In January, Rebecca Schaffer met with Josh Wagner at McSorley's, the oldest pub in New York City. The two founders of Missoula's Viscosity Theatre company had been traveling—Schaffer was in Turkey and Wagner had spent months wandering Iceland and Italy and beyond—and they just happened to land in New York at the same time. Exhilarated by their adventures, they discussed what next big theater thing they wanted to bring to Missoula. "What if we got people to sleep in the theater?" Wagner asked. "What if we took the audience and we kept them there overnight?" And Schaffer replied, "Yeah!"
When they got back to Missoula, they took their overnight idea to their set designer, Scott Morris, who brought the pair back to earth.
"Well, that's all well and good, but what does it mean?" Morris asked them.
They weren't sure, Schaffer says. They didn't even know how to pull such a thing off.
"We decided we don't have the resources to make people sleep in the theater. Maybe that's for another time," Schaffer says. "But we decided to go along that vein."
If they couldn't get the audience members to sleep in the theater, what they hoped to do was get them to feel like they were dreaming. That idea spurred the inception of Viscosity's upcoming production ThisIllusionment, a fantasy about a dream world.
"We'd been talking about dreams and desires and that evolved into the loss of passion," Schaffer says. "What is it to lose your inspiration for something that has always resonated with you?"
Schaffer describes ThisIllusionment as a story about "a magician who has lost his passion, a girl overwhelmed by her senses, a boy struggling to find his power, a creature on the verge of disintegration and a universe falling out of love with itself."
It evokes Pan's Labyrinth, wherein a little girl escapes into a fantasy world and, depending on your interpretation, entertains the idea of slipping into that fantasy forever. The film is family friendly in some ways, but deals with mature themes of death—and Viscosity hopes to strike the same balance.
The audience won't be staying the night, but it will be asked to participate. The action of the play takes place on four stages arranged in a line in the basement of the Zootown Arts Community Center, and the audience will walk back and forth between the action, though there are chairs for those who need to sit. Showgoers will also be asked to give feedback after the performances. Schaffer calls the play "skeletal" even though it's a fully formed storyline that will feel like a complete play. The theater group is looking to the audience to refine details and even change the storyline if necessary.
The experimental production is classic Schaffer and Wagner. In 2010, Wagner wrote a play called Salep and Silk, which Schaffer directed under the auspices of the Montana Actors Theatre. The audience participated by eating a four-course meal made by the Silk Road restaurant that correlated with the play's storyline. In fall 2012, Viscosity Theatre staged Crime In A Madhouse, which encouraged the audience to wear lab coats and drink absinthe throughout the performance. (That production was sold out and extended.) And when Wagner released his novel Smashing Laptops at a public gathering downtown, he encouraged the party-goers to smash laptops on the sidewalk. In other words, for Schaffer and Wagner, audience participation is vital to the performance.
The set for ThisIllusionment is much more complicated than Viscosity's usual barebones shows, in order to create the fantastical universes the story requires. After Viscosity stages these first few productions and gets audience feedback, the company plans to raise $1,700 to erect a more elaborate production in 2014.
What makes the whole deal more complex is that the props and set design for the play aren't assembled at the beginning of the show. They're stacked in the middle of the room.
"The audience walks into this empty room and there's just a pile of stuff," Schaffer says. "The technicians—or 'elementals'—begin to pull stuff out of the pile and set up the world, places like a playground and a magician's apartment. So the audiences watches the show emerge from that pile."
ThisIllusionment is an example of "devised" theater, which has become the theater du jour for experimental troupes over the last decade in the United States and been popular even longer in Europe. The style calls for collaboration to the extreme. The actors, along with Viscosity's founders—Schaffer, Wagner, Morris and Diego Burgos—basically wrote the play together in a time-consuming process. Wagner and Schaffer asked the actors to improvise scenes. At first they were told they could use no words, and that forced them to be more physical. Eventually they were told they could use 10 or so words. Jeffrey Hubbard, the stage manager, documented the improvised lines and Wagner took the best of those lines and weaved them into a script. The cast and crew also played games they made up on the fly. The "Web of Death" involved a freeze-tag type game involving a koosh ball and a room entwined with string. Another game required blowing marbles across a table. In both instances, those games inspired story—lines and set designs. Another unusual part of the process was allowing the six actors to name their own characters: 11-year-old Lucy Heutmaker came up with the name Constantine Cambridge for her protagonist and Tristan Redearth, 14, came up with his character Victor Barnham.
At this point, a good deal of the story has been decided. "Creativity is an act of violence," Schaffer says, quoting theater maven Anne Bogart. "You're making choices, thereby eliminating other choices. We began with this very open thing and we've narrowed it and narrowed it and now we've gotten very specific about what will happen."
Now it's up to the audience to make the final touches.
ThisIllusionment shows at the ZACC basement Sat. June 1, at 11 AM and 8 PM, Sun., June 2, at 11 AM, 2 PM and 8 PM, Fri., June 7, at 8 PM, and Sat., June 8, at 11 AM, 2 PM and 8 PM. $15/$12 advance at viscositytheatre.org.