2019 Fringe Festival Spotlight: Immersive Theater
This year’s Fringe Festival features a new kind of adventure – enter the world of immersive theater and be transported to multiple alternate realities.
Here we talk to Sarah Elger, co-founder of Pseudonym Productions to discuss Question Reality which will be performed in Philadelphia on September 10 + 12–15 for the 2019 Fringe Festival.
FringeArts: How did the title Question Reality come into being?
Sarah Elger: The title “Question Reality” came from the very nature of the works we create at Pseudonym Productions. Our thrilling immersive experiences encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, live differently – and question reality. It’s our company tagline, our website (QuestionReality.com), and the very heart of what we do. So, as we (re)introduce ourselves to Philadelphia, it seemed like the perfect choice for a title.
But it’s not just a name. The title is reflected directly in the story and theme of the experience we have created exclusively for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this year. The production is a mind-bending combination of live theater and exploration that may lead you to question the very nature of existence as we transport you through a tear in reality into another realm.
FringeArts: What part does the audience play in the piece?
Sarah Elger: We have been writing one epic story that connects multiple immersive experiences this year. At Fringe, Question Reality brings you into a century-old abandoned warehouse where you will meet our main character, who transports you into the realm she has recently discovered – where nothing is ever as it seems.
The story will continue throughout October as the portal expands to allow you to step into the realm between life and death and take part in a haunting evening of mystery, legend, and exploration in our month-long Halloween experience, which is called Dark Passage.
Both of these live immersive experiences will allow players to explore a vibrant themed world and interact with intriguing characters while figuring out and becoming part of the story that evolves around them. No two visits are the same in these ever-changing experiences.
And throughout September and October, players worldwide may interact with the story online beginning with our Digital Fringe experience that’s simply called Pseudoverse.
This experience bridges Question Reality with Dark Passage and takes players on a digital journey into the unexpected.
But if your question is: Why are players being drawn to this newly discovered realm? Let’s just say … no matter how you take part, it’s an unnerving experience that will move your soul.
FringeArts: What is it like to be back in Philadelphia with this work since Pseudonym Productions came out of a collaboration at Penn? How have you been exploring immersive theater since?
Sarah Elger: It’s incredible to be back in Philadelphia after being in Orlando for the past five years. This is a city that I called home for 3 years, but spent most of the time on campus. I’m excited and eager to share our unique productions with everyone here. Since returning a few months ago, I’ve heard from endless people that have wished Philadelphia had more immersive entertainment.
Since getting my Master of Architecture at Penn several years ago, I’ve had a career designing theme parks and attractions for Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and NASA. But I never let Pseudonym slide, as we have produced six immersive theater experiences over the past five years spanning Orlando, Los Angeles, and New York. And our lead writer, Nikhil Menezes, has been with us for all of them – all the way back to the early brainstorm sessions at Penn, when he was a mere freshman. After spending a few years in London, he’s now returning to the U.S. to get his PhD just up the road at Princeton.
We’re thrilled to now have the opportunity to host the Immersive HQ Lounge during Fringe where we look forward to meeting audiences throughout the festival and telling them more about the incredible immersive works that are being produced here.
We got our start in Orlando at the Fringe Festival there, so we couldn’t imagine a better way to resume our immersive journey here than with the Philly Fringe Festival.
What: Question Reality
When: September 10 + 12–15, 2019
Where: Immersive HQ
Last year, SPIES! debuted at the Fringe Festival and this year, creator Kat Hinkel is back with the sequel SPIES!! Even More Spying. We spoke with Kat Hinkel who shared with us the process for building the show, what she hopes the audience will take away from the experience and how the performance space adds to the experience.
SPIES!! Even More Spying will be taking place on September 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 + 21 as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival.
FringeArts: For patrons who saw SPIES! last year, what has been your process for building this new show and how will it differ?
Kat Hinkel: Last year’s SPIES! felt very vintage noir, and this year we’re facing a more futuristic, tech-driven setting and “threat.” That said, many things the audience loved will remain the same: the chatbot that lets the audience vote on what happens next, the endless dad jokes, and the fabulous will-they-won’t-they of our two lead spies among them.
As last year’s show had 3 different endings, I had to start by creating a one-year-later setting that could believably follow any of the three endings. Last year, the countries of Gane and Westerly were at war, and this year they have teamed up… but of course everything isn’t as buddy-buddy it seems. All’s fair in love and spying.
FringeArts: What’s your experience in immersive theater?
Kat Hinkel: I saw my first immersive show, Sleep No More, in August 2012, followed by Speakeasy Dollhouse in 2014. I knew after that that I wanted to create my own immersive experiences, but it took some time to pull all the pieces together. Last year’s SPIES! was the first play I wrote, as well as my first time participating in Fringe, and the whole experience was wonderful. (The fact that we sold out before we opened was also a nice surprise for a debut.)
This year, I attended the amazing Immersive Design Summit and got to meet and learn from the best in the industry. I’m also very active in No Proscenium’s online community of immersive creators and enthusiasts, and I host the Philadelphia Immersive Experience Meet-up once a month to bring together those interested in immersive in the city.
FringeArts: What would you like the audience to take away from this experience?
Kat Hinkel: The audience will hopefully have tons of fun and laugh a lot. I also hope it provides all the “pretending to be a spy” escapism that we all want and need in our lives.
FringeArts: Why are you excited about Kismet Cowork Spring Arts as your new space for this year?
Kat Hinkel: I was really hoping to host the show in a coworking space, as our setting is the 2019 Future Summit, a tech/influencer conference. When I saw Kismet Cowork, I was blown away by its modern-industrial-whimsical-chic vibe, and also how welcoming and comfortable it feels. The great thing about site-specific theater is that the setting feels so believable as it is already fully formed and decorated. I wrote the script with Kismet’s layout in mind, and I think the audience is going to feel totally immersed in the space.
What: SPIES!! Even More Spying
When: September 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 + 21, 2019
Where: Immersive HQ
Here we talked with Jessica Creane about the creation of Know Thyself which runs September 5–21 as part of the 2019 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
FringeArts: What inspired Know Thyself?
Jessica Creane: What even IS inspiration?! Kidding. That’s just one example of the vicious, time-consuming, mind vortexes that happen when you’re making a piece about philosophy. Which is probably why it’s an interactive piece – so we can all go down this rabbit hole together. For as theoretical as philosophy often seems, it’s actually incredibly active and consequential. The best philosophers over the years have asked really sharp questions, the kind that can cut through society and draw a little blood. Socrates was put to death for asking questions that threatened the social fabric of ancient Greece and Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem has become a cultural touchstone and launched about a thousand memes in the process. Their work, and that of many others, boils down to questions of what we live for and what we would die for. It’s not exactly the height of fun to think about this stuff so as a game designer I’m interested in how those sharp questions can be made playful in a way that doesn’t water them down but concentrates them instead. Which is how this piece ended up exploring impermanence, ethical paradoxes, and superpositional states by way of cats in scuba gear and twisted party games.
The first philosophy game I ever made was a destructible tabletop game. It’s pretty weird and I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it isn’t a game so much as an experience, and while it is absolutely a game, it got me thinking about what, exactly, the difference is. I started making more philosophy games, some of which are easily categorized as games, most of which are something else; a blend of games and immersive experiences that I thought might be best experienced as theater. Philosophies are systems of thought, games are systems of action, and immersive theater is a systematic breaking of the fourth wall; which means that participants can do more than just sit back and watch, they can make choices that alter the course of the piece. This ultimately resulted in Know Thyself, a gamified philosophy salon that uses play to break down the invisible walls that hold us back from knowing ourselves, and others, better.
FringeArts: How do you plan to utilize the space at Kismet Cowork Spring Arts?
Jessica Creane: A lot of this depends on which version of the piece the audience ends up playing through but Kismet is set up with multiple work stations, open spaces, tiny rooms, and lots of glass walls, which is perfect for gameplay spaces that are both personal and social. Coworking spaces are founded on the principle that we are all individuals with important, personal work to do, and that we do that work best as part of a community. Know Thyself operates by the same philosophy; the community benefits from everyone in it knowing who they are and what they value, but there is no way to figure that out alone; we need each other to know ourselves.
FringeArts: We last saw you in the Fringe Festival with Chaos Theory and R&J in 2018. What have you been exploring since and how has your experience expanded over the past year as you’ve done more immersive theater and toured Chaos Theory so far?
Jessica Creane: It’s been a wild year! After premiering in the Philly Fringe, Chaos Theory was one of FringeNYC’s presented works in October, we were picked up by HERE Arts for a run in December, and we now have an extended, monthly run at Caveat, NYC on the lower east side. My Directors, Amy Blumberg and Joseph Ahmed, helped me to hone the piece after the Philly run and they did a phenomenal job of making sure I took the biggest creative risks I could, added more games, and tightened the narrative, which means that no show is ever the same. It feels great to have a home for the piece! We’re also in the process of figuring out dates and locations to tour Chaos Theory and the show (which is about a person who gets kicked out of a TED-style conference on chaos due to her experimental research methods) somehow got me invited to give an actual TEDx talk on designing experimental games about chaos, the meta irony of which is not lost on me.
Chaos aside, I’m continuing to explore agency and connectivity through play and officially founded IKantKoan LLC, which is an immersive experience and game design company focused on the playful exploration of complex systems. I’ve been doing my best to live by my personal philosophy of Fail Faster, which is a phrase from game design that’s all about taking risks early and often letting work be really bad so that it can eventually get really good. With interactive, immersive work there’s just no knowing if it works unless you have an audience and Know Thyself, in particular, is contingent on the audience having significant agency, so it’s been a driving force in the last few months.
FringeArts: What drew you to immersive theater?
Jessica Creane: Definitely agency and tactility. I’m a kinesthetic learner and immersive theater provides an opportunity to touch things, talk to people, and make choices for what happens next in a piece. It’s a really active and engaging form of storytelling. I also love that immersive worlds are structured but not predetermined. The rules can change, the ending can change, the meaning of a particular game can change, and that change comes from both the actors and the participants. It’s fun to make work that leaves this much space for the audience to play but it’s also a challenge to find the right balance between structure and openness. I like a challenge.
What: Know Thyself
When: September 5–7, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20 + 21, 2019
Where: Kismet Cowork Spring Arts
Here’s your chance to catch all three Immersive HQ shows:
Announcing Tri-Mersive Day from Immersive Philly!
3 shows. 1 building. Limitless Adventure.
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Immersive HQ @ Kismet | 448 N. 10th St. Philadelphia, PA 19123