One play about war led to another, and director Christopher McElroen and actor T. Ryder Smith were compelled to create "Measure Back," a world premiere that examines the roles of the armchair warriors on the homefront.
The idea came about when the friends were involved in a production of "Living in Exile," Jon Lipsky's adaptation of Homer's "The Iliad," that was written in response to the Vietnam War and set in a sparsely furnished living room in which four performers acted out or used music to illuminate raging battles and manipulative gods and goddesses.
"We were drawn to the piece by the idea of telling a war story in a living room setting, which for me is where I consumed the wars we've been engaged in in the past 10 or 12 years, and I felt very much like I was a spectator," Mr. McElroen says from New York City in a conference call, with Mr. Smith in Massachusetts. "There are a lot of ways that product was marketed and sold to me. We felt that play couldn't hold the ideas they were interested in exploring -- the idea of citizen spectator vs. citizen participant."
They began to craft their own work, based on the game of "what if?" that had been playing out during that period. They discovered that the notion of actors sitting on couches was just too limiting.
"We immediately say, 'Living room? Let's have TV. Let's have two TVs, let's have seven televisions. Why don't we do some of it on a cell phone. Let's bring in cameras. ... We were expanding it so far, we were in danger of doing an injustice to Jon's beautiful play."
Mr. Smith began writing based on the questions that he and Mr. McElroen were asking about war: How do you ask an audience about war? How do you ask an audience to be engaged in war? Also factored into the concept was that each gathering was self-contained. "It's this immediate event that exists only in memory."
With that in mind, they decided to get seven TVs in a room along with a cell phone and an actor talking about war, "and let's see where it goes," Mr. Smith says.
It quickly ceased to be anything resembling a play, he added, and became more of an open-ended conversation.
Actors have scripts to follow within parameters that are dictated by audience participation or the lack of it. So, what does that make "Measure Back?" Play? Improvisation?
Like the topic it takes on, there's no easy answer, but one of its co-creators, Mr. Smith, gives it a try.
"We're avoiding the term play, because it sets up an expectation of the standard theatrical grammar of an audience sitting in the dark being a spectator," he says. "We want to engage the audience more, give them a choice of whether they want to be a spectator or a limited participant. Given the way war is made, it's often a reflection of that same process: Do you actively support it? Do you passively support it? Do you go along with it because it seems like something so much bigger than you that you have no ability to change it? We want to extend an invitation to help make the event what it is. I would describe it as an interactive theater piece."
The venue -- the fifth floor of the Baum Building, Downtown -- will dictate interactions within the environment. Sit or stand? Like so much else in "Measure Back," it's up to the participant.
Mr. McElroen, a co-founder of The Classical Theatre of Harlem, has been a co-developer and director of more traditional theater, including a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man," which figures into his Pittsburgh connections. He has known Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts "adventurous programmer" Paul Organisak for a while and was here two years ago with "The Invisible Man" at the August Wilson Center and before that, with Melvin Van Peebles' "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death."
This interactive work is a first, in keeping with the theme of the Festival of Firsts. It does, however, have roots in another McElroen-Smith collaboration.
"'Measure Back' very much is standing on the shoulders of work that T. and I have done before. We worked on a production of 'Waiting for Godot' in New Orleans, that very much engaged an audience, a city, a community in a conversation and invited them to ask questions rather than sit back and listen. We are looking to engage a community again," Mr. McElroen says.
"Godot is so unique in my experience," says Mr. Smith of the site-specific performances of "Godot" 2007, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "I feel it transformed me. I remember turning to Chris and saying we can never go back to doing theater in boxes again. This is an extension of that, into something we always wanted to do as theater makers: What if we could just stop the play and talk? What if the audience had agency to do any number of things? ... All of the what ifs -- how do you make that possible?"
With "Measure Back," they decided to stop asking "what if?" and take the plunge.
Actors will work from prepared text, but it's written to incorporate different scenarios. If you come into a room and want to sit or stand, answer or ask a question, that can be incorporated into the experience. "If it truly fulfills you to come, sit and watch, that's OK, too," Mr. Smith says, but that's obviously not the intent.
It's up to the audience to decide the direction of the event.
To that end, when asked what was expected of someone walking through the doors of "Measure Back," Mr. McElroen replied, "Just show up."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.