If the term “interactive theater” scares the bejesus out of you and conjurs images of what actor Gyda Arber calls “cheesy, overacted dreck,” then she’s got the show for you – a new “interactive noir” called Suspicious Package. Created and co-written by multi-talent Arber and her mother, Wendy Coyle, this film noir-ish entertainment plays out simultaneously on four separate Zune MP3 players operated by four separate audience members (each of whom assume a role in the show, as it were). Each audience/cast member spreads out across the Williamsburg neighborhood where Suspicious Package takes place following instructions on the handheld video screen, kind of like a theatrical scavenger hunt.
Not sure yet what this all means? Allow Arber to explain it to you in her own words. She recently dropped by the ol’ blog to talk more about the show, which is currently enjoying an open-ended run on Saturdays and Sundays at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and has garnered rave reviews from several high profile media outlets including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and nytheatre.com. Read on for more…
What exactly is Suspicious Package?
Yikes, this is hard to explain! A lot of our reviews do it better than I can, but to start with, it’s an ipod noir. A what? Yes, exactly. We have an audience of four that serve as both the audience as well as the lead actors. Voiceovers, video flashbacks, maps, and lines on the screen reveal everything you need to know!
It’s interactive, but does it have a plot and a story?
The word interactive seems to throw people off – it’s not interactive theater as such. The show isn’t cheesy (at least in my opinion!) or populated with over-the-top actors, and doesn’t put anyone on the spot – it’s like if one of those murder mystery things were actually fun. But yes, there’s quite an important plot that doesn’t come together till the very end (if even then!)
This doesn’t sound like your everyday theater performance. How’d you come up with the idea for it?
I’ve always been fascinated by interactive theater – and have been to more than my fair share – Tony and Tina’s Wedding, Shear Madness, Ladies & Gents – you name it, I’ve probably seen it. Accomplice NY was always a personal favorite, as it was probably the most fun, and I enjoyed Etiquette earlier this year. I was thinking about Improv Everywhere (they do an MP3-based group happening every year) and thought to myself, “What if the pictures they made (part of the event is a lot of group images) told a story?” and the picture of a noir detective, standing on a corner, hat and trench coat and all, popped into my head. And I thought about incorporating other characters and really give each audience member a character, instead of being a nameless group as in most interactive events, and Suspicious Package was born.
Once you had the idea in place, how did you go about putting the show together?
I called my mom (she’s a writer) and outlined the basic plot to her, and said I needed help with the dialogue. So we met one to two times a week, in cafes, and wrote the script together. Then I called a friend, a great actor and film director Jason Godbey, and got him on board to help me film all the flashback sequences (and he even wrote all of the Producer’s flashbacks). Aaron Baker was on standby to record all the male voiceovers (he’s the voice of both the Producer and the Detective) and I’m the voice of the Showgirl and Heiress. Then it was just a matter of editing it all together – which I thought would be fairly straight-forward, but, alas, was a far more difficult task than I thought it would be – all four characters have synchronized ipods, so timing is EVERYTHING, which played a big part in the editing process.
Suspicious Package relies on handheld Zune MP3 players that the audience carries all over the neighborhood. How do you make sure they don’t get broken or stolen?
So far so good! We usually collect credit cards from people at the beginning of the show, but so far, since everyone ends up at the same place, it hasn’t really been an issue – I just grab everything at the end of the performance.
You’re very interested in interactive theater, as evidenced by this and another project you recently spearheaded – Q & A: The Perception of Dawn. What interests you in these types of projects?
Though I’m a fan of all types of theater, and grew up on old musicals, I think movies really handle naturalistic straightforward things better, as a medium, than theater does. However what theater does have – and movies can never have – is that oh-so-important live element, which can really be magical when pulled off in the right way (I’m a big fan of Michael Gardner’s work in this respect). So I think that for theater to succeed, there needs to be some reason for a live audience to be there. I know for Q & A, when we had some light audiences, it was a little worrisome – that show requires a minimum of seven audience members to work, and Suspicious Package requires exactly four, no more, no less. But I think the audience is ultimately rewarded more when they’re involved in some way (however passively). Though I’m not a fan of the term “interactive theater” – I think it brings to mind cheesy, overacted dreck, and I don’t think that’s what I do.
What kind of experience should the audience expect when they come see Suspicious Package?
A fun one! Suspicious Package is a blast—it’s not scary at all, you don’t need to have any acting training (if you don’t, all the better!). If you can read aloud, walk, and follow directions, you should be just fine. This is interactive theater as you’ve never experienced it before. And fun! Did I say fun? It’s super fun – everyone who’s come has said so!