Boxcar Theatre's The Speakeasy, which begins previews this weekend, sounds like the most zeitgeisty show of the season, and not just because it's set in a series of totally hip time periods. The show portrays a San Francisco speakeasy in three acts and decades: in World War I, the Roaring 20s, and World War II, respectively. In true speakeasy form, the play is staged in an undisclosed S.F. location. On the day of the performance, audience members will receive instructions on where to meet. Once at the speakeasy, audience members will go in through one of a number of secret entrances — some might walk in through the shop that serves as the speakeasy's false front; others might enter into a full-fledged cabaret show. At any given time, 35 cast members could be performing seven to 10 scenes in various places. The whole show, director Nick Olivero estimates, involves 80 or 90 artists, including six writers, two directors, and two costume designers. "There's like two of everything," says Olivero — a gigantic undertaking for a small theater company.
For Olivero, The Speakeasy is part of a career-long interest in immersive theater. "I've been doing what's called experiential theater since 2005, and the name 'immersive theater' got really popular with Sleep No More," he says, referring to Punchdrunk's hugely successful immersive theater adaptation of Macbeth, staged in New York. In immersive theater, Olivero says, "Everyone has their own takeaway. It's all about your experience" — which also means that each audience member is a part of the show.
Olivero stresses that The Speakeasy will have more of a narrative structure and more theatrical convention than some other immersive-theater experiences. "A lot of people are going to think that this is like a haunted house or Tony n' Tina's Wedding," he says, referring to a popular show in which audience members are treated as wedding guests. "And I go, 'Yeah, kind-of-not-really.' It's not those things. It's not a murder mystery. It's not dinner theater."
It's also not improv. Even at points that rely heavily on interaction with the audience, the writers, under the leadership of Barry Eitel, use "leading questions" to control how much the audience can participate.
That desire for control comes from bad past experiences. The Boxcar, which Olivero founded with Peter Matthews in 2005, has long been dedicated to challenging what theater can be. "When we did a show on a moving bus that drove around the city, we had people that tried to derail the show," he says. To prevent similar audience hijackings in The Speakeasy, Olivero is staging the show's World War I act, its first, as a traditional piece of theater. "We think that, by starting the show in a much more conventional sense, people will watch and go, 'Oh, I'm just supposed to witness,'" he says. "Then we open it up to a little bit more engagement."
Immersive theater, under one name or another, has been around at least since the Living Theater in New York in the 1960s. Locally, less theater-specific but still immersive events like the Dickens Fair and the Edwardian Ball & Faire have been drawing crowds for years. But there's no denying that the genre has entered a new golden age. "It's been around for a while," says Olivero, "but as artists we've taken it to a different level."
More often, even shows that aren't fully immersive experiences are finding ways to at least wet audiences' feet. Berkeley-based theater company Shotgun Players themes its concessions according to its shows. For The Great Big Also, a devised piece about American prophetic movements, production company Mugwumpin outfitted the venue's lobby so as to give audiences the feel of being in the waiting room of a cult even before the show started. Three groups — Andrade Events, Ottoman, Ltd., and PianoFight — literally "immersed" audiences in stage blood for October's Grand Guignol (ponchos were provided).
Olivero and co-director Peter Ruocco attribute this growing interest in immersive theater to digital technology. "It's a reaction to these things," Olivero says, pointing to his smartphone. "As human beings, we have an absolute need to connect with one another, and we have put obstacles in our way. Now we're using these obstacles to get back to the heart of it. Our art has to react to this disconnect that's supposedly connecting us. We have to lose ourselves in what we're doing."
For Ruocco, immersive theater, paradoxically, is both an escape from and a natural outgrowth of the digital world. "People have full control over what they watch and how they consume. The idea of the more traditional form, where you have to sit in one place that's blocking the amount of behavior you can do, is against the tendencies that have been developed in younger people. You can absorb as little as you want and move to something else, or you can absorb something longer."
Olivero says, "Control is what our show is all about, and so we give the audience control." Then, he jokes, "And then we take it away sometimes and say, 'You watch this.'"