This hybrid article as dialogue is a reflection on the nature of immersive theatre experiences. It questions such fundamental issues of performance as intimacy, trust, authenticity and surveillance as their art challenged in one-to-one performances. temping by Michael Rau is the focus of this dialogue.
Keywords: digital and immersive theatre, intimacy and surveillance, one-to-one performances
Michael Rau—Setting the Stage
All across America, mortality tables are used by insurance companies to calculate life expectancies. Actuaries in large corporations rely on these tables to predict life insurance payouts. Using just a couple of characteristics (that is, gender, age, geographic location), they can, with astonishing accuracy, determine the number of years until a person’s death. temping is a theatrical adaptation of a mortality table.
temping was created by wolf359, a narrative technology startup that was founded by myself and Michael Yates Crowley. The script was written by Michael Yates Crowley, while I directed the performance and wrote the software that drove the production. Two other company members, Asa Wember and Sara C Walsh, were responsible for the sound design and scenography, respectively. The show was produced by Allie Lalonde. While each company member had a specific job title, it is important to note that our work on this production functioned much closer to a collective, with all of the collaborators giving notes and having a large impact on the script, production design, software and user experience. To reflect that collaborative process, I will use “we” when describing the intentions and work of the artists involved.
We began the project with two goals: to explore the way in which people communicate through digital media and to allow audience members to interact with mortality table data on a personal level. Being dissatisfied by the way digital technology is represented in the theatre (often through grainy projections), we sought to give an audience member an interactive experience of digital communication in the modern office. This impulse would require our audiences to read, interpret and respond to email and voicemail. The other goal of the project was to make a performance that would confront an audience member with the statistical certainty of their own death in a set number of years and to give them space to consider their life choices in light of their limited time on this earth.
We started the development of the project in 2015, at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side of New York City, with a set of invited audiences. We then performed two trial runs: at the Subversive Technologies Conference at the University of Maryland and the New York Theatre Workshop Adelphi residency. We premiered the piece in 2016 at the 54th Lincoln Center Film Festival, in their Virtual Reality/Digital Media series, and then remounted it at the Future of Storytelling Festival in New York, and then again at the American Repertory Theatre in 2017. We have since toured the piece to several other festivals.
We were able to create a performative experience in which an audience member plays a temp worker on their first day of the job. We restricted the performance to solo audience members: spectators are led in one at a time and left alone in this office to work for about 45 minutes. This audience member discovers that “Sarah Jane” has left a series of voicemails explaining the job to her “Temp.” At the same time, the audience member receives emails addressed to the audience member’s real name from the various office workers asking them to perform various data entry tasks in Excel, in addition to gossiping and complaining.
Yana Meerzon—Setting the Reflection
I attended temping during the conference Mediating Performance Experiences: Cultures and Technologies in Conversation / Les cultures et technologies en conversation that took place from April 25–27, 2019 in Ottawa. I had never seen the work of Michael Rau and Asa Wember, and I was curious what kind of performance experience one could get from visiting an office cubicle.
The performance space was set up in our own theatre building, a charming, well-lived heritage structure now in desperate need of a facelift. The action was set up on floor 1.5, something of a mezzanine in the old building, between two adjacent offices.
Before the action began, Michael met me in a narrow corridor next to my “office-to-be” and gave me a list of instructions. I opened the door to this unremarkable place to find myself in a shabby, fictionalized office setting, with no windows in sight. There was an outdated computer, a desk telephone and a huge printer in front of me.
I was instructed to take a seat, which I did, to find a cheerful Hawaiian postcard and a box of chocolates waiting for me in the right-hand drawer. A friendly email popped up onto my screen, welcoming me into my new position and providing a set of instructions to begin my job. With no other human in the room, I was suddenly sure that I was about to become both the performer and the observer of this production—an active participant of the immersive game.
Michael Rau—On Immersive Dramaturgy of Creating a Task
One of the earliest tasks in temping is to update an enormous employee database, changing entries in the database from active (living) to deceased. As the audience member locates the ID number in the Excel database and then changes the status to deceased, something strange happens. The lights in the room flicker and dim to a blue hue, quiet mournful music begins to play in the cubicle and the printer whirrs to life and prints out a sheet of paper.
On that paper is the same ID number and picture of that employee’s face, name, age and a brief description of a moment in the life of the person. These poetic descriptions included a father on a mission trip or an older woman just sitting in her garden watching the sunset. These little moments of human intimacy were designed to draw the audience member to the tension between the anonymity of the spreadsheet and experience of humanity behind the database. As soon at the audience member finished reading the paper, the lights returned to normal, the sound disappeared and the office works resumes.
This event happens each time the audience member changes a status in the Excel from Active to Deceased. The performance shifts between these dull emails about corporate earnings and these theatrical moments where the audience was confronted with slice of someone’s life.
Yana Meerzon—First Tasks and First Reactions
I am rather skeptical about immersive theatre experiences and their makers’ claims for the freedom that we (audience members) are ostensibly supposed to experience—the freedom which allows us to make our own artistic decisions (or moral or ethical, sometimes) and thus influence the action of our lives.
Freedom is an illusory concept, even when it comes to making theatre. In the immersive setting, there is always a script to follow, a set of rules to observe and possibly a set of instructions to obey. These (un)spoken conditions of one-to-one shows can serve as their controlling mechanisms of the action(s) and thus be both highly attractive for participants, but also intimidating, if not coercive (Schulze 2017, 109–14).
What was intriguing about temping was the makers’ modesty about their claims. I was not promised to be totally free in my actions and hence become a co-creator of this performance; I was simply invited to perform simple actions, such as sending emails, communicating with my boss over the phone and printing documents. This setup reminded me of the fundamental postulate of theatre acting, as outlined by Stanislavsky: on stage the actor must do things, must perform actions—not chase feelings and emotions. Otherwise, the actor might undergo a total transformation and become their own character.
Eager to participate, to do things and so to move the action forward, I turned into an obedient office worker. Busy following the numerous instructions of my bosses and demands from my invisible co-workers, who were supposedly sitting in the offices next to my own, I had no time to reflect on my experience; I only could do things. Because of that, I gave the most authentic or, rather, truthful performance of my character.
Occasionally, I would stop being over-conscious of my own mistakes. I would begin to wonder: what am I in this strange world of my performative encounter—an actor, an audience member, or both? Where are Michael and Asa? Do they actually see me scrambling with my tasks, trying to make sure my performance is to the par? Is there a hidden surveillance camera? How embarrassed should I be by not being able to figure out how an Excel file works?
It took me a good 10 minutes to realize that I had completely immersed myself into the process. I transformed into an inexperienced temp, desperate to please her invisible superiors and keep the job.
Suddenly, I also realized that this office routine was painfully familiar, as our daily job as university professors is often filled with superficial tasks, including sending emails and responding to phone-calls, participating in faculty meetings and sitting on academic committees that often do not really mean much. For a second, this realization depressed me. I also found it ironic, and so I experienced a sense of great estrangement, a kind of existential recognition of the futility of our everyday actions and routines: estrangement, which good theatre seeks to impose on its audience.
Reflecting on this realization, as we often do in theatre, I found myself thinking: “at least my own office in this building has wonderful views, with leaves falling on the ground announcing fall to come or first snow gently covering the ground . . .” Suddenly, I had found myself in a Chekhov play.
Michael Rau—Building Suspense
Later in the show, the audience member is taught via Sarah Jane’s voicemails to perform life expectancy calculations and asked to update another Excel spreadsheet. At the moment the entry on the spreadsheet is updated, giving some anonymous employee in the Midwest ten or twenty more years left to live, the printer whirs to life and shows the audience member a vision of the quiet human moments of their lives, forcing the audience to reconcile that with the knowledge that their lives would soon be cut short. Often times, once the audience member learns how to perform those life expectancy calculations, they would end up performing the calculation for their own lives or for loved ones. The performance gave the audience member a much more complicated vision of the pure math of a life expectancy calculation.
Yana Meerzo—Resisting Suspense
Perhaps because I am superstitious, I resisted the opportunity to apply this life-expectancy formula to myself. Instead, I took a moment to further inspect my semi-fictional surroundings in which I had to perform. The photograph of Sarah, who I was replacing, caught my attention. Now actively thinking of Chekhov’s dramaturgy, I remembered his famous postulate about the gun that must fire at the end of the play. Looking at Sarah’s photograph, I thought her absence seemed to be suspicious. “Why am I really replacing her?” the voice of an invisible dramaturge in my head asked. “Is she coming back? Did she quit her position? If yes, why? What happened? Is she sick? Was she harassed by these bossy co-workers?”
At this point in action, I started getting somewhat frivolous emails from my boss and co-workers, while my printer generated offensive messages without any conscious action on my side. The atmosphere has grown uncomfortable and put me on edge. What began as a pure immersive game had now turned into something else. I decided to slow down my actions and take time to reflect on what was happening. I also suddenly realized what kind of statistics I had to deal with and what kind consequences my actions would create.
Michael Rau—Preparing the Exit
temping ends with the audience member discovering (through an unintentionally CC’ed email) that Sarah Jane Tully, the person whose desk they have sat in and who, in a strange way, they have come to know through her overly chatty voicemails and her odd collection of desk knick-knacks, has been downsized from the company. And as a temporary worker, you are her replacement and will be replaced by someone else tomorrow.
Our intention was to transform the experience of looking at a mortality table into something that had a narrative; something that allowed for a richer experience of the data. The piece is a meditation on the fleeting amount of time in our lives, and a critique of corporations who measure their workers in terms of time and disposability.
One of the most interesting discoveries that we made from watching audience members interact with the show came through how often digital communication (email, voicemails, reading a printer story, and so on) created a very strong empathetic leap in the audience. That we, in the privacy of our cubicles, imagine and invest far more into someone based on scant details in an email signature than when we are presented with a living breathing actor.
Yana Meerzon—Reflecting the Exit
For me, the performance ended when I realized that Sarah was not working for this company anymore. Probably she was dead—either of age or suicide—and I had joined this morbid organization for life. I was clear, of course, that it was not me—Yana Meerzon, professor of theatre studies at the University of Ottawa, who got this new job for life, but another “Yana Meerzon,” the intern “Yana,” whose name was on the emails I got and whose signature was under the notes I sent. Suddenly, I was the protagonist in an autobiographical solo performance, in which my own body and identity was borrowed to play somebody else.
This realization was another moment of estrangement that I experienced in participating in this work. This recognition of the gap between the role we play in our everyday lives and the one we were asked to perform in temping underlined the autobiographical structure of this work. Here, the truth of a theatrical experience emerged from within the work of the spectator/participant. It signaled this unique ability of one-to-one productions to create our encounter between I and myself.
What I did not fully realize until I talked to Michael was that all my actions were carefully watched and responded to by the members of his artistic team. Michael and Asa were seated next to my “office” in the adjacent room. They closely observed my decision making process and carefully guided me in this journey by adjusting the scenario of this work to the unique performance I was enacting for myself.
I am still grappling with this discrepancy between the feelings of truth and transformation that I experienced participating in the show and the knowledge of being watched and steered by its creators. Armed by a set of critical theories about the power of the gaze, including Foucault’s panopticon, and the knowledge of the abuse many female workers experience on the daily basis, I turned to Michael for more information about making this performative experiment.
Michael Rau—Temping and Its Development:
Our work on this project began with simultaneous development in both technology and story. We first decided to try to tell a story in an office cubicle, and we began development on a set of technologies that would mimic an office phone and corporate email system. At the same time, Michael Crowley invented an office worker named Sarah Jane Tully, an actuary who had worked for an insurance company for over 20 years and who has taken her first vacation in a long time. He began writing emails, voicemails and printer stories, and he created the main narrative arc of the piece.
We constructed an office cubicle out of poster-board, and filled it with post-it notes, old New Yorker cartoons, leftover Tylenol bottles, finding office detritus to make it feel lived in. Only at the premiere at Lincoln Center did we create a fully built office cubicle by purchasing cubicle walls and fully decorated the room. At that point, Sara C. Walsh helped us think of the room as a story-telling channel. We began to hide “Easter eggs” of story throughout the built environment. Small clues that showed up in the text of the emails or the audio of the voicemails were then hidden in the drawers or inside certain book on a bookshelf.
We also spent a lot of time creating the storytelling tools of the office. Asa Wember built a working phone using an Arduino Nano, some spare electronics, an old phone body and Qlab. He laboriously created a 1000-cue automated Qlab file that would mimic a corporate phone system. Meanwhile, I programmed a software system using Ruby on Rails that mimicked a corporate email system and allowed an operator to send multiple emails from different accounts and would allow for a branching interactive narrative. These two pieces of technology were the primary channels of interaction with the show.
We also installed a laser printer as well as a lighting and sound system to replicate (down to the minute details) a corporate office cubicle experience. From a hidden control room, we could send and control events in the office cubicle, such as emails, voicemails and the printer, so that, using our interactive system, we could guide the spectators as users. We built out a fake corporation, “Harold Adams McNutt & Joy,” and populated it with 20 other fake employees, who could email the audience member at any point.
Our system was flexible enough that we could respond to different emails from the user as any of the employee/characters, and we developed a script that was responsive and had several narrative moral choice branches. The only live performer in the piece is the operator, watching via hidden camera and responding to the audience members’ actions.
Our performance was constructed with one simple major narrative. There were two narrative choices, but neither was intended to dramatically change the ending of the experience. The majority of our emails were pre-written and sent automatically by the operator. However, in the course of developing the show, we found audiences wanted to engage with certain characters, to perform actions or ask questions that we had not anticipated, and our technology allowed for the operator to perform as any of the characters in the show. We developed a system of narrative whorls, where we would allow the audience to interact with certain characters and then gently redirect them to back to the main narrative of the show. We had to be careful in each of these interactions to not disrupt the main narrative arc or create situations where our later emails would disrupt or confuse the audience by acting differently or not referencing earlier interactions.
Ultimately, the audience informed the course of the performance’s story—our events were based on how users interacted with the system; that is, how did they respond to the email, did they update the spreadsheet properly? And since the primary two operators were Asa Wember and myself, we began to discover different styles to operating the show. Similar to the way a stage manager’s calling of cues can speed up or slow down the performance, we found that the speed of our responses dramatically changed the experience of the show. We could send the emails and voicemails quickly, creating a stressful corporate environment where the audience’s co-workers were constantly demanding work and the “printer stories” were the only brief moments of reprieve in the production, or we could hold back on the sending of emails and allow for the audience to become bored, to dig around inside the drawers or explore different folders on the desktop. Since we could monitor the audience’s actions via hidden camera and see their mouse movements on a screen, we could guess and respond to the audiences’ experience.
Yana Meerzon—in the Words of other Participants
Although only a very few people were able to participate in this experience, as each showing would take about 40-45 minutes and the same time to set up the room, no single spectator left unmoved or without a clear opinion on the process. Conference participants who had the chance to see temping in Ottawa were either astonished and excited, or very angry. Some of them felt used and ridiculed. One of the participants told me about her decision to revolt against the system: at some point, she stopped responding to the emails and ignored inappropriate messages and images the printer would generate. She took the initiative to write back to her invisible interlocutors, demanding clarifications to the difficult or confusing tasks they would impose or simply refusing to complete the demanded tasks.
This work was our first attempt into combining technology with theatre and our first attempt to make a show without any live performers. Since the creation of this performance, we have gone on as a company to create another work that used the same email technology, and separately from the company I created another work that did not require the use of any live actors. Both productions drew direct inspiration from temping.
The piece that used our email technology was inspired by our realization that it creates an imaginative and empathic leap by the audience member. In temping our audiences made a series of assumptions about these characters based on their email “tone.” With our next piece, Block Association, we used email to set up the series of audience expectations—the audience was emailed for two weeks prior to the performance by all of the characters in the performance. We used the email technology to mimic a mailing list of a suburban block association. Then, on the date of the performance, the audience arrived at the space and “met” the characters from the emails, who were embodied by actors. We were interested in the way in which people interact in a virtual space, and the judgement that they bring to the internet, and the disjuncts that happen when confronted with live performers. Similar to temping, the audience created that empathic leap and had strong positive associations with one character and deeply negative associations with another character based solely on their email interactions. And then, in the live performance portion of the show, we tried to use and undermine those audience biases.
The second performance, The Group, drew inspiration from temping by reusing the mechanic of giving the audience a specific character that they inhabit within the piece. In temping, the audience would inhabit the role of “the temp,” which provided a specific set of actions and reactions that were culturally pre-defined for an audience member. We found that the definition of a specific character creates an alibi for interaction that makes audiences feel comfortable, and throughout the run of temping we found that audiences enjoyed the choice that they had to roleplay as “the temp” or as themselves.
The performance, The Group was an attempt to push the “audience as character” idea even further, so that the audience could define their own characters and relationships, and then role-play those characters with other audience members serving as the audience. This performance was co-created by myself and Katie Green of Twin Alchemy Labs. This was a much more involved process and required the first hour of the performance to become a workshop where the audience filled out a series of worksheets to define their character and relationships. At the same time, we found that the impact of giving the audience a character allowed for them to engage deeply in the performance, and rather than hesitating or feeling uncomfortable with engaging, the character provides the excuse to play and often absolves from self-consciousness since the audience member is not really playing “themselves.”
These discoveries of audience and technology became clearer because temping allowed us as creators to focus on the journey of an audience, one at a time. That solo focus helped us explore a central tenet of interactive theatre: that your actions as an audience member matter. We were interested in the way in which an audience member could interact with the performance beyond just the representation of data or a passive entertainment. Instead, by asking the audience to engage with the piece and by allowing them to imagine, react and direct their own actions, they became responsible for the narrative and their own experience.
The conference was organized by the Department of Theatre, Studies in Migration Interdisciplinary Research Group, at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, Ottawa. Here is the link to the conference website. Here is the list of performances that run at the conference.
Schulze, Daniel. Authenticity in Contemporary Theatre and Performance: Make it Real. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017.
*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa. She has published on theatre of exile and migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Her books include A Path of the Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (2005) and Performing Exile – Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave 2012). She has also co-edited several book collections and special issues of journals on these topics. As of this issue of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, Yana is the editor of the journal’s “Essay Section.”
**Michael Rau is a live performance director working in new plays, opera and digital media. His work has been performed in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Edinburgh, Dublin, the Czech Republic, Brazil and elsewhere. In New York, his work has seen at The Public Theatre, PS 122, the Bushwick Starr, and Ars Nova. He has been an associate assistant director for Anne Bogart, Les Waters, Francesca Zambello and Ivo Van Hove. He is an assistant professor of directing and devising at Stanford University.
Copyright © 2020 Yana Meerzon and Michael Rau
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