Kevin T. Velez, Campus Carrier asst. arts & living editor
Taylor Corley, Campus Carrier editor-in-chief
The Berry College Theatre Company (BCTC) is setting the stage for a production unlike any it has sponsored before. For the first time, BCTC will host an Interactive Cyber Theater (ICT) production. The new production is inspired and directed by Berry’s visiting artist in residence, David Alford. Under Alford’s vision and the effort of dedicated student workers and actors, the show will have technological enhancements and audience participation embedded into its storyline.
According to junior Sarah Thompson, a cast member in the production, Alford presented the idea at a monthly BCTC meeting her freshman year.
“David told us at one of the meetings that he was starting this project that he’d been dreaming of doing for like 15 years,” Thompson said. “He gave us the pitch and told us it was kind of like a choose your own adventure book but an improvisation show.”
Alford and the cast have been working on the project at Berry now for over two years. Alford noted the ownership his students have taken to the project since its planning stages. Highlighting the production’s emphasis on improvisational acting, Alford noted the uniqueness of the show’s script as well.
“There are no lines,” Alford said. “None of the lines have been written. All the dialogue is spontaneous and created in the moment. The actors, at this point, know their character so well, they know how they would react.”
Because the show has no lines, before those involved could even begin to conceptualize one scenario for the production, let multiple alternate endings, Alford ensured that everyone was comfortable improvising.
“This has been almost three years in the making,” junior Sydney Muñoz said. “It’s been a lot of time and a lot of just, in the beginning, improv activities.”
The show encompasses mostly improvisational theatre. At certain points, the story will stop to allow audience members to vote on what they want to see the characters do next. The storyline will then continue based on the audience consensus. After the audience votes for what they wish to occur, the results will be counted in real time to enact the action the audience voted in favor for.
Thompson, who, like Muñoz, has been a part of this project since the second semester of her freshman year, said the improv activities brought the class closer together over time and helped to develop their relationships.
“I think that working on improv was a really huge part of the process,” Thompson said. “Just being able to trust one another and just being able to really figure out what works and what doesn’t, and see how we can use each other’s strengths to make a scene interesting and craft a story that will really resonate with the viewer was really important.”
While Alford was available for notes and creative direction, he gave student’s most of the initiative, including control over the script, characters and costumes. According to junior Halle Teague, not only did the improv build a sense of community within the cast, it also prepared them for the creative journey.
“At the beginning I couldn’t imagine being in an improv scenario for longer than five minutes,” Tegue said. “Now, we do that every single rehearsal for like thirty minutes, forty five minutes and you don’t even think about it. David did such a good job like you can’t even comprehend how far we’ve come unless you look back. David walked us through the process of creating a character so when it came time to start writing the scenarios, because he had walked us through that, we knew how to not not only improvise but create characters we want to act as.”
In order to fully grasp the innovation and impact behind doing an interactive theater performance, the cast took the time to do what they referred to as looking back to look forward.
“In the beginning when we started, we started with researching the history of innovations in theater,” Thompson said. “We looked at how theaters changed a bunch over time and we tried to kind of use that to help project forward what we could change in the future. We also looked at how we could do it in a way that maintained the integrity of theater while also making it exciting and new and different.”
In order to make this production possible, there are several roles behind the scenes such as “the ghost,” undertaken by junior Lily Calhoun. During the show, actors will wear earpiece devices so that Calhoun can tell actors what scenarios the audience selected and guide the actors during their scenes.
“The ghost works in tandem with the director,” Muñoz said. “He has shaped us as characters and made sure we know what we’re doing with the scenarios, but Lily’s job as the only ghost is she gets the what the answers to the prompts are and she relays them into our ears.”
Calhoun can give direction to the cast as a whole or into an individual’s earpiece. For Thompson, knowing that she has someone to guide her through the scene if needed is comforting.
“It’s really nice to have Lily in my ear because she’s just so kind, and whenever she says something it’s never scary,” Thompson said. “It’s like learning to trust your gut but your gut is Lily.”
Alford also teamed up with students and faculty at Hackberry Lab to develop an online webpage that will tally the votes.
Zane Cochran, a clinical assistant professor of creative technologies and the director of Hackberry Lab, has been working alongside his students on this project since last semester. Alford’s invitation to create the needed technical applications for the production excited Cochran. Involving an audience in a theatrical production and retaining their engagement even after the production had ended was a key interest for him.
“I knew I had to be involved and I wanted to figure out the technical problems,” Cochran said.
An early challenge Cochran faced in the project was creating an app that is easy for both audience members and theatre staff who will be monitoring the voting.
“At the end of the day I had to design something that not only worked for the audience members, but also something that works for the students running the shows,” Cochran said.
Another challenge Cochran faced was the high potential of servers being overwhelmed when a full audience logs on to the voting application. To ensure the application’s capacity, Cochran and his students performed load-tests, which sought to test and diminish any fragility of the servers by repeatedly logging onto them from other devices.
Cochran is happy to see institutions like the theatre adopt technology into productions and holds strong enthusiasm for the ICT project.
“I am so excited we have awesome people like David here at Berry that are thinking ‘what does the future role of technology look like in the theatre’ because that makes the world so much better,” Cochran said.
Rather than developing a traditional app for the voting process, Cochran and his team developed a webpage browser that resembles an app, which does not require any downloads. The staff ruled against an app download to allow audience members the ability to vote regardless of what type of phone or device they used.
“When the website loads up, it actually looks like a mobile phone application,” Cochran said. “And so, it is giving people the same look and feel of an app without them having to download anything beforehand or without worrying if someone has an iPhone or Android phone.”
Junior Graham Troiani is heavily involved with other technology being used in the production and is in charge of managing the microphones used by the cast. He controls most of the sound used in the show as well. Troiani illustrates how he and his fellow actors have worked to make the voices of the actors clearer and more projected while wearing masks in the show. Troiani has also been able to watch the show in rehearsal and he noted how natural the actors are with their characters and how they react in a way that their character would. Troiani relates the show to audience choice and admires its unique nature.
“It is a theatrical version of choose your own adventure,” Troiani said.
Senior Trinity Hutchins has a predominant leadership role in the show, as she oversees costume design for the entire production. According to Hutchins, it is rare for the costume shop to enlist a student to oversee a show’s entire design, but the student-led nature of this production has allowed Hutchins to take the role.
“Getting to manage a shop that is so talented and is able to rise to this challenge is amazing,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins has worked in the costume shop since the beginning of her sophomore year and is using her experience to tackle and address the challenges in designing costumes that are fitting for a production reliant on improv.
“Improv is so fun to design for, because you do not know what they are going to do,” Hutchins said.
With this innovative project marking an end to Alford’s stay at Berry, he recalled what really persuaded him early on to bring this vision of the ICT project to life at Berry specifically. Alford said he fell in love with the campus and admired the student work program that instills a strong work ethic into students. According to Alford, his admiration has only grown during his tenure at Berry.
“I am not sure if this project could have been finished in this short amount of time at any other school, and that is due almost entirely to the work ethic of the students,” Alford said.
The ending of Berry’s newest theatrical production is untold, but audiences will have the opportunity to see different ways the story could end, twice. According to Muñoz there are two casts: the sky blue cast and the royal blue cast. Both casts have the same characters portrayed by different people. After intermission, whichever cast did not perform first will come on stage and the audience members will have a chance to choose a new genre, new character direction, and maybe see a new ending.
“You get to see what it’s like and how it could end differently based on your choices,” Muñoz said.
Allowing the audience to see two different casts also ensures that the show maintains it’s impromptu nature.
“Having two casts ensures that it’s actual improv because no person is going to play the character the same way,” Thompson said. “There are similar story arch or similar character traits that you’ll see bleed through but there is no script so what you see is the product of somebody.”
Until the audience decides, even the actors in Alford’s envisioned production will not know fully how it will end. Alford is very proud of the work everyone at Berry has put to make the show happen and hopes to visit Berry when the theatre company can incorporate and evolve his vision of an interactive cyber theatre.
“There’s no better feeling in the world than when you are completely immersed in a scenario surrounded by people who are also immersed in the scenario and everything is working,” Teague said.
BCTC’s interactive theatrical production will be open for students and faculty to attend Apr. 13-17. Those wanting to attend can contact BCTC to reserve seats.