During this process I also had the opportunity to work closely with Will Pickens, the sound designer and voice director, who directed and recorded me in an A Brief Guide, an "audio tour" written by Jason Gray Platt, as well as with Jeff Stark, who guided me through the suitcase installations (more on those later on).
Experiment America was a large immersive theatre experience utilizing the entire museum. It was a big project. Really big. The sort of thing that falls under Richard Schechner's concept of Performance of Magnitude; that is, a performance that is too large for any one spectator to experience the entirety of. Keeping that in mind, I cannot hope to describe the event as a whole. My own small part, however, was interesting and fun enough to give me plenty to write about.
This post describes the process I went through from audition to performance. I'll talk a bit about some of the other things that happened around me, but as the experiment involved many independent agents, there is a lot of stuff that happened in this performance that I know nothing about. I'll leave the recording of the audience experience to those who had it.
This was a really ambitious project. It contained elements of scripted theatre, improv, installation art, dance, radio drama, and multimedia, all coming together into a party with a whole lot of audience participation. Each performer had to have an awareness of the micro and macro elements of the evening, though they themselves would only be personally responsible for their own performances.
The majority of the Boston-based performers were first gathered at the ICA on June 17th. There were quite a lot of us, and another significant chunk of people had yet to come up from New York. The first rehearsal began with an orientation and general description of what the event would be and how it would be in dialogue with both the architecture of the building and the art inside. There was also quite a bit about the planned technological components.
I had auditioned for this a few weeks earlier at the suggestion of a friend who was already involved in the production in a technical capacity. It was my first audition in years. Being that acting isn't really my focus these days, the Doctrine of Love Or Money is a bit stricter when it comes to actually getting onstage myself. I very much enjoyed meeting the people involved, and the project sounded very interesting. So there I was.
Day One involved two major tasks for me:
1) Familiarizing myself with A Brief Guide, a one-person audio play by Jason Platt that I would be recording with Will Pickens the next day. This was an "audio tour" of the Permanent Collection that did not in fact have anything to do with the art. It was by turns funny, heart wrenching, and philosophical. I had a lot of fun with it. I hope that the recording ends up available online, but I'm not quite sure how that would work (I will update this post when and if it becomes publicly available). UPDATE: it is now online on Will's SoundCloud account.
2) Coming up with questions for audience members that I would be using in my role of "Head Bellhop." This was the bulk of my responsibility during the performance itself, it involved me simultaneously curating mini-installations for individual audience members and/or small groups, and managing/entertaining the people waiting to experience the mini-installations. At first all I knew was that I would be asking people "questions that were fun to answer," though my main preparation for that role actually started at about 6PM on the evening of the performance. Because we cut things really close in the world of experimental cross-genre performance. More on the bellhop thing later...
Now, I'm not sure what the public awareness of the event was, but the ICA had a power outage just as we were going into the final preparations for the event. The building was evacuated and no work could be done on the setup for over an hour during the final leadup to the event. I believe that we were allowed back into the building only minutes before audience members started to line up.
I have to say at this point that the director and production staff exhibited extraordinary grace under pressure during during the power outage.
When we were let back into the building, it seemed that the internet was down. This was a major problem as I understand it as a large part of the show's concept was to be audience members getting texts telling them where to do and who to interact with, as well as numbers to call and codes to press in order to hear "audio tours." I still don't know to what extent that problem was fixed and how much of the text message aspect did get activated. It's really sad that the technology didn't work out for reasons beyond anyone's control. But, the actual live performances still happened. (And from what I saw and heard, those exceeded expectations.)
The questions themselves became as much a part of the performance as the suitcases. People started to become invested in hearing the questions and answers, and getting close enough to see and hear the exchanges became a priority for many participants.
Among my questions were:
What is the best location for a second date? (This became my favorite, if only because of the look on people's faces as they processed it. Incidentally, only two people said that it depends on who the date was with.)
Have you ever deliberately given someone else's child a loud toy?
What is the sexiest accent? (One person said the Hebrew language was her favorite. I switched languages for her. Experiment America provided personalized experiences.)
What is the furthest distance you have ever run? (Other than the one marathoner I encountered, most people answered between 2-10 miles.)
If you could wake up tomorrow as an expert in any style of dance, what would it be? (Tango (Argentine when I asked them to specify), Salsa, and Breakdancing were the big winners.)
Was the last person who betrayed you happy?
Where were you the first time you heard your favorite song?
Have you ever gone skydiving? What's stopping you?
Has anyone ever written a poem about you? Was it any good? (One person said that they had to spellcheck it.)
Do you remember your college fight song? (Several people broke into song for this one. I also managed to get a handful to dance for me.)
Does a healthy society need scapegoats?
Do you know your father's favorite book?
I believe that I curated the suitcases for over three hours. Most of that time my area was pretty much at capacity. How a person reacted to a question had as much or more to do with the suitcase I gave them as their actual answer.
I managed to catch just a bit of the dance party that marked the end of the evening. By the time I got there a pretty sizable segment of the audience had already had a significant interaction with me, and it was nice to see them (and the rest of the cast) again.
Now, there was a whole lot more to Experiment America than what I've described here. I caught a bit of the security guards being briefed before we opened. The phrase that I took away from that was "You're going to see a lot of stuff tonight that you don't normally see in our gallery. People are going to be singing at paintings." There were several short plays going on in various spaces at various intervals, dance pieces, larger installations, and a DJ. Mikhael's concept involved a massive framework in which many artists would contribute, and as that concept was executed successfully (even without the expected technology), there was more going on than I could have possibly seen.
For this genre of performance, nearly every spectator was also on stage one way or another for part of the evening. The overall structure of the event meant that everyone there was seeing and being seen by everyone else. The actual cast was facilitating structured performances by the audience almost as much as we were performing for them. Some of the plays had formal plot structures, while other aspects of the evening were far more abstract. A DJ was as much a performer as an actor or a dancer, and all of the performers augmented and were augmented by the plastic arts that were on exhibit.
It's been a long time since I've worked on anything like this, and even longer since I've been involved on the acting end. This was a really great way to come back.