Minutes earlier, I had been ballroom dancing. But now I was lying down on a grimy floor, evading surveillance and trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. In more ways than one.
For a moment, I thought, “Did I really travel 3,000 miles for this?”
Let me rewind a bit. A few months ago, I caught wind of a project called The Republic. I read an article that described it as an immersive experience inspired by elements from Greek mythology, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Plato’s Republic. It was described as neither being a haunted house, escape room, nor traditional stage show, with the implied suggestion that it might contain whiffs of each. It even claimed to not be immersive theatre, at least in any sort of comparative sense to anything that’s been done before. The Republic was claiming to be something completely new. I’m so there!
There was just one problem. There was in Florida. It debuted at the Orlando Fringe Theatre Festival, which is nowhere near me. I needed a miracle. I asked the universe, and in reply got an email a few weeks later from a colleague telling me that I needed to go to Orlando for a tradeshow, on my birthday, while The Republic was running. Boom!
NOTE: the rest of this post does not contain any explicit spoilers, but I do flirt dangerously with disclosing the nature of what happens. If you’re planning on seeing this show, and want a completely pure experience, then you’ve been warned.
On the day of the show, I received an email directing me to a nondescript warehouse near downtown Orlando. My drive was accented by a torrential downpour complete with Zeus-worthy lightning bolts that seemed somehow appropriate. I’m from California. Weather’s a novelty.
By the time I arrived, a queue of guests had already formed outside the entrance, and we went through the increasingly common waiver signing formality before being allowed to enter. Once inside, we surrendered our cell phones and entered an anteroom where we were provided with a new identity and reminded about the rules of engagement. In short, explore, ask questions, and get involved in the action.
I am totally fascinated by the idea of immersive theatre. It blends storytelling, technical enhancement, and interactivity in a way that generally doesn’t exist outside the theatrical world except to a limited extent in some theme park and haunted attraction experiences. Ordinarily, attaching a genre to experiences that are attempting something groundbreaking is a restrictive and empty exercise, but it can still provide some useful context. As a baseline most productions tend to interpret it as a theatrical experience without chairs. The idea is that the elimination of the construct between the audience and the players allows for a deeper level of involvement with the drama. When it works, it can be tremendously effective. When it doesn’t, it might make you wish you had your chair back.
… if you want to
More ambitious productions add a layer of multiple rooms and encourage guests to do a certain amount of free roaming. In theory, the drama can potentially branch in multiple directions causing you to choose a single narrative thread at a time to follow. Some productions go even further by requiring guests to participate in the action by carrying props and executing other simple, scripted interactions.
In these types of shows, guests may have dramatically different experiences depending on the decisions they make, and may feel like they’re attending a totally different show upon repeat viewings. However, the net effect is really a partial glimpse of what is essentially a larger static narrative. The Republic does all of these things, but they’re just getting started.
Game Over Man
What makes The Republic different is that each guest is required to play an active role that has the potential to redirect the outcome of the narrative. This is a pretty giant step forward from simply being up close and personal to the action. The creators compare their show to a video game, and this shared sense of agency is at the heart of it.
When the show began, we were told that we were recruits, and in the first “scene,” each guest was assigned to one of the cast members who would be training and evaluating us for inclusion within the Republic. I had been concerned about the emphasis on role playing, but the role of a trainee was easily accessible even if the context was essentially bizarre and cryptic.
Early on, I was given a task to surreptitiously hide a folded-up note in a separate room. The room itself was a dead end, so I couldn’t go off on a tangent of wild exploration, but it did allow me to be alone for a brief moment. It may seem obvious, but I realized that I had been presented with an unspoken choice on whether to read the note before hiding it.
I decided to read it, and I was conscious of the time it was taking me to read it, since I was only supposed to be hiding it. Once I returned, it did not feel like an appropriately confidential time to discuss what I had read. The fact that I had read the note at all may have suggested that I had betrayed a certain confidence. The character who handed me the note did not ask me whether I had read it. I was completely in my own head over this one simple task, but I was digging it. This was immersive and exciting!
In a subsequent scene, when I was able to get some time alone with my assigned character, I asked him about the note and our conversation yielded a treasure trove of information including many tantalizing new clues and facts to piece together. It made me wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t read the note. What would our conversation have been like? I caught a glimpse of the myriad possibilities and twists and turns, and my experience was just one perspective out of 20+ guests in the context of something that might or might not have happened in the first 5-10 minutes of a 90 minute experience. You’re probably starting to get the idea of how big this thing could be.
In order to pull something like this off, the creators would have had to essentially create an all-encompassing universe that could account for dozens of permutations that could be communicated, interpreted, and executed on the fly on a minute-by-minute basis by actors who are basically improvising almost 100% of the time. It’s like a single game of Dungeons & Dragons with 20 Dungeon Masters and 20 players, played in 20 different rooms all at the same time with frequent reshuffling of all components. That’s huge. Like head-spinningly crazy. Which is probably why it ultimately didn’t totally work. For me at least.
If I had to theoretically reverse-engineer this beast, the principal challenge becomes how to reconcile what could easily become a freeform exploration of chaos theory. Periodically, there seemed to be narrative inflection points, roughly occurring at the end of an “act” in theatrical parlance, although that ship sailed long ago. These moments temporarily aggregated all the players in a single room and forced various narrative threads into some form of interim resolution. Think of it as a metaphorical reset button that attempted to contain the rapidly spiraling madness.
In theory, this is a clever mechanism. In practice, I personally felt somewhat more unmoored each time until I felt utterly disconnected from the show. The story might have been reconciled, but my role in it usually became less clear. Unfortunately, that tended to create something of a vicious cycle for me: the further I felt from the momentum of the story, the harder it was for me to jump back on the merry-go-round. I’m willing to share some of the blame for this for not trying hard enough to engage or re-engage, and at some point, I must have hit a personal limit. Or maybe the heat inside that warehouse had finally scrambled my brains out of my ears. There were no mirrors so I couldn’t be sure.
So did I like it? Well, it’s complicated. It’s important to remember that this debuted at a Fringe Theatre festival that provides a “safe” place to try out all kinds of crazy stuff that would be skewered in the context of the traditional stage scene. Not all of it is going to work. And when it does work, as it did for me in the initial scenes, it was stunning.
I give this team a ton of credit for creating this thing in the first place. I can imagine the B.S. sessions where people were saying, “What if we riffed on Plato’s Republic and inserted a bunch of characters from Greek mythology and rendered them against a German Expressionist backdrop and involved the audience, but totally let them feel like they were directing the action so that we’d basically be improvising 100% of the time so that each night we’d basically be putting on a new show.” Believe it or not, people have these kinds of crazy ideas fairly often. However, it’s a small handful who have the balls to actually follow through and try to raise the money, develop the concept, find the space, build the team, train the actors, build the set, and the hundred other things needed to bring this fully-grown Hydra to life.
To Team Republic: Thank you for having the courage to try something so audacious.
I find myself continuing to think about it. I honestly think that the creators should launch an online message board that could be like a support group for guests to share their experiences and riff on theories. There’s a lot going on here.
But the final test of whether this thing worked — I would probably see it again. Now that I have a handle on what’s going on and how it works, I’d do some things differently. I’d be curious to further test my own boundaries as a guest. I’d want to see the rooms I probably never got to see, and interact with characters that I only saw in passing. It felt like a world worth returning to, although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live there.