In general, theater audiences adopt a passive role in a performance. They sit and receive the information the characters give them on a journey that the playwright has constructed for their entertainment. Each time the audience member returns to that theater, they can be certain that they are seeing the exact same show they saw the first time. But what happens when the viewer is no longer an idle watcher but instead an active participant, adopting the role of a collaborator creating a unique performance?
The Philaletheis Society will be presenting “2? of ??,” an interactive interpretation of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater on April 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. and April 28 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Directed by Livia Bartels ’20, the production will allow audiences to vote on various decisions throughout the show, altering the course of the plot, as well as determining the ending, to help to ensure a unique experience for each performance.
Bartels spoke about why they chose to adapt the Bard’s work into a participatory production: “Shakespeare is often seen as inaccessible and lofty, as if it’s for the elite. I wanted to prove both points wrong—I mean, Shakespeare is the bawdiest humor you’ll find!”
Shakespeare’s original plot follows Proteus and Valentine, two gentlemen from Verona, whose plans to make a journey to Milan are thwarted when one of them falls in love. In typical Shakespearean fashion, multiple characters go through the various stages of love, several dramatic fights break out and even a charming little dog makes an appearance. Even though the play is considered one of Shakespeare’s less-produced works, it has several notable productions and was even adapted into a musical in 1971, which won several Tony Awards.
Setse Bush ’19 plays the part of Julia, who falls in love with Proteus and pursues him even after he meets and tries to court another woman. In an emailed statement, Bush found the interactive element of the production to have a revitalizing quality: “First of all, I think it’s a wonderful idea overall. Second, it’s so much fun to not know what happens next in your own play! Each audience will see a different show than the last, and it makes each night special in its own way. I’ve been in shows that played with letting down the wall between the audience and the cast, but I daresay this is the most interactive show I’ve ever been in. I’m curious as to how it will pan out when we actually have a real audience to work with.”
Throughout the show, the actors take 15-second pauses during which a booming voice from above asks the audience to choose between several options. Stage Manager Cassidy Nealon ’19 tallies the votes before announcing the final decision. After a bit of time, during which the actors set up for the choice, the production resumes in this new direction. In addition, each decision will ultimately factor into how the play will end.
Philip Macaluso ’19 portrays Valentine, one of the two eponymous gentlemen. Reflecting on how the multitude of narrative possibilities impacted his process, Macaluso said, “It’s certainly made me rethink my character, like how in each ending he has different motivations for doing what he’s doing. He’s going to take the events that happened previously in the play and reinterpret them. In essence, it’s like I’m learning a different character. I have the base character who has had these initial experiences, and then he interprets them in this sense or he has to go to this extreme now.”
This process has also been unique for the designers of the production. Besides stylizing everyone’s attire around a 1950s vintage theme, Costume Designer Elizabeth Gay ’21 arranged outfits for each of the different options.
“The interactive element has influenced the costumes a lot,” Gay remarked. Citing one example, she added, “There’s one ending where, if the audience chooses it, I have to do a lot of laundry. I’m kind of hoping that ending isn’t chosen often. But I know it probably will be.”
The interactive elements are not the only unique features for “2? of ??”; the production also claims to have real animals as part of the show. Animals are one of the staples of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the most famous stage direction in any play is “Exit, pursued by a bear,” which comes from “The Winter’s Tale.” However, most modern productions avoid this feature. “2 ? of ??” boasts a rabbit, a dog and a bear among its cast.
Gay, who will be the animal wrangler for the production, is delighted to get to work with these special performers: “There’s animals in the show, which is new, and I’m responsible for them, which is the best thing in the entire world. I absolutely love animals, and I don’t really get to see them a lot in college. I’m so excited because I’m the one that has to keep them quiet backstage. So if you hear something, it’s my fault.”
“2? of ??” follows a recent trend in theater of encouraging audience to play a larger role in the devising of the art. While this feature was initially just a staple in improv shows, Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” asked audiences to vote on one of seven endings. The most well-known example today is Punchdrunk Theatre’s immersive production “Sleep No More,” loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Set in the McKittrick Hotel, the production allows audience members to wander the location, interacting with the actors and forming a unique experience each time.
When asked about how he hopes this production will alter the audience’s preconceived notions of Shakespeare, Macaluso replied: “I hope this production gives the audience a chance to reevaluate how one can do Shakespearean comedies and how one can take these works of old and really turn them on their head for a modern audience.”
Even within the : “I think there’s certainly forms of interactive theatre similar to what we’re doing now that have happened previously, but I think this is a great way of taking these characters who are put in these strange situations and seeing how radically different the events can turn out just based on audience input.”
Bartels added how they believe that the audience’s involvement will possibly lead them to reflect on their own lives once they leave the show: “I hope the audience gets a greater appreciation for their role in [a] production’s success, and an appreciation of how unpredictable things are! But on a more serious note, I hope they can reflect on how often we make decisions—choices—on such scant information, and to reflect on that a bit, particularly when things don’t go the way they might expect as a direct result of their choices!”
No two performances of “2? of ??” will be the same, so even if you see the show once, you never know how the next one will turn out. So why not see them all?