While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton may not arrive at the Orpheum Theatre until March, fans of historical revolutions and hip-hop will have a chance to take part in something equally original this month.
Held as part of the Come Out and Play game festival, Epic Immersive’s Ancien Regime places its audience at the cross-section of a pre-French Revolution Court of Versailles and the modern-day landscape of Silicon Valley. Unlike Hamilton, this performance does not take place in a theater, but rather across a number of locations in Fort Mason. Promising secret missions, chance encounters on the docks, and a masquerade ball, Ancien Regime envelops the audience in a pivotal part of the journey. You don’t simply watch the action unfold.
For director Steve Boyle and co-creator Bora “Max” Koknar, activating the audience is one of Epic Immersive’s core tenets.
“I think we focus a lot on story,” Boyle says. “Big stories where there’s a clear narrative. In none of our work so far has the audience been a passive mover. They’re always seen and acknowledged, given attention, and brought into scenes.”
Epic Immersive began as a chance meeting between Boyle and Koknar, who were both participants in San Jose Repertory’s Emerging Artists Lab. When budget cuts in 2014 essentially killed the program, Boyle spoke at a local city hall meeting, citing a recent experience he’d had creating immersive installations in the forest for the venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors.
Following the meeting, Boyle was approached by Alida Bray, President and CEO of History San Jose. She told Boyle about History Park, a San Jose property owned by the organization that resembled a movie set of a town from the early 1900s, and asked if he might want to stage something there. Thus, Matthew Briar and the Age of Resurrection was born.
A three-act production featuring 100 performers — including actors, musicians, dancers, and aerialists — Matthew Briar took audiences from a ficticious 1907 World’s Fair to the Roaring ’20s and finally into the Great Depression.
“Getting started, I think we were all thinking this might be a one-and-done sort of deal,” Koknar says. “But then the reaction, both from the artists who were involved with the project and from our audiences, were beyond expectations for us.”
Originally scheduled for one day, the production ended up lasting a full weekend (with an encore presentation set for this Oct. 14-16).
“It struck a chord,” Boyle says. “It brought in a flood of new opportunities. This year, we’ve worked at speakeasies and created art for subterranean secret societies. Everything that’s happening now came as a direct result of the response to Matthew Briar.”
One such opportunity was from Catherine Herdlick, the director for the San Francisco chapter of Come Out and Play. Boyle says that when Herdlick mentioned that the festival’s 2016 incarnation would take place at Fort Mason, he and Koknar “leapt at the chance” to put something together. According to Koknar, one of their main challenges was figuring out how to create something that would take advantage of their newly gifted setting, a “visually striking landscape.”
“We joked about how we could get more epic,” he says. “Of course, the answer is to have a story that incorporates the entire Bay, with Oakland and islands and enormous bridges in the background, and have it be meaningful to the story.”
What they settled on became Ancien Regime, which takes its name from the political system upended by the French Revolution. Boyle confesses that he and Koknar have “a bit of an obsession” with the Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror, and that Epic Immersive is currently working on a musical experience for 2017-18 that encapsulates those themes.
“We’ve long been fascinated by that little five-year period, and for what it has to say about our modern world,” Boyle says. “It’s rife with meaningful questions about income inequality in the developed world, and it has a lot to say, for example, about revolutions in the Middle East, and about nation-building and terrorism.”
Thus Ancien Regime presented Epic Immersive with the perfect scenario to test out some of what the duo has in store. Along came Rococo, an “aristocratic start-up” that had recently done a photo shoot with the Houston hip-hop group Rosewood Thievz. Boyle got in touch with the rappers and was thrilled to learn that member James Pendleton IV was also a Shakespearean actor. They agreed to take part in the production, which Boyle gushes may be the first example of hip-hop being incorporated into a large-scale immersive experience.
For Boyle, he sees hip-hop as the natural extension of Shakespeare.
“To me, hip-hop is Shakespearean,” he says. “It’s spitfire soliloquy that moves as swiftly and intricately as rushing thought. I wanted to get my hands dirty with it for a long time, and here was an opportunity that had actually been hoisted on us without us even seeking it out.”
So with elements as disparate as rap and masquerade balls, what precisely should one expect to see during a performance of Ancien Regime? Not surprisingly, it’s hard to say. With numerous opportunities to interact with the cast, and so many choices to be made on the fly, it’s seemingly impossible to take in every detail through one go-round. In a sense, Boyle says, that’s really the point.
“It’s part of the beauty and excitement and scalability of immersive theater that it’s so large and rich and intricate that you can keep returning again and again and peeling back new layers of story,” he says. “With our shows, all of a sudden you’re dropped into this world, and it is your oyster. As an audience member, there are these actors right in front of you, going through the experience with you. The human connection that gets created makes getting the whole picture a little less important.”
Ancien Regime Friday-Saturday, Sept. 23-24, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 25, 6 p.m. Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. $25-$50; fortmason.org.