek: It allows you to escape reality for a little bit

in this alternate reality that we've created

that inherently you know it's safe.

I can come here, and I can play, and I will be safe,

and then I can go back to the real world.

Potchak: It's a controlled environment,

but it's the element of the unknown,

so we're reconnecting with each other in ways

that I think we haven't in a while.

Gismondi: I think the one-to-one encounters

are what truly hooked me on immersive theater

because it was unlike anything I had experienced before

except for, like, a real-life encounter

with another person.

I think for me, Bricolage

is a very important institution in Pittsburgh.

Just the fact that we have a company here

that is pushing the limits of the genre of theater

is very exciting to me personally.

Carpenter: Immersive theater, we find, is an empathy machine.

I would say the only thing akin to immersive theater

in that regard is travel.

You can become a minority,

and you can not understand everything

and sort of get back to the sense of wonderer,

and so we do use our work

as a way of provoking conversation.

One of the ways we do that is,

we give everybody that comes a different experience

so that you have to engage with people you've come with

to find out exactly what happened.

Wrzosek: I've seen more moments of connection in the show

than I think I have seen in any other theater experience.

It is allowing people to explore what it means to be a human

and explore their purpose

and explore those bigger questions

in a space that feels safe and welcoming,

and you have people from all walks of life

that are willing to come together

and just make this art and be connected,

and it's a beautiful moment of connection.



Childs: Where these different art forms butt up against each other

and create new, impactful narratives

for audiences to connect to.

You have to find the great story

and then try to connect that story

with the audience in the best way possible,

and I found these immersive experiences,

for the right story,

can be the best way

to explore that particular story.

Weiler: You know what's really interesting

about immersive work?

Sometimes it's very difficult

to classify what it is.

It's almost like you have to say what it isn't

in order to say what it is.

The case of "The Raven," I think that's very true,

you know, so in a sense, when I describe it,

it's kind of like, okay, it's site-specific.

It's theater.

It's immersive,

but then there's only a single performer,

and you're moving, and you're discovering

what's happening throughout the space,

so it's very sensory.


I think that that's very interesting

because you're in this moment where you're kind of borrowing

from all these different disciplines

to bring something together and then executing on it.

So "The Raven" is a story where the narrative conceit

is that Edgar Allan Poe invites you to his wake.

When you arrive, you're given a set of AR,

augmented reality, spatial audio glasses,

and then you're given an enchanted lantern

powered by the Internet of things,

and you're basically kind of turned over to the space,

and the space is -- It's just dark.

It's the one dark building on the whole block,

and you kind of walk up to the front

with this lantern that's kind of glowing.

You're hearing the score in your glasses,

and then you're kind of let loose

in this six-story mansion

to kind of explore, right?

And as you explore, you start to realize

why you've actually been invited to the wake,

and you start to encounter all of these things

that are very relevant to Poe.


So you're very much in the mind of Edgar Allan Poe

as you're kind of moving through this wake.

Childs: The interesting thing about "The Raven"

is that it is a true narrative story.

It really is, the more and more we work on it, a play.

It is an hour and 1/2 experience of a play that has a beginning,

sort of a middle, and an end.


The technology disappears into the storytelling,

which is what we're fascinated to explore is,

how can technology help build a story world

but not be the screen

or the device or the portal

through which I need to connect to be in that story world,

so unlike gaming, unlike a visual experience

like film where I understand the flatness of it

and the story that's being projected to me,

it's an attempt to truly use the physicality of the space

to let people come into a story.

Why am I here?

What's the beginning of the story?

What's my role here?

And how is my role connected to the bigger story

to help the story itself

come to closure at the end

in a way that makes me feel like

I've been a part of this narrative?

It brings literature

that's 190 years old, 200 years old

to life in a modern way

that makes it relevant to the world.

Weiler: One of the very exciting yet incredibly terrifying aspects

of this project is the level of agency

that we give to the participant

where the participant actually becomes

kind of a scene partner to our main performer

in very pivotal emotional moments

without them having to know anything

or having them to have any lines at all.

In a sense, you're kind of stepping into the frame.

You're stepping in, and you're within a soundscape.

You're within something that's very much orchestrated.

It's all kind of coming together at the same time.

Like, the technology has to be in place.

You have to understand what the human experience is.

You have to realize, like, okay, you're doing something bold

where you only had one performer in this huge building, you know?

And everybody can roam with these lanterns,

and you're just letting them go.

How can you design the experience

so it works no matter where it breaks?

And if it breaks, it's not visible as breaking

to the people who are within the experience,

and so there's this whole other side to it

where you have to balance and you have to say,

"Okay, how do we make the tech

so it's invisible to this experience?"

So when somebody goes through it,

they're not even thinking about the tech.

They just think, "This lantern I'm carrying, it's haunted,

and this space is haunted,"

and they never really think about it,

and the way the glasses sit.

You forget that they're on, and then all of a sudden,

there's a little voice in your ear,

and the glasses have the ability for you to hear beyond.

It's not, like, covering your full ear, right?


And, like, you can imagine that you're walking with the lantern.

We've all seen this trope in, like, horror films, right?

You're walking, and suddenly, the light goes out, right?

Hitting the light and they're trying to get it to work,

and then all of a sudden, it comes on.

We can actually do that in this.

We actually can control the lights

so the lights become unreliable to you,

and that makes you even more nervous within the space.


Childs: The American-Irish Historical Society in New York City,

it's a landmark building.

The space helps you be transported 200 years ago

to the haunted, dark nooks and crannies of a building

that isn't always open to the public,

that celebrates both its legacy

and how long it's been around,

but again, its modernity

in being able to turn that old landmark,

multi-hundred-year-old, century-old building

into a wired, Internet-connected new building

to facilitate telling stories in a new way.


Weiler: It's kind of this balance of a level of automation to it,

but a level of personalization to it,

which is really interesting,

so it's very much this collaboration with machine.


Childs: So not only is there technology driving it,

much more importantly, driving it at the core

of the experience of this theatrical show

is a live actor,

so it really becomes a one-woman play

as much as it is a technological,

immersive theater piece.

At its heart, it's a one-woman play.

Scott: I'm grateful that the director asked me to play Poe.

I think we have a great opportunity

because perhaps me, a woman, playing Poe,

that people can finally see who this man is,

and there is no cliche of this man

that we've known with a black bird

and a black cat for 200 years.

So the entire show is his real life,

his historical letters and his works,

and it's happening all at the same time,

multi-layers, right?

It's happening in this magical, enchanted home

illuminated by our friend technology,

and it's happening through the voices

that you're hearing in some of his characters.

It's the human soul and heart in the piece

is the reason why we're here.

We're all here because of this.

Everything else is provided

so that you, an individual guest,

can go through the journey of the five stages of grief

in addition to witness his abandonment,

witness his suffering,

and witness his struggle with addiction and alcoholism.

Weiler: I feel like if we can understand

the human experience of the piece,

then the technology is a complement.

I think a lot of immersive work gets kind of caught up

in this cycle of kind of looking at what the technology is

and then having to adhere to the constraints of that technology,

where a lot of what we try to do is find the aesthetic

and then build the technology that will help

to evoke that aesthetic and that reaction

in an audience member or participant.

Childs: We are in tough times politically.

Technology scares people.

I think people feel like the world around them

is unmanageable at times,

and for me, the arc of our show at the end is to say,

"All of that, facing all of that and all of the difficulties,

we can either throw up our hands, or we can say,

'There's still a chance. There's still time,'"

and if we can get to that level with this show to connect

with people in the audience and have them walk out,

one person out of hundreds of people,

thousands of people who hopefully will see this,

that's good. That's good enough for me.


I really believe that we have a large ethical responsibility.

When you create immersive experiences,

they can be transformative,

and you have to be mindful of that,

and so you have to be very clear on what your purpose is

and why you're doing it, and you're opening up people

in ways that, you know, in some instances

honestly can be trigger-inducing.

You know, you're putting them into an immersive environment

that can be very, very powerful.

You know, is there a way that this piece

can have a greater purpose than just an entertainment piece?

You know, we're saying, "Well, how can we use story

as a tool for healing or use it as a tool to mobilize

or as a tool for policy change

or for learning or for entertainment?"

And what does that look like?

Carpenter: Ultimately we believe that art must be useful

even in just providing beauty to the world,

but more importantly,

a safe space where we can pry open these difficult topics.

I think the technology has started to divide us in a way.

Gismondi: Like, it brings us together, but at the same time,

it creates distance even within connection,

so for me, I think that a lot of what's missing for humans today

is flesh and blood connection,

like, real-life, intimate experiences, right?

So that's why I go to immersive theater

because I find those there, and many of them feel

just as authentic as a real-life relationship.

Lieberman: One thing I love about this kind of work

is that I feel like it has this sense of play

where we're breaking rules, right?

There's established norms of theater,

of audience and performer distance and interaction,

and we're, like, breaking the rules all the time.

If we're breaking the rules,

let's keep challenging the title of immersive.

Let's just keep, you know, pushing

and see what it turns into.







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