Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Jun. 18th
The 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival is in full swing.
Let me start off these notes with some qualifications: Getting To Know You isn’t a highly polished immersion machine. It’s a show at the Hollywood Fringe, and as such it shares some of the quirks of the best Fringe shows: experimental in nature and held together as much with sheer will and charisma as anything else.
There’s work to be done before I’d hold up Annie Lesser’s work as an exemplar of the intimate-interactive subgenre of immersive theatre, but this is Lesser’s first immersive rodeo and for a freshman on the immersive scene the writer shows incredible promise. It doesn’t hurt that the intimate-interactive subgenre—which puts the “one on one” style experience front and center—is my favorite. Every experiment with this form gets my undivided attention.
In a moment here I’ll get into a moderate analysis of the work, but if you’re looking for a recommendation the following will have to suffice. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys interacting with actors in scenes then Getting To Know You is going to be up your alley. That’s the sum total of the interactivity in the piece: audience members sit in a chair and are visited by the performers in a kind of round robin. The actors have a conversation with each audience member, a small slice of their life, tied around a thematic fear.
If that sounds intriguing, go. If you’re the kind of person who is into the production design and choreography involved with immersive shows you’re not going to find much, if anything here, for you. If you’re the sort who cringes at the prospect of being singled out for a one-on-one the show would be a kind of nightmare—or a deep stab at aversion therapy.
I’m lucky: this form is exactly what I get excited about.
There’s a puzzle at the heart of immersive theatre and cinema: what the hell do we do with the audience? Are they passive observers? Ghosts in the machine? Agents of change within the story? There’s so much you can do… and those options can lead to all kinds of problems.
Not too long ago I became interested in the idea of the audience member as the “thou”: the subject with which a character was interested. What if the audience member was the beloved in a love story? The arch-nemesis in a drama? The doomed protagonist of a tragedy someone was trying to save? How could we endow an audience member with those qualities without sliding all the way into choose-you-own-adventure territory? Without teaching everyone how to do improv theatre before starting the show?
This is the puzzle that Lesser dives head first into, and her experiment yields some exciting results. In order to understand the results, however, you need to know how the show is structured. So it’s straight up spoilers from this point out. Consider yourself warned, the “review” is over and the “criticism” has begun.
Sixteen chairs are arraigned around the a room lit by photography lights. Eight audience members are let into the space, and each is free to take a white chair. This is where they’ll be sitting for the duration of the show. Each of those chairs is paired with another, and the cast will take turns in those chairs as the show progresses.
Throughout the evening the characters are working through a series of short scenes with one other character, “played” by the audience. Each of the actor’s characters is always talking to the same character, but with each round of musical chairs the audience member changes.
Because of this each audience member gets just a fraction of an actor’s story. For some that’s a huge frustration. I’ve had conversations with other patrons of the show who
hated that they weren’t getting the full tale. The design of the piece, however, wants the audience to interact with each other after the show and piece together the narrative.
It’s telling that one of the people I spoke about the show with who didn’t enjoy it as much as I did traded tales about what they saw eagerly. It reminds of a trading card game like Pokemon: if you want to catch ‘em all you’re going to need to play with your friends.
Unfortunately the structure of a Fringe Festival—there’s always something else to hustle off to—doesn’t really lend itself to Lesser’s design. It’s possible to come out of Getting To Know You with the sense that you got 1/8th of an experience.
If you’ve come with a small group—or have the time and inclination to make a bunch of fast friends—the experience becomes something much different. I attended with two friends, and we spent the next hour and a half talking about both the content and structure of the show, piecing together the relationships that we had been given glimpses of. Some people take another tack: I ran into a No Proscenium reader who was on his third go-round with the production. (No Proscenium is the immersive theatre newsletter I run in LA.)
The first big take away for me is that I was able click in to each scene fairly quickly, even though as the hour went on each actor was deep into their own arc. This kind of in medias res narrative trick can be hard to pull off. Three things make it work here: the overall quality of Lesser’s writing, the skill of her actors, and the emotional hooks that start each segment.
Look: I know that I’m predisposed to enjoy this kind of thing. I started out my creative life as an improviser in the Keith Johnstone tradition. If there were such as thing as “professional sketch tragedian” I would have that on lock. The glimpses into the lives of these characters can intrigue and frustrate equally. The ideal conditions for a piece like would include a “decompression room” where the audience could trade notes—as it stands now we’re a bit “catch as catch can.”
What I was able to put together, along with the program that Lesser handed out after the show, was a partial map of the the thematic sweep of each of the character’s arcs. That and who “I” was in relation to each individual character, although that was fairly obvious from the context of any given scene (save one).
Missing for me was an arc for the observer. Perhaps it’s there in the structure and I failed to perceive it. My gut tells me that pulling off the experiment as it stands was enough of a challenge for a first go-round with an interactive. Yet I found myself taking the emotional beat that I found myself on at the end of a given scene and letting that carry myself into the next one, and if Lesser—or anyone really—were to move forward with this format I’d recommend that as a jumping off point for exploration.
The order of difficulty for that kind of emotional arcing—answering the question of what the audience should be feeling—is a daunting one. It’s also an unavoidable challenge, one that every immersive designer/director should be grappling with.
This may read—to Lesser and others—as hyper-criticism. That perception wouldn’t be wrong. It’s also a testament to how much meat is on these bones that I’m inclined to go this far. Immersive kids in LA take note: Lesser is one to watch.
Getting To Know You plays through Monday June 22nd as part of the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival.