Thursday, October 11, 2012

Suspicious Package: An interactive iPod noir has been delivered to Pittsburgh's Cultural District.

This weekend only Future Tenant is presenting Gyda Arber's Suspicious Package.

Photo Credit: Suspicious Package

Suspicious Package has been labeled an "interactive iPod noir play" and has something to say about the new-wave participatory theatre experience. This is a space where reality, technology and performance all collide.

The play has been adapted for audiences of four or six and unlike other immersive work, this is a play where as an audience member you are given the opportunity to play one of the characters in the play.

Upon arrival you are given a character, a costume and a Microsoft Zune Media Player. The mp3 player acts as your guide through the 45-minute tour around a block of Pittsburgh's cultural district. Each guide plays a character-specific audiovisual file complete with directions around the neighborhood, flashbacks that provide the necessary exposition, and of course a script to be read by you, the actor -- all underscored by an appropriately melodramatic score.

The event's plot focuses around a showgirl's sickness. Is she faking ill to get out of a constricting contract? Is someone after her starring role? Or is it something more convoluted? It's your job as either the glamourous showgirl. clever producer, smart detective or primadonna heiress to get to the bottom of the case or to get out unscathed. The six-part version also includes a nosy reporter and a quack doctor, extending the event through another unexpected twist.

When I was taking my interactive tour around a block I thought I knew, it seemed a little different to me. Maybe it was my detective hat or the music coming through my headphones but this play literally took me to another time and place. I was immediately more aware of certain things and other peoples, whether they were playing characters or not.

No one should stray away from this play just because they have to read some lines. My friends have used this as their excuse for not attending but they will regret it. Yes, you read some lines, but it's one on one with another person who's also reading lines that they have never seen before. Nobody's perfect and that is part of the fun of whole event.

That's the greatest thing about this play. It's fun. You get to stalk around, hiding in bookstores, attending secret meetings and live out a noir tale.

Tickets are $25.00 and include the price of a drink for you to enjoy afterwards as you talk about your experiences with your fellow cast-mates. (Tickets can be purchased here). Showtimes are October 11, 12, 13, 14 at 1, 2, 3, 4pm.

Considering the nature of this event, I am most interested in how you make sense of an evening like this. What is going on in your head as you navigate through the arsenal of information being fired your way from your audiovisual file, the other characters, the outside world, the architecture around you, etc.? If you do end up attending a performance of Suspicious Package please feel free to share your experiences, good or bad, here in the comment section below.


  1. i had to do this in two parts because i wrote too much!

    By the time you read this it will be too late for you to attend Future Tenants’ presentation of Gyda Arbor’s Suspicious Package. So I am writing this with the hopes that sharing my experience might encourage theatregoers who, for whatever reason, may be scared off by participatory theatre to give it a chance.

    Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

    My first experience with what I would deem immersive theatre would have been when my brother, myself and other kids in the neighborhood jumped out from our back doors and into the woods of our suburban plans and dubbed ourselves “The Lost Boys of Applewood Acres.” We would assign each other characters, dress up accordingly and head to the nearest tree, mud pile or creek. Action would ensue and someone usually died. Not pretty, but every day in the neighborhood we could be someone new, exciting and different.

    Seeing Suspicious Package and being able to role-play in a period film noir atmosphere brought me back to those years. And though I was moving a lot slower than I did in my youth, I was having the same adventurous fun. And it was o.k. to do so.

    A little of my background.

    As a child I walked into the first day of dance class and tripped over the entryway. In my mind, I was immediately classified as a no-talent, and being pretty shy, I just went with the flow. So growing up I have always been made to feel as if I was someone more suited for the audience than stage and for some 40-odd years I have taken my role as that fourth wall pretty seriously.

    Although I don’t have any technical affiliation with any theatre group and have never written any reviews, I am very opinionated when it comes to performance. I see shows like other people visit drive-thru windows. Yet with all my experiences I still find myself cautionary when it comes to trying anything other than the traditional.

    I mean, participatory theatre will mean I will be judged, when as an audience member I am used to doing the judging…..won’t it?

  2. Suspicious of the Suspiciousness of Suspicious Package.

    Not knowing what was in store for me, and frankly a little nervous and with the coaxing of a friend I decided to check out the experience. I met up with a friend and some cheerful, yet unfamiliar faces at the Future Tenant performance space. One of these faces included the playwright Gyda Arbor. She comfortably explained that as audience members we would be able to choose from a group of characters and walk the streets of Pittsburgh creating our own version of a self-guided play.

    As a group we walked across the street to a reserved table at a local restaurant where we acquainted ourselves briefly with other participants and were sent off on our journey, one at a time, as the mp3 player dictated.

    Thoughts that came to my mind immediately were that I was going to look foolish wearing the prop (in my case a white feather boa) while walking through the city. Other worries for me were whether or not I would become distracted, and screw up the performance (I almost wanna call it a game) for the other actors, or whether there might be some physical tasks that I would be unable to accomplish.

    All of that worry as I found out was unnecessary. As soon as I slipped on the headset I was a kid in my old neighborhood, with my new friend Gyda deciding what adventure we were going to re-enact that day.

    The particulars of the adventure have already been explained on this blog so I will just say that if you are considering attending this type of theatre but you have been scared off because you feel yourself too “old” I’ve got two words for you……do it!

    The wearing of the headset gave me a certain “aire of confidence” as I trudged through the assigned path…in other words; this middle-aged, non make-up wearing, uncomplicated woman started “vamping out.” (don’t tell anyone, but I even felt a little bit sexy, haha.) I even found myself really getting into the character as the journey progressed, adding a little more style and flare to my “showgirl” character with every scene that passed.

    With the mp3 instruction forcing you to move through the streets in a timely but not too rushed manner, strutting through the alleyways in what I will refer to as my form of “character study” had given me, as an person on the down-side of 50, more physical energy. After the first couple of scenes I found myself bursting through doors. Woah.

    I also felt like I observed the city from a perspective not normal to my day to day travels – could this or that person be a part of the script? Was the abortion protester or bum on the corner part of the scene? I also was able to explore a lot of Pittsburgh establishments (including a cartoon museum and an awesome bookstore) that I may not normally have entered due to the path of Gyda’s journey, which she had handed over to us to complete.

  3. After the tale had been told our group gathered back at our starting point and spent some time discussing our adventure. What had started as a discussion about our experiences with the play soon expanded to include our own personal life-journeys.

    Our group consisted of my friend and I, a struggling, passionate sex-playwright from London, a very serious looking man who was heavily involved in improve comedy, a shy and quiet local girl and Gyda, who I will describe to you as a literary flower child.

    The improv theatre guy hailed from Texas but was currently living in Brooklyn and had hitched a plane ride from Beirut (yes, Lebanon) to work on a local project. The sex playwright was at one point in her life a therapist; and wanted to create world peace “one orgasm at a time” to help couples have better sex lives.

    Um…is this Pittsburgh?? Am I seriously discussing theatre…. and life…. and careers…. and decisions on a couch with all of these interesting, worldly people? I pinched myself, it wasn’t just a dream.) All of this was allowed to happen because what may have been thought of as a simplistic and predictable plot had been performed with a twist and a different vantage point. Instead of just being irritated by my fellow audience members for loud candy wrappers I was on a journey with them that continued long after the show was over. I liked it.

    Our conversation carried us to the next group of performers who were heading back from their 2 pm show time. Included in that group was a Florida State graduate student who was sharing a pop-up space in town with a struggling visual artist, who invited us to his 3-minute puppet shows that he was performing on-demand. Wow.

    Who knew all this adventure could come from a $25 ticket and a little guts?

    (Ok in this part, I am asking you to participate, by visualizing me, 51-year-old, once-vibrant-woman feeling a little worn-around-the-edges theatre-goer -- standing up on chair with sword held high…)

    “It’s time to get out of the chair and on to the stage!! wherever that may be! You know you wanna do it! And unlike some mind-altering drugs, participatory theatre allows you to control the precise amount of immersion you want!”

    I am encouraging you to get out and give this new and exciting participatory theatre a try. Support the playwrights and theatre people who make it available to us. Get out of your traditional-audience, forward-facing seat, go out on a limb and throw yourself into the next version of immersive theatre that stops into town. You will be so glad you did. This form of theatre is giving you that chance to think you are ‘once again’ cool, without, in my case, drinking tons of alcohol.

    See you on the streets?