The Next Page / STRATA: An Oral History of Audacious Theater
One of the most ambitious projects in Pittsburgh theater took place Downtown this August: STRATA. The principals of the production describe what it took, what it was all about -- and what's next.
September 24, 2012 6:42 AM
Rob Long/Courtesy of Bricolage & Clear Story
The Doctor (Skyler Sullivan) asked a lot of nosy questions, and gave you a psychic exam.
Rob Long/Courtesy of Bricolage & Clear Story
The Archivist (Ayne Terceira) tyrannized you with imperious demands for data -- and sent you on your journey ...
Rob Long/Courtesy of Bricolage & Clear Story
Grandma (Tracey D. Turner) welcomed you like a long-lost relative -- and then begged you to rescue her from her assisted care facility.
Rob Long/Courtesy of Bricolage & Clear Story
The Battered Man (Jack Erdie) was imprisoned in the basement of STRATA (because he knew the *real* story).
Rob Long/Courtesy of Bricolage & Clear Story
In one room. you walked barefoot through sand to meet "Beach Woman" (Cassie Brehmer), who invited you onto her bed to sit and talk about dreams and memories -- until she abruptly dismissed you (and sent you to a room with a silent monk).
By David Malehorn
In August, Bricolage Production Co. presented STRATA, an immersive, interactive theater experience. Audience members were met in small groups on a Downtown street corner by actors from "Gate Corporation." They were guided into a secret, undisclosed location (now disclosed: the former Bally Total Fitness Club) and, for two hours, subjected to "refitnessing" in order to reach a new level of "iConciousness." They passed through three floors of specially constructed rooms where the audience member and actor would play out an evocative, sometimes enigmatic scene.
STRATA (which stands for "Strategic Training Research And Testing Agency") was one of the largest installations in local art and theater history. It was the product of an interdisciplinary collaboration led by Jeffrey Carpenter, founder and artistic director of Bricolage.
David Malehorn, who worked on STRATA, conducted an oral history of the project. These are the full versions of his conversations; a shorter version appeared in print.
David Malehorn (email@example.com) is a molecular biologist and writer who lives in Morningside. Bricolage Production Co. (bricolagepgh.org) is currently running the fourth season of "Midnight Radio," a live comedy series in the style of 1940s radio broadcasts.
On producing Strata
I have a random process of getting inspiration, I don't have a pattern. Patterns tend to lull me into a sense of the mundane. Years ago my friend and I would put our canoes in the Monongahela River at the Hot Metal Bridge and paddle upriver a couple miles. There are a couple of barges there like big planters, with trees growing out of them. When I saw this the first time, I thought it would be so cool to do Shakespeare and all different kinds of things there. Eventually I wanted to do a grand experience, a festival where the audience would travel along the water from site to site. Theater companies and artists would highlight different parts of the river.
But resources are finite, and so are relationships. I learned that very quickly in my first Bricolage show, "Wild Signs." The story of "Wild Signs" is a book in itself, a totally crazy one. We've always been about creating a heightened sense of involvement, and our designer decided right from his first visit to the Union Project -- where we staged it - that "We will build a tunnel." There were something like 17 acting areas once all was said and done. The logistics, like plumbing and electric, and permits, were huge. There were a lot of hopes placed in the production.
The epic story was steeped in religious overtones, and we were staging it in a former church. During production my grandmother died, and at her funeral the preacher mentioned Christ's return, and the dead returning to life to be judged. Then my eccentric (and beloved) aunt advised me to look for signs from my grandmother in the coming weeks. We opened the play, and three days later my house burned down. That was the beginning of Bricolage.
I lost everything, my house, my car and my relationship. Emotionally I was a wreck but we had to finish the show. In the end there were only two of us left to strike the set. This is the nature of theater, and of dreaming. You have a creative idea in your head, a vision. But to bring it to reality, you have to be able to open up your vision to others. In a true collaboration, you can say, "It was our idea." That is a hard place to get to: artists have to worry about getting credit, whether to satisfy a thesis, or to establish their own identity. What we're trying to do in these big collaborations is to break down those walls.
Personally, I think every project I ever do is going to be the best project I've ever done. There is creative imagination in this, but then it meets reality like cleaning bathrooms - it's damn hard work, mundane reality -and then you don't get the audience to come out and see the show. So every participant, every artist has to answer for themselves, "Why am I doing this?" and "What is enough?" In theater there is no glory and little money; for God sake, we judge success on just breaking even.
In 2008 the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts was a partnership of many organizations. The Trust decided to bring an installation here called "The Echo of the Shadow." This was created by Enrique Vargas and Teatro de los Sentidos. Rob Long of Clear Story and several others went to see this installation in Monterrey Mexico, to learn how to recreate it here.
The piece brought with it a cast of twenty, but there was a single role for a local staff person. I was that person. My specific job was to transport the patron's shoes from the beginning of the experience, to the end, without being seen. Patrons - called "travelers" - went through 15 rooms in 45 minutes. We created this labyrinth, a single linear path, in the old Armory. We created a grid using aircraft cable and they brought tons of black drapes. We also created a ceiling so no light could get in.
I had my own little maze between the fabric walls. They called me the Big Mouse. I was able to move unseen, and to peer through small openings in the curtains. I eventually learned all the timings from the sound cues, so I could take tea to the actors and play jokes on them. That show ran two weeks. Only 50 people went through a night, but it still took until midnight.
Two years ago as part of strategic planning for Bricolage, we finally put "River Theater" down on paper as part of our vision. I started to put together the scope of how you put together something this sprawling. I wasn't even talking creatively yet. I was mapping it out from a producer's perspective: "What's first? Who do I talk to? Putting the creative team together was way down on the list.
In the midst of all this, Riley came to meet Tami about video illustrations for her South Side Stories project. But we talked about a lot of other stuff like Joseph Campbell, Tom McCarthy, and the Occupy movement. That's when I started talking to him about River Theater, and Teatro de los Sentidos. Out of that meeting came another. We were talking about economic class and stratification, theater which addresses anthropology and sociology. Riley came up with the word STRATA.
If there ever was a project which was "an idea whose time has come," in a lot of ways it was STRATA. I can show you the early drawings on cocktail napkins where we were trying to figure out how STRATA would work. It was pretty clear we were heading for an individual experience. I used Tami as an early sounding board, and she would help me work through my stumbling blocks. We had some pretty passionate discussions.
At every stage of it, things would happen that we couldn't possibly have planned. Serendipity played a part, like Riley showing up on another matter and joining the conversation.
Rob Long, who was part of the original conversations about "River Theater"came into the discussions pretty early on. He was rotating off the Bricolage board and at dinner one night, we told him about the original idea. "Count me in," he said, "whatever it takes." Rob has spent his career working with artists to manifest their vision. I would corral all the various discussions, then walk through them with Rob, and he would come back with suggested improvements. And the last several weeks, when it came to building it, it was all from his sketches.
Gab is grounded in comedy and creatively she was the right writer for STRATA. Sam's skills in working with improv are the best in the city. He is grounded in acting, but not so caught up in ego. It's never about him, it's about the ensemble. I thought he would be a good presence in the room. We discussed the idea with Gab and Sam at a social gathering, and they said, "We have to do this." They were able to embrace the risk and the unknown of it.
Andrew Paul is another one of those people who makes you feel everything is going to be OK when they are in the room. His background is stage management of some technical, corporate shows. He is a problem solver. He loves puzzles, he loves figuring things out. He is a huge videogamer, and he is making his own games now. That's just how his mind works. I wanted him involved.
Nina Sarnelle was a big influence in early discussions about philosophical directions, such as the influence of free will or choice in determining the STRATA experience. She envisioned the "Infinity Room," where many patrons slow danced with an unknown partner in the remains of a high school prom.
Then there are the intangibles, like Hannah Nielsen-Jones moving to Pittsburgh -- from New Zealand -- just on faith that this would be a good city to apply her skills. She and Corinne Neal arranged a handing over of the reigns as Production Manager in the middle of production, when Corinne moved to Chicago.
The Cultural Trust has been a supporter of Bricolage for a long time, but we had no expectation that they would come through with a building for STRATA. When Rebecca White from the Trust said in passing, "Well, there's Ballys," this was a revelation. I called and asked for a walkthrough. Our minds were blown. And Kevin McMahon helped introduce Bricolage to other potential funders, one of whom said, "Send me everything you've ever written."
Once we had the concrete possibility of a building, this influenced the creative thinking and discussions about what STRATA could be. But this also entailed six months of daily discussions of when it could happen, insurance, ADA compliance, architects, occupancy permits, and other nonstop details about the building. That building is so huge, it would keep me up all night with its issues. I hadn't foreseen the everyday work in the running of STRATA- it just kept getting bigger and bigger. We thought we would have daytimes to ourselves, but we didn't.
In the creative writing process, you have a vision and you tend to not want to give it up to the group, because they'll tear at it and turn it into something else. But when we finally laid out the algorithmic chart, it looked like a strand of DNA, which somehow was completely appropriate; it was a moment when we introduced chaos as a guiding principle, the loss of moment to moment control, and the realization that once begun, the project would take on a life all its own.
We had broken through the floor and the chasm was so deep, we had no idea where it would lead. We didn't even know how to manage it, or even direct it. That was the most exciting moment for me, of the whole process.
When I was sitting around the table with nine people discussing STRATA, discussing something so much larger than us, I knew that for me this was the best it was going to be. And I knew that this was enough. I had no idea that the STRATA experience was going to grow and infect the cast members - all that is like gravy. And that's not even talking about the artistic content and STRATA's success in achieving its vision of engaging an audience. We were extremely successful in this regard; we engaged people, whether positively or negatively.
Mounting something like STRATA again will be a hard sell in this climate. Regional theaters are mounting productions with four or six actors, not 23. That said, I do think there is support. Our plan is to retool going forward and to do some follow-up interviews and creative sessions to decide what might be next. It took ten years of chaos to get to this point, but it is just the seed of where we are headed. I never want to feel like we've arrived. STRATA feels like Bricolage's rebirth: and it's time to reach beyond again.
On conceiving STRATA
I don't even think I can remember the original hallucination. I have friends who are anarchists, but I have dinner parties with people with steel money. I am being bombarded with samplings of these different levels, the strata of society.
Last year I did a residency in Budapest, but I traveled to other cities for exhibitions. Even before I went to Europe we had already been talking about the idea of STRATA. While I was in Venice I read the book "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy. The main character suffers a brain injury which makes him detached from the world. He spends millions trying to recreate a synthetic reality, just for himself. I called Jeffrey and said, "Read this book. We need a building now."
When I returned, we did a Bricolage Garden Party where we launched STRATA. I secretly dropped a key in an attendee's purse that would unlock a large shipping crate, and ultimately that's how we unveiled the entire project. But there weren't a lot of details.
After that we started pushing the logistics full-on. Dogme 95 is a style of filmmaking by Lars von Trier. One of its main principles is to use only those things which are at hand, so we looked around downtown and imagined the various spaces we might use for STRATA. One day we stood on top of a parking garage, looking at a hotel across the street. We wondered if we could go to a hotel room, then climb out the window and enter the building next door via the roof. We wanted to include a speedboat trip on the river. The whole process was a big funnel, reducing the ideas down to what fits.
By October of last year I was already working with role-playing and blurring reality. I did an installation at the Light Richmond 2011 art festival, at the site of a Civil War munitions factory. It was a simulated accident, a car full of "Occupy" anarchists being rescued by paramilitary - an alternate reality of the original space. The natural response to a film shoot or a disaster is to rubberneck, so a crowd gathered. The scene was filled with actors, but at one point, audience members began asking to play the victims. They became actors unto themselves. We didn't expect this.
Late in 2011 we got access to the old fitness center building for STRATA. We kept using what was at hand. We did lots of running through the floor plans, mentally. We had to swap rooms and swap them, kind of like putting Legos together. One room was even designed using all the debris and old files which we found. The building itself has layers of strata, and history: an old movie theater, with a fitness center built on top. We created an alternate reality of the place, a "re-fitnessing" center. The building is full of mirrors, we made use of these as both a conceptual and design element. The participants constantly have the opportunity to see themselves as an element in the scene.
When the weekly meetings began, it was like a hallucination for me. That's why I felt so much a kindred spirit to the character in "Remainder." I was trying to make this fragment of an idea, and then everybody started going about really doing things. They were playing the parts of themselves, like in the book.
There are a lot of parallels between STRATA and other books like "Cloud Atlas," and "The Unconsoled." I also read things from McCarthy's International Necronautical Society, and Tony Vigorito's essay, "Chaos, Collapse and Synchronicity." All that reading soaked into my subconscious. There are also parallels with movies like "The Game" and "Synecdoche, New York."
About the creative process, we'd throw out ideas and react to them. I tended to be the one to throw out wilder ideas, and they'd have to pull me back due to logisitics. Gab was really good at synthesizing our concepts into language. "Refitnessing" itself is an amazing word, since it reflects the reuse of the fitness center. There is no rubric for the "clarity points" achieved during refitnessing. It's absurd,and it's meant to be absurd. When people walked away from STRATA, only they really knew whether they had achieved iConsciousness.
We didn't anticipate all the shifts we had to make, but we did a pretty good job keeping the STRATA world consistent. Evolution was just inevitable. What's most amazing are the changes that took place among the cast. The whole experience was a refitnessing test for everyone, even me. I'm normally the one who likes to be wild, and now I had to be the responsible one and take care of a hundred people a night.
It's not like we were pretending. We DID refitness people. But putting the public through a gauntlet is different than having wild experiences with friends. We had to have a certain amount of openness to allow the audience to react. I had to expect the unexpected. We saw one guy on our monitors removing his clothing in the phone booth scene. I calmly walked there and supervised while he finished the phone call. I said, "Please hang up the phone, and pull up your pants." I asked him how his refitnessing was going, and reminded him, "Everything is a test." Back in Mission Control, I leaned back cockily and said, "Yep, it's just like landing airplanes." I would have stress dreams throughout the whole production. Because of the intensity and personal connection with the cast and the clients, it was like a really bad day at a normal job.
There's a new trend of ASMR videos online, people whispering to the camera to trigger "autonomous sensory meridian response" in the brain. We're doing the same thing, putting people into situations where they have to be in intimate contact with other humans, body to body, psyche to psyche. This is a leveling experience.
This has been an empowering experience for me. I've already been doing video and film production, and in Richmond I was already on the verge of pitching participatory projects. Now even these logistically ambitious things seem feasible. I have written an algorithm now that uses a Markov probability transition matrix. I had been applying it to video editing, but it could be used to generate dynamic transitions inside the STRATA experience.
STRATA is one of those things I am going to have to sit and think on for a while. Participants continually are asking and telling me more about their experiences, saying they are having dreams about it, and still processing it 3 weeks later. I try to have debriefing sessions with them when I can, or talk through what they experienced, but ultimately it is a mirror: only they can come to their conclusions about what they experienced. Ultimately I want art either to spur me into action and inspiration; or to utterly annihilate me, and put me in my place.
I'm interested in taking a vacation, some place I could sleep and have a pina colada.
I was a performer as a child, really into acting and vocal performing. These have lingered into my current work, but not in a formal way. I think I share that with Riley, who is also a closet performer. My undergraduate degree was in writing in film, and my MFA was interdisciplinary. But I've come to focus on performance as a medium. Everything I do now has an element of performance. I borrow a lot from theater but what I do is quite different from theater. In this, my work doesn't usually overlap with that of Bricolage.
I was in the MFA program at CMU with Riley. He had been talking about this for a long time. He invited me to join the conversations with the STRATA creative team in the fall of last year. I started attending, just to shoot the breeze with the team once a week, hashing out abstract ideas. This is kind of my forte, talking about plans in a conceptual way rather than in technical production. This was the best phase for me to be engaged.
Things got on a roll in the planning process, and things changed quickly. The fun part was having ideas about the various rooms of STRATA. Ideas would just flow, because almost anything can happen in a room. We just said, "Wouldn't it be cool if..?" The overall concept for the piece was harder for the large group of collaborators to decide on.
In my performance pieces, I have asked people to do some weird things, some much more demanding than STRATA. But I've never had responsibility to an established, theatre-going audience. 'What do you mean, I can't coat people in honey? And make them crawl?' However, I was pretty surprised at how many wild ideas for STRATA were entertained in the early planning stages. Jeff and Tami have an incredible sense of adventure; this is what excited me to stick with the project.
It emerged eventually that these rooms were tests of human or emotional faculties, and of situational ethics. This was a unifying factor for me: the idea that STRATA was testing your engagement as a human. It facilitated all these extreme, uncomfortable, impactful or intimate experiences.
I work a lot with intimacy, the generation of intimacy as a performative event. Contrived intimate situations interest me. Is manufactured intimacy real? Walking the line of reality - that is where most of my work sits. I did a project once where I would stay at homes of people in my own neighborhood, people I had not met. After only a letter of introduction, we would take up the pretense that I was a friend from their distant past. I would then show up on their doorstep one evening with a suitcase, needing a place to stay for the night, and we would spend an entire evening inventing our shared narrative. Afterwards we would even exchange letters and long distance correspondence from our houses yards away, and continue to explore a relationship based on this initial false pretense. Are these relationships real? That is the real question.
I'm interested in "theater for one" experiences, performances that are physical, confrontational and participatory. There is something vital about going through the motions with your body, becoming part of the performance. That is what this type of theater has to give. I've always found performance to be more impactful, more transformative as a performer than as an audience member. This is the experience I want to provide for my audience. I know performers who had not been through something like this who told me how surprisingly affected they were by STRATA. "Wow, I just unleashed something. I can't believe how much I was able to give to that!" they said.
The slow dance in the Infinity room was a high priority for me. It's easy to say, "Oh, so you dance with someone," but when it comes down to really doing it - walking into a dark room and dancing with a stranger - it is something else. Alexandra really had a great sense of the subtle gestures necessary to experience the intimacy of a slow dance. I wanted STRATA to have experiences which felt really real, never contrived. I wanted you to lose the sense that you were in production. This is why the Infinity Room was so effective- there was just a simple interaction, with no hurdle of disbelief to get over. You don't have to be fooled into believing that you are in a ballroom dancing with a stranger, because you really are. There's nothing more to it than that.
I definitely pushed for the corporate identity for the piece. It seems like the most realistic and relevant context to motivate such an immersive lifestyle experience. This is contemporary science fiction - this is what we have to love and to fear about our future: the commodification of lifestyle, spirituality, identity, humanity. Your own fitness (or "refitnessing") will be marketed as a product. I wanted the brand to feel human and real, but always with the underlying knowledge that it is selling a product. It is this type of branding - so friendly, warm, so close to our identity and ideals - that may prove to be the most effective, and in some situations, the most sinister. The old "Big Brother" model is much too obvious; 1984 was written in 1948, it is clearly outdated. Issues of surveillance and mind control are still present in our lives, but in much more subtle and complex ways. In my own work, I typically prefer a lighter, more satirical, playful aesthetic - so I also wanted to steer clear of the dark noir-ish potential of the "evil corporation" theme. I want people to laugh every once in a while.
This interactive form of theater does happen, elsewhere. It is on the rise. And there are a lot of new forms out there. Devising new forms is what excites me.
My degree is in film studies from Pitt, and then I got into theater. I got my Equity card from the Pittsburgh Public Theater. I moved to New York, worked at the New York City Opera and did some off-Broadway things, then I got into corporate theater. It pays the rent like "regular" theater can't. I do have other hobbies: I videogame, I skateboard, I do computer graphics. I am trying to get a screen printing business going.
In corporate theater, I deal with end users who want to achieve a desired effect. I have to stay current, through the shows I do, on what is possible, and how to create something you've never seen before. I am in no way a performer; I am a stage manager. I am not usually involved in the design of ideas, but I do make decisions about their technical plausibility. In my job, I have to be aware of all technical aspects of theater, of how to use technology to shape a show.
Budgets for corporate theater can be large. I have done productions which include 100 foot stages, video, moving scenery, dancers, and orchestras, but also shows with a ballroom table and no lights. For auto shows, we perform stunts using cars and motorcycles. The crew for an eBay presentation recently was six people. The crew for the Xbox keynote at this years' E3 was 75.
As a freelancer, I am on the road half the year. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of corporate work here in town. This is why I love to work with Tami and Jeffrey, since I live right here in Lawrenceville. We have been talking for years about creating some sort of immersive theater here in pittsburgh, and I'm glad they were able to make it finally happen
I came into several of the early, freewheeling discussions about STRATA. From the early descriptions about the show's concept, it reminded me of several recent video games called Portal and Portal 2. I am just a nerd, but I thought a videogame like Portal would help shape ideas. Portal is a puzzle-solving game, not a "first person shooter" game. There are techniques used in the game to take viewers through the experience which I thought would be helpful to STRATA. The game's creators feed you only the information you need to know to get to the next stage. This might have prompted the idea of a having "rooms" and "tracks" and a central mystery in STRATA, not needing to explain everything.
Also, there are concepts from Portal about seeing behind the scenes and wondering about those who are in charge. This informed the anti-STRATA campaign which ultimately emerged as part of the show. In the early discussions, STRATA wasn't necessarily good for you, it was being done to you without your choice. Robert Clifton was invoked to instill that doubt. We kept coming back to the idea of Scientology: is it really doing good, or is there weird stuff going on behind the squeaky clean exterior?
There can be some dismissive attitudes about video games. For me, video games work my brain in a different way than simply watching a movie or reading a book. Doing something visual and physical to achieve something, works my brain, body and reflexes. It engages more of me than simply reading or watching a movie.
Artistically, there is a whole world of video game styles and purposes. Some are intense tests of problem-solving skills. Some involve weeks of character development, which reflect the choices you make while playing. Some have no end and no goal, but are just visual experiences.
This is not even to mention the economic impact of video games. A new release of a popular game can dwarf the revenue from a feature film.
Once things started gelling around certain ideas for STRATA, my role changed to providing practical feedback about whether the amazing ideas being thrown around would work in the context of a running show. I also created the puzzle room, and designed/printed the signage. I also adapted the "delta" logo into one that could be stenciled and screen printed.
The audience's path through the show went through many different iterations. There is a picture from the planning phase where a table was covered with cards, representing the various rooms in STRATA. We initially thought of placing each room into a "level", and the audience would go through, advancing to the next level. Eventually it became an amazing spreadsheet where we could track everyone's progression and track overlaps. What was cool about the creative process was how wide open it was. We didn't start guiding it until Gab has a list of about 20-30 possible rooms.
I experienced going through the rooms, but only in the testing phase. There were two types of rooms: tangible test rooms, where you knew there was a goal to accomplish; and rooms where you didn't know why you were there or what was going on. It was interesting to me how the sequence of rooms in the experience fit into the overall arc of the story of the production.
A comparison can be made between STRATA and Sleep No More, with respect to the freedom and exploration possible in the exhibit. The small kernel of a story was also an attribute of STRATA.
When I saw Sleep No More I went looking for Macbeth, but you are not really able to stitch together the scenes being played. It addresses the idea of voyeurism, since you are a fly on the wall. You see things that are interesting, and not necessarily intended. The anonymity of the masks impacts your own decisions. There are some intimate moments, and it does feel uncomfortable. A woman getting into a bath, for example. Look or not look, you figure that out and decide how that affects you.
It is absolutely worth seeing, but don't try to figure it out while you're in it. The technical achievement they have created is STRATA times ten, with the money, the rooms, and the atmosphere. STRATA fits in that world, and can be mentioned in the same breath, but by choice, we don't have the same freedom.
During the run of STRATA, I spent time helping out in Mission Control every night I was able. This is one of the biggest shows I have ever experienced. When I call any show, I usually have six or eight monitors. For STRATA, there were 22 monitors or computers. The only time I ever had more monitors was when I called the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Yankee Stadium from the TV truck.
I always wondered how the actors felt about the show, or what we could have done differently to finesse it. Though we spent months beforehand hashing out what the show would mean, it became different once actors were involved. Being part of this production just reinforced how much I like being behind the TV monitors, and not in front of the audience. On those few occasions when I had to emerge from Mission Control and interact with customers, I just pretended to be mute, and used gestures.
This was my first time sitting down at such a large table of collaborators and such a wide variety of artists. Any time people are being stretched artistically, there can be some resistance to it, and a desire to revert to the normal, union way of doing theater. I tried to step into such situations to defuse any such frustrations, and get things back into people's comfort zone, before any restrictions were imposed. I wanted to work on STRATA so badly because I love Tami and Jeffrey so much. I like the kind of risks they take.
I don't think you can draw out any particular element of STRATA because the script, the scenic design, the improvisation, the marketing and the overall direction of the piece all are fused so effectively that it's a holistic experience. I am extremely grateful that Jeffrey and Tami invited me to participate. As the writer I had the opportunity to fuse my vision with the greater vision of the group.
Jeffrey asked me back in December, 'Do you want to be a part of this, to write it?' Five of us (Tami, Jeffrey, Sam, Riley and I) went to the South Side and had an expensive dinner, more than we could afford. Some ideas were already clear: this would be an interactive experience; participants would travel through singly, or in pairs; their journey would cross the levels of society; the experience would generate empathy in the participants.
After that dinner, we met weekly at Bricolage. The writing process proved unconventional. Early on Jeffrey made it clear that he wanted me to create the 'language' of STRATA and the Gate Corporation so that the world that the participants entered into would be cohesive, and everything in the script would belong to that world. That was the first step.
Next, I had to synthesize the enormous, amorphous, collaborative experience of creating the piece into a series of scripts. These collaborative conversations were often heated, theoretical, existential deconstructions filled with our burgeoning STRATA jargon.
The STRATA language was really successful in the first draft, but Tami and Jeffrey pushed me to make the room scripts more dreamlike. Dreams are ephemeral, their beginnings and ends are unseen, you move into and out of moments. This meant the reality of each room of STRATA could be wildly unique, complete and freestanding.
As the piece took shape, it became clear that an anti-campaign would be a good way to turn the experience on its ear for some participants, but also that it would give the Gate Corporation and STRATA history. The institution would have had to exist for some time in order to generate an anti-campaign.
Riley would drop hints, send articles, and these would inspire aspects of a room or a character's point of view. He was a font of information. Riley turned me on to some Tom McCarthy ideas that are brilliant and influential in how I wrote the piece and how I will continue to write. The videogame "Portal" informed the idea of the basement. The idea is that everything is very orderly from reception to the top, and then breaks down as you head to the basement. Nina Sarnelle, another conceptual artist on the team deconstructed the ideas of the piece and designed the basement.
This process has been a bit like a magic trick. I wanted the participants to be uncomfortable, but not in the sense of awkward or insecure, but uncomfortable because they're forced to perceive their situation and their surroundings using tools they have become unaccustomed to using. People would leave and feel like they were still in the experience.
Any project I write, even a conventional work, is a blueprint which morphs and evolves and turns into its own being. The cast is brilliant. My note to them before opening was that mistakes will happen, and that participants will behave in ways we haven't seen yet. In order to fully realize the experience the actors need to invest in their characters above the lines of dialogue. They need to play the moments and not the script, adjusting and improvising in character when that is required.
Will STRATA return? Was STRATA a success? Did STRATA change my life? In the words of iconciousness: "That remains a question."
Jeffrey went to NYU and I went to CMU, so we both have a solid foundation in traditional acting. But we're just not into passive theater. A lot of our work reflects the question, "How can we make a deeper connection?". We've been busting the fourth wall for a while now. This is the direction we want to go.
We created "Scenes from a Car," where two actors perform a scene in the front seat of a car, while the audience observes from the back seat.
We've developed "Mission Delight," an interactive experience which is performed by the audience, following directions being given by a soothing voice via headphones. They go through a series of actions and motions, and even go beyond the performance space. Once we did this for an executive meeting, and eventually had them do a conga line across the street to their luncheon.
For the Pittsburgh 250th anniversary, we created what we thought was an interactive question & answer game for a big crowd. But we put up a tent which was so evocative and engaging - like a free psychic reading - that it became a 4-hour nonstop therapy session. Sheila McKenna and I ended up giving real-life advice to 200 people. We were overwhelmed by their honesty, by the truth of their lives. It was clear to us that people are looking for help and in need of answers.
The circumstances of STRATA were so nontraditional, nobody knew which way was up. We were writing the manual while we attempted to master the craft of interactive theater. The script for STRATA wasn't finished when we held auditions in June. Actors are usually the last ones invited to the creative table, after everything else about a production has been determined a growing sore spot for me. That wasn't true for STRATA.
Our call was for non-equity actors, over age 27, because we needed people who had real-world experience. We also didn't want to take the audience out of the experience with instantly recognizable actors. We asked specifically for an improv background because they would have to be able to think on their feet.
I went to a performing arts school for most of my life. In 4th grade, I once stopped an improv sketch in class because I didn't like how it was going. The teacher failed me, and as a punishment, I couldn't be in the show "Chicken Little" at all. All my friends were in it. This was horrible!
I have a deep respect for improv, it is a sacred thing. I consider improvisers to be actors, just with sharper tools. They are often writers or playwrights too. If you are great comic, you are probably a standout in tragedies too. Not always so the other way around. I find most American improv to be plagued by cleverness. It's often painful to watch because it's devoid of any objective, other than to get laughs. Improv is not about being funny, it's about telling a story. It's is one of the most difficult mediums in the world to maste. That, and stand-up comedy. STRATA also ranks high on the "arduousness" scale. The main objective with STRATA was to make a connection, as real a connection as possible, with total strangers.
We circulated the ad via social media. Most of the people who responded to the ad, we didn't know. Auditions went over two days. We had a series of half-hour sessions of improv games, physical games, games which made them act. Gab and I thought 'God, wouldn't it be great to meet once a month just to play games?' Almost everyone who came was cast.
Ninety percent of directing is casting appropriately. Whenever you get 23 actors together, but have them work solo - doing private things - there are going to be issues. Improvisers can have trouble trusting a director because they are often so self-contained. I had to approach directing uniquely. I had my actors write extended biographies on the characters they played, so they would be equipped to work off of any prompt the audience put forth. They would need to abide by the improve demand to always say, "Yes, and..."
I recently did intensive training in Denmark with Keith Johnstone, the godfather of improvisation. Keith teaches that you should want the audience fall in love with you, and they should long to take you home. If you are getting laughs, it had better be from the entire audience, not just a few chuckles here and there. Real laughter is contagious. When it works, it infects everyone.
We haven't invented anything new here. There are other types of improv based on a structure or prompt. The STRATA structure had a script to be followed - Gab wrote the script perfectly - but it had to be able to morph. The key is to remain open to suggestions and hearing what people think. The evolution of the script was inevitable, because STRATA was a true collaboration.
Tami Dixon is an Actor, Writer, Teacher and Producing Artistic Director of Bricolage Production Co.
On directing STRATA
When I lived in New York I did as much acting as I could, but still supported us by bartending. I wanted to transition from acting to directing but couldn't figure out how to make this happen. I've done improv seriously since 1998. I hunkered down at Gotham City Improv and started to teach there, and direct sketch troupes. I directed something for the New York International Fringe Festival. From there I slowly made my way into directing for the stage.
When Gab was expecting in 2007, we moved to Pittsburgh to be near family. I got a job as a Teaching Artist in the Pitt Theater department, and I directed five shows in six semesters. The department provided a lot of support for what I wanted to do. I finally directed my first professional stage play - one which wasn't a university production - with "Fat Beckett."
Fat Beckett required that the audience be part of the show. We created an interactive section in the middle where the audience and the actors become one organism. This was one of the things which it made it so memorable, and people talked about it. Right now, theater patrons - and theater buildings - are still prepared for the sit-down experience.
When Jeffrey pitched STRATA to Gab and me, we knew we had to do it. We were furious, because we had so much other stuff going on - we were in pre-production for our first feature film, for God's sake. But Jeffrey and Tami are like us: couples who make stuff together. The movie is the biggest thing we've ever done, and STRATA is the biggest thing they have ever done. And they were happening at the same time....
Jeffrey said right away that STRATA was not going to be a sit-down experience. Even from the start, he wanted to dispense with the staleness of going to a box office, giving a ticket to an usher and finding your seat. So Agents would escort you secretly into the building instead.
We had many, many discussions about STRATA. We talked and talked, and every discussion was fascinating, and wide-ranging, despite our best efforts to focus. It was a good day whenever we were able to talk about more than one thing. We could never stop teasing out new facets. It was good that we had all been through the process of putting on a show. We all had an instinctive sense for certain decisions which had to be made.
I have learned that huge part of being a director is knowing the drop-dead date by which decisions must be made. And part of the fun is letting those go as long as possible, making temporary, place-holder decisions until the best idea emerges. It's all well and good to have a really interesting and deeply complicated concept. But there comes a moment when you have to break down how to accomplish it, or perhaps settle for a less grandiose idea.
During the creation of STRATA there was one room we had trouble with, the "Train Room." It was assigned to me to bring it off, so I spent some time with it. I came back to the group and said, 'I think we could make it work.' Then the group thought of more ideas for it, and pared it down to an achievable goal. But even using some set elements from Bricolage's projection of "Dutchman," it still would have been the most technically ambitious of all the rooms in STRATA. Ultimately we didn't do the Train Room.
I have to say about Rob, that he was not always the naysayer concerned about the technical side. He is a brilliantly creative person. More than once I thought he would nix an idea, when he came back with an even more beautiful idea instead.
For this piece we didn't want any familiar faces. We wanted people who were comfortable improvising. We wanted people who could sustain a certain level of intensity of focus, action and emotion. We were sure we needed people of good humor. The more experienced actors who were cast in certain parts, were not necessarily nervous about improvising. They are pretty adventurous people, and intense. They are more than just actors, or writers, or musicians, they are artists.
Since I started directing, I have been gaining confidence in making the boundary between the actor and the audience permeable. I had an instructive experience as a college junior, playing a Shakespeare character with a soliloquy. Without being told, I found myself wandering into the house to address the audience members individually. From my research into Shakespeare, I believe he also believed the boundary to be permeable. The idea of a fourth wall, that the performance was supposed to be separate from the audience, was something I gave up.
I realized early in the process of directing actors in STRATA, that unlike a play or a film, you couldn't put yourself in the same position as an audience member. In a theater, the director sits in a seat and watches the play, just like the audience. And if you're a good director, you'll watch from different seats.
With STRATA, I did go through the rooms several times, but I still couldn't have the same experience as others. When you direct a play, you can't really have the same "first time" experience, or have that same uninitiated sense of wonder. You're always trying to imagine what it would be like.
Still, STRATA was profoundly disorienting to me, to a different degree, as much spiritually as geographically. For me, it was those rooms where the characters ask you personal questions about yourself, invasive questions about your interior life. There are so many processes at work in side you when you are trying to convert a lived experience into a story. Watching the scenes noninteractively during rehearsals, I never thought about my own answers.
We didn't make the rules of the game clear to anyone, and we combined this with other uncomfortable aspects of STRATA. We were willfully abstruse. There are things we wanted from the script, and we also wanted actors to improvise through the moments. Tami had a part in the show, as the voice on a telephone. She was encouraged to improvise, but not be specific, asking people to tell about their "first time." We didn't say first time doing what.
On a project this big, from Jeff and Tami on down, none of us thought a rigid sense of control was going to be useful. Setting strict hard rules about things wasn't going to fly. It might actually hurt the actors to force them not to have the freedom to survive. During run-throughs, since I didn't have a part in the show and was the only Director available, I was in Mission Control most of the time. I watched the flow on monitors, to see how the whole mass was hanging together. But you can't really monitor the performances from up there. We trusted the actors to figure things out for themselves.
Contemporary pieces like STRATA and "Sleep No More" - immersive, interactive theater (or live-action role playing, or videogames) - aren't yet part of the curriculum in academia. I hope they'll find their way in soon. I would have liked STRATA to have been a bigger hit, like the Punchdrunk shows in London and New York, but there's a smaller audience here for the adventurous stuff. It's great that a flag has been planted in Pittsburgh for this style of work.
I don't ever intend to stop doing stage completely. Film is probably more interesting to me right now. My creative partner and I have some really cool ideas, and they are almost all film ideas at this time. Filmmaking tends to be energetically more interesting, and you can get more people more excited about a movie. I like filmmakers with distinctive voices, and I like comedies that aren't light. That's what we are heading for with Progression: shedding light on the human condition and shaking people who are comfortable with the status quo. That was the same intent as for STRATA.
I was dazzled that Bricolage had the resources to do something this big, and that they chose to do STRATA. Our film "Progression" is the biggest thing we have ever done, and it took years of effort to even get to the point of considering doing something this big. But I leapt at STRATA, despite being so overcommitted. And I will jump to be involved in whatever Bricolage intends to do in the future.
Sam Turich is a Director, Writer, Actor and Visiting Artist at Point Park University Cinema and Digital Arts Dept.
On building STRATA
From my perspective the genesis of the project is probably our collective work on the Teatro de los Sentidos project, "Echo of the Shadow." Clear Story was contracted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to be the production managers for the entire International Festival of Firsts in 2008. In 2007 a curator and I went to Mexico to see the show "El Eco de la Sombra," both as audience members, and also behind the scenes as technical producers. My role on the trip to Monterey was to interface with those artists and get my head around their way of working, and incidentally it was my first encounter with this type of immersive theatrical experience. I was tasked with making an artistic and technical assessment of their "show," developing a general understanding of the architectural conditions and the mechanics of the piece, and bringing home enough information so that my team could create the conditions the group required when they arrived with a cargo container full of materials and set pieces to populate the world. We all felt a great deal of pride and responsibility; we were facilitating a world-class production by a company that was making their North American debut, and bringing a new style of performance and a working method to the Pittsburgh audience.
Our job for Teatro de los Sentidos was not only finding the venue and constructing the technical framework, but also staffing it, helping to facilitate people's experiences. Jeffrey himself was one of the staffers, he had a very specific role to play inside the labyrinth. He not only had the opportunity to understand and interact with the company members who played characters in the show, but he was also able to observe from the inside how the work impacted people. Again, this was the first time we'd come into contact with something which was exploding the boundaries of the conventional seated-audience experience.
Clear Story is a network of skilled, interdisciplinary artists. We employ specialists in a variety of fields depending on the project, but day to day I chiefly collaborate with Doug McDermott at Clear Story. Our working relationship is successful because we both understand the creative intent of the artists and we draw on a deep technical repertoire to realize an artistic vision. I serve as a Creative Director and focus on aesthetics, design, look and feel. Doug is the Technical Director, he is responsible for figuring things out and making systems work properly.
It seemed at first that STRATA would be more of a place-to-place, urban exploration. The experience would disseminate from boardrooms in skyscrapers to speedboats on the river. Many of the concepts were very exciting, and it felt like we were leaving something valuable behind when we decided to abandon them in favor of a more focused or specially concentrated experience. We went through a process of discussing why, and how, and if we couldn't express "why" or couldn't figure out "how", we moved on. This tightened up the concepts to the more practical ideas. Reality is a useful parameter in art-making, especially if the artistic product is large-scale and involves unpredictable variables like public spaces and human participants. We had a lot of different people and skill sets and experience working together, each of us elevating the others' ideas. A project like STRATA could never be a one-man show.
Clear Story pledged our involvement perhaps in November. Weekly meetings started around the first of the year. We did lot of conceptualizing, looking at video footage of other experiences, discussing the overall tone of the work, what it wanted to be, or not. There were not a lot of cut-and-dried decisions. It was a very collaborative process with lots of opinions expressed. I don't remember saying more than once, "I just don't think that's the right way to go." No one could have said, "This is exactly what STRATA must become." It was simply too organic a process to predict or forecast an outcome at the early stages. It was Jeffrey's and Tami's risk (and reward), bringing the creative working group together.
Production design was laid out as a rough plan of work on parallel tracks: script development and space navigation. During script development, we all threw ideas around, reading them to each other, and taking turns being the participant and the presenter. Inspiration for design is drawn from the script: Gab did an amazing job describing the places that each of our characters inhabited. We also walked around the building, taking inspiration wherever possible from existing conditions, or the possibilities to be had with blank canvas-like spaces.
The geneology of the building as a gym and fitness center fit strongly into the direction that STRATA took. We felt that the arc of the experience had to relate to what the building was, even if you only saw it while walking out. There was a tongue-in-cheek nod to this, in our repurposing of the building for "refitnessing." Once the refitnessing kernel landed in the group, it expanded like popcorn reaching temperature. I credit the writing with elevating this concept. This was also a chance to comment on poor design, and the absurd conditions in our world. The office for the Director of Fitness at Bally's was in the moldy basement, so we reconceived the idea of a boss man trapped in the room of a fitness director.
Space navigation - circulation the through the building - was a tough nut to crack. Several spaces were declared to us as "off limits." But Bricolage and Clear Story do this well: we always try to understand parameters and limitations as early as possible, then work within them, and even use them to our advantage.
The way that we were interpreting the script, we had to use the spaces to create a wide range of emotional triggers. We were playing with perceptions, and using the participant's circulation through the building to create a series of rich, sensory experiences; the feeling of sand between the toes, the sound of rustling leaves, the smell of Grandma's room. The set in some rooms was more material than others. Some spaces were created with just sound and light, using their presence or absence, and the differences between them. The end of the experience was the hardest part: there was not a real script down in the basement, which is one of the biggest single spaces in the building. We took everything away from the participant and placed them in a very dark space, with only sound cues and Hope, a faintly lit woman, as guides. In this pre-decompression area, you walk around in your head.
I must admit, many of my professional colleagues were perplexed by the project and by the project propaganda. Some were put off the by the New Age, science fiction ad campaign. Without giving too much away, I halfway tried to explain that the ad campaign was a conceptual portal to STRATA, created to build an expectation; and that part of the fun is that we play off this expectation with the real experiences which are much more naturalistic. The sci-fi element evaporates the moment the participants board the cluttered elevator.
Whether they liked it or hated it, people seemed to have strong reactions to the work. Some even had a profound experience. The goal was to touch people who are bold and adventurous enough to buy a ticket for this show, and to really affect them, whether emotionally or artistically.
After producing a project like STRATA, one might think that doing a conventional sit-down theatre experience would be pretty dull. However, Bricolage has such energy and passion and a drive for pushing limits and boundaries of their process, that whatever comes next for them will bring even more growth and artistic development; as well as a bit of a "breather," because - make no mistake - STRATA took a lot out of people. But STRATA actually gave more back to the creators, actors, technicians and the company that developed it, than any other project or process I've ever seen or known.
The company and all of us collaborators have developed a toolkit and science of this approach. Once you figure it out, it is a new way of working. I am optimistic that this could happen again, and that Bricolage will produce it. I know Clear Story will be involved. I'm profoundly grateful to Bricolage, to Jeffrey and Tami, to my Clear Story crew, and to the entire team of collaborators who made the project a reality.