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On innovation and risk taking

Wherein yours truly once again innovates in a bubble, entertains widely, but leaves folks scratching their heads.

On Sunday, at the Baycon science fiction convention, I gathered a half dozen of the musicians who performed on The Mirror’s Revenge original cast album and led a CD release concert. That would have been the normal thing to do, and that’s what the audience of about 70 expected. But I wanted to show off the entire work, not just the music. In the tradition of musical theatre,  you can follow the basic story by listening to the songs. I figured, while I’ve got an enthusiastic audience, why not also tell them the whole story that goes with the songs. I also thought to make it a party, with dancing, since most of the music is waltzes. So we had the hotel install a dance floor. I ran a slide show of images to help the audience follow the story. I even rented a fairy tale wedding carriage for folks to take their pictures in.It was going to be a chance to live the fairy tale at a multimedia event folks would never forget.

So I put on my best William Shakespeare and narrated the story from the beginning, in order to the slides, with the band playing the songs at the appropriate places. People were fascinated. So fascinated they never got up to dance or take their pictures in the carriage. I made a break between acts and folks bought lots of the CDs, so I can only assume they liked what they heard. To be as impartial as I can, my partners in creative crime, Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover, have created a soundtrack for my play that exceeds my wildest dreams. The Chair of the convention approached me at the break and asked whether I had made it clear this was supposed to be a dance. I had, but they weren’t interested in dancing. Yet the event was clearly a success. Very few folks left at the break.

After the performance, many folks came up and thanked the band members for their fine playing and singing. Then they came over to me and said they loved the story. They also said the presentation initially confused them, that until they got into it, they didn’t know what to make of it.

I later saw pictures taken from the audience’s point of view, and I now see I rather overwhelmed them. My fifteen year old, who likes to dance, observed that after every three or four minute song, the music would stop and I would tell some more story. She pointed out at dances, the band plays back to back for ten or fifteen minutes and folks stay out on the dance floor. I also now see where the slideshow, while it got a few good laughs and did its job of assisting the story, was indeed a visual impediment to anyone spinning around dancing.

A cardinal rule of the stage is to never do anything that breaks the audience’s suspension of disbelief. A stage hand moving a prop at the edge of a scene will rip an audience out of the bubble the actors are working hard to maintain. I did not think adding new ways for the audience to live the performance would distract from the story being told. It seems to have required more effort from the audience to find the rhythm of what we were doing. It was inadvertently more experimental than expected.

The audience did find the rhythm. Although I’m sorry I made everyone work so hard, I’m really pleased they got into it. There were a couple of missteps, and there was at least one large missed cue on my part, but the audience followed along happily. So the experiment worked. That does not mean I’m going to repeat it.

I think I will follow the example of storytellers and actors, and give the audience one thing to concentrate on at a time. It’s easier to hold their interest, and you can tell if you’re losing them. Traditional theatre does this. The same actors who are telling the story, sing the songs, and provide the visuals that help the story along. It all gets covered, and the audience only has to follow one thing, the actors.

I have seen what is called experimental theatre. I used to think it was odd mixings of media, like opera singers providing the dialogue for ballet dancers. But “experimental” usually means stories told out of sequence, or told by characters you would not expect to be the Point Of View characters. Even artsy challenging juxtaposition pieces try to keep the audience focused on the message being attempted. Very few risk giving the audience opportunities to be distracted by different things being thrown at them.

I wasn’t trying to invent a new kind of theatre experience. I just tried too hard, and ended up making my audience work to keep up. I am very pleased that folks stuck around and got what I was trying to tell them. I think I will leave media innovation to folks who work with tech. Things like web comix, MMP games, and VR theatre have met with enthusiasm. Good for them. I will remain happy simply to add Playwright to my business card.

Get The Mirror’s Revenge album here.

Categories: Writing
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