The current production of Rude Mechanicals’ Now Now Oh Now is slightly different for everyone who goes, and it starts with your ticket.
You select a talisman with one of six figures on it, which is your ticket in. And that’s just the first of several choices you make, or that are made for you, which promise a theater experience even more subjective and individualized than they would be in a typical show.
Now Now Oh Now, which opened this past weekend at The Off Center, has evolved significantly from its 2010 beginnings. Rude Mechs principal Shawn Sides, who staged the play and performs in it, says it was initially an adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, then had a workshop run this past February as CL1000P — a title combining Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s landmark anti-capitalistic tract A Thousand Plateaus with seminal ‘80s ladycop TV series Cagney and Lacey.
Shawn Sides, who staged the play and performs in it, says it was initially an adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
The play’s primary focus now is on the role of chance in our lives, the potential importance of beauty and pleasure in the evolutionary process and the way romantic relationships shape us even after they end. But it’s more complicated than that, and the interactivity is a major reason why.
The troupe received feedback in its February run which informed their refinement of the newly-titled work. Now a smart, three-part performance, it utilizes more of the Off Center than a typical Rudes audience ever sees, engaging each audience member significantly in the first act, and using these audience-discovered clues to provide resonance with elements of the play’s subsequent two acts and its two possible endings.
The audience participation in Act One — puzzle solving in a LARP (live action role playing) structure — allows individual audience members to meet characters they’ll meet later. Though the lessons are initially cryptic, it functions not unlike the fable where people feel individual parts of the elephant on the way to understanding that the parts are all interconnected.
Company member Thomas Graves, who worked on creating the rules to Act One, notes that the CL1000P version had all 30 audience members trying to solve the same puzzle; having the audience breaking into smaller groups and solving more bite-sized, specific puzzles has created a more engaging, satisfying experience — which is crucial to the project.
“We have instant access to just about any passive-reception experience you can imagine,” explains Sides. “So something personal — something material and sensory — is what makes an experience worth getting up from the computer for. We want to create this unique, intimate experience that really engages people’s senses and asks them to play with us instead of just watching us play. We find it more and more ridiculous to ask audiences to sit passively and watch us perform. If the idiosyncratic value of theatre is its ‘liveness’ in the room, then we think we have an obligation to loosen up what it means to be an audience.”
Hannah Kenah, a Now Now Oh Now author who shares lead performer duties with Lana Lesley, says: “One of the things I really enjoy about this show is how entirely different the three acts/sections/experiences are. Every individual audience member is going to have different things that are their cup of tea. Hopefully with the variation between the three sections, you will find at least one cup of tea that is yours.”
She adds, “Hopefully three.”
Of the first section and its audience participation, she says: “Overall, people seem to be enjoying getting thrown into the puzzle world full force — your experience becomes very much about the other people that are happening to see the show that night.”
The play’s primary focus now is on the role of chance in our lives, the potential importance of beauty and pleasure in the evolutionary process and the way romantic relationships shape us even after they end.
This isn’t the only Austin theater group playing with rules of how an audience interacts with a play. At last month’s Fusebox Festival, Salvage Vanguard staged a site-specific workshop version of “Dream Cabinet” at the Eastside’s Eponymous Garden, in advance of a planned October run.
Rather than confining the play to a single space within the 1880s Victorian farmhouse, the play began on its porch with a monologue from its World War I-era doctor/con-man, hawking a portable electroshock machine promising to cure various ailments.
From there, the audience was led into the house, and a cast of characters performing in a bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, dining area and staircase. Audience members standing between two spaces could catch echoed words and phrases in characters’ monologues, and could wander from space to space until the lead character’s singing drew the audience to gather in the sitting room for a more traditional, collectively-watched scene. (Actors closing the doors behind the audience once assembled ensured they’d stay there.)
Jenny Larson, artistic director at Salvage Vanguard and co-creator of Dream Cabinet, says of the work: “From the beginning, the desire was to create a very sensory world that was abstract in its storytelling, not literal or traditional, and that was kind of creepy and scary. The goal is to have a world that is part art exhibit, part play, and part puzzle. We want to leave the audience with just a bunch of clues, and then have them wake up at 4 a.m. going, ‘Oh! I get it!’”
Feedback from the April performance helped her determine how various strategies for audience movement worked, and opened up additional possibilities. She said, “I think it’s powerful to break audiences’ expectations. After a few minutes, an audience will start to think that they know the rules of the world. I love for the rules to keep changing.” Those who saw Dream Cabinet in April can expect a slightly more narrative storyline, and for action to be “less simultaneous and more like a waterfall.”
As for the Rudes and Now Now Oh Now, the plan is to finalize a version in October, with tentative plans to tour and possibly showcase the final version for Austin audiences. While it is satisfying as is, a final draft presentation of the work would, at the very least, allow audiences one more pass at the puzzles that may still keep them guessing in the here and now.
“Now Now Oh Now” runs through June 9, with shows at 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Ticket information is available on the home page on the Rude Mechanicals website.