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.
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.
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,
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.