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Choosing Your Own Theatrical Adventure

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There is something exciting about making choices when you participate in art. Of course, there are countless ways that our choices outside of the scope of a piece of art influence us as it unfolds before us, but this is not what I'm talking about. I'm thinking of the kind of "choose your own adventure" approach. From the Goosebumps books that let you pick what you wanted to happen next to the three possible endings included on the Clue DVD, this idea of multiple fixed endings has always intrigued me. The other night I saw Miranda, a Steampunk opera performed at HERE Arts Center, and it got me thinking about how this concept could be extended into theatre.

First of all, this is not going to be an article about Sleep No More. Yes, there are many ways of viewing that show, but there are so many permutations of that experience, that no one has the same viewing experience. I'm more interested in shows where the audience members have moments of choice and interaction that change the path of the performance. For example, the choices in Miranda involved a lot of choices as to whether or not the audience affirmed or denied pieces of evidence. Depending on our answers, the show ostensibly picked one scripted path or another.

This is not the first time I have heard of this, though Miranda did do it differently. Objectivist author Ayn Rand wrote a play called Night of January 16th, which was performed on Broadway in the mid 1930s. Each night of the performance, members of the audience would come onstage to form a live jury to the trail unfolding before them, and they would then deliver an actual verdict that would result in one ending or another.

When Miranda began and I realized that the entire audience would literally be voicing their opinions as the show progressed, I was very excited to see another kind of audience-chooses-their-own-adventure theatre (there has to be a snappier term for this, I'll keep thinking about it). However, as we voted evidence in or out of the scope of the show, I began to see holes in the execution of such a fantastic idea. Normally I wouldn't go into details about such things, but the show has finished its run, so I'll discuss them.

As the system of voting and choice was set up at the start of the show, I immediately envisioned a kind of live action version of Clue, where various reenactments of the crime, in this case the murder of Miranda (Kamala Sankaram), would be presented to us and we would have to choose which we believed. Instead, the series of scenes were pieces of evidence that could have happened in the time leading up to the murder. Also, though there were three suspects, all of the evidence was basically set up around Miranda's fiancé, Cor Prater (Drew Fleming).

The problem with this is that we did not have enough background for each of the characters to make anything other than random decisions about this "evidence." After the ending, this seemed to make more sense, as the ending was rigged. This was an obvious commentary on the corrupt system of the justice system of the society within the play, yet this left me very confused as to why Miranda had bothered having us participate at all.

If they wanted me to be genuinely horrified at the injustice, they should have made it ultimately clear that Cor was innocent, instead of leaving us to guess. If they actually wanted us to convict Cor, they should have set him up to look far guiltier. Instead a brilliant concept was left to hang in the space of the theatre, a squandered opportunity for a truly different kind of audience interaction.

This idea of choice and interaction on the level of plot becomes particularly interesting when we think about multiple viewings of the same show. An audience watching Night of January 16th would see different people on stage at every show, the jurors, which would ensure that no two outcomes would be identical. In Miranda, the audience is led to believe that there are at least three possible outcomes, when in fact this is not really the case.

As I often point out, we are never really seeing the same show twice anyway. This is true, yet some shows flaunt this fact more obviously than others. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the idea of interacting with the course of a plot, as this is extra element of the new and unstable reveals the humanness that belongs exclusively to live performance. Next week I will discuss more about what it means to see shows more than once.