Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
silent PLAY experimentThe PLAY collective
There is an art to directing audience members. David Shiner, in Fool Moon, was a master of doing it one-on-one. In the Bridge Theatre's Julius Ceasar, a handful of people direct what looks like hundreds of audience members as the fickle Roman citizens. Think about how hard that is. Audience members aren't actors; you can't trust them to cheer for Brutus but cheer louder for Mark Antony. You need to make them want to do that. Directing an audience is the art of emotional manipulation.
So when I heard about the silent PLAY experiment, I was intrigued. It is billed as an immersive theatre experience in which the audience becomes the participantspartly directed, mostly improvised, you and a couple dozen other people show up to get creative, wholly without words, in a nice, safe, encouraging space. I was in.
The day of the experiment, you receive your costume assignment (comfortable all black clothes, leave your shoes at the door, socks are provided); and the secret location of this downtown L.A. pop-up is revealed. As soon as you walk in the door, there's no talking. The check-in-and-leave-your-shoes anteroom is the start of the silence. But after that, there's a very clear demarcation between the outside world and the PLAY world. Once you enter, it's all about releasing your inner 7-year-old through imagination and interaction.
There are three rooms to the experiment. The first is warm and inviting, with various stations such as finger-painting, for you to try out and start exercising those dormant play muscles. There's an old manual typewriter in the middle of the room, where you are encouraged to sit and add to an ongoing story. I love the typewriter. I love the feel of the keyshow you have to press hard for every letter. It makes you think about your entire sentence before you start typing; there's no delete key to allow you to change mid-thought. And because nobody in the room is allowed to speak, you can hear its clickety-clack whenever someone sits down and adds to the collaboration.
When you feel like it, you can wander into the second room. The first was something of a prologue; the second room is all about improvisation and interaction. You can finger-paint alone in room one, but in room two, someone might grab you to join their pantomime marching band. There are written suggestions all around; pick a card and do what it tells you to do. There are also guides in the room (they're easy to spot, being dressed in all white) and they'll assist if you're at a loss. But this is the room where you're likely to find yourself crawling or rolling on the carpeted floor. Hopefully, your inhibitions were sufficiently released by the first room.
Eventually, things get more directed. (Easily. It's almost surprising how quickly people catch on when the three people in white start doing something together.) You do some improv games in a circle, where everyone gets a chance to show off their own creativity. You're brought, as a group, into the third room, where there is a performance area and an audience area. You take turns being performers and audience, deciding before each round of the game whether to be on stage or remain seated. Then it's back into the second room for a few more improv games, including the mirror game, where you're paired off and mirror each other.
I could, I think, write 500 words on the psychology of the mirror game. Here, you play it a few times, with random other people in the room. Fascinating, I think, to see which people will lead (and force you to copy them) through the whole thing, which people will expect you to lead, which pairs will switch off the lead, and which pairs will share it naturally. One dude annoyingly took the lead for the whole thing; he was visibly surprised when I forced it away. But I was equally annoyed by the next one, who refused to take it even though I was doing everything I could to silently offer it to him. This isn't play; this is a male/female power dynamic playing itself out with strangers in a converted warehouse.
The whole thing ends, as it should, with something of a dance party. (You're silent; there's a ton of music.) You're back in a circle, moving to the beat, while people take turns in the center, showing off their moves. No judgment; everyone is good. (But, yeah, some people are very good.) I notice that it's taken a very long time for me to transition from standing and rocking to actually dancing, but by the time the dance is over, I have. I very nearly burst into tears, although whether thats a cathartic release or anger at the fact I never got my turn in the center of the circle, I honestly can't say. The newly awakened emotions of an inner 7-year-old are a very fragile thing.
There are ways in which the experiment could be improved. There's a photographer snapping pics; you're told that this is some sort of compensation for leaving your cell phone at the door. (No selfies, but you'll be emailed your pictures for your personal use.) But the only thing the photographer did was make me feel self-conscious when I was otherwise not caring about how I looked. Perhaps PLAY is something that should not be photographed. A lot of time was spent playing a game where you write or draw on a paper on someone else's back; I didn't quite get the point of that one. And at one point, an over-eager guide misunderstood what I was trying to say (or not say) and ended up doing what was written on the card for me to do, as some sort of illustration for me to copy. You're supposed to direct me, not steal the performance from me.
The PLAY collective presents the silent PLAY experiment at a secret downtown pop-up through April 15, 2018. For tickets and information, see www.silentplayexperiment.splashthat.com
Creative team: Olivia Hamilton, Kyle Kaminsky, Ross Wyngaarden.