Entering the darkened theatre, we were met by a woman wearing blue coveralls, safety goggles, and surgical gloves. She asked us to hold up one hand for our “space vaccine.” With a pipette, Dr. Reba Zarecki, played by Carrie Williams, placed a single drop of liquid on our hand. We were given a plastic badge on a lanyard, indicating your membership in one of three sectors: Culture, Engineering, or Science.
We took our seat among just 30 fellow spectators in the black-box theatre. A recorded voice introduced itself as Kudo, an articulate robot, who welcomed the group aboard a spaceship called the Relative Certainty. Kudo described himself as the spaceship’s “synthetic intelligence, guide, assistant, and protector,” adding impishly, “Also an excellent dancer!”
Kudo eventually appeared, in puppet form, in a small firebox at stage left. The charming, round-headed robot, designed by Christopher Hisey, was animated by the black-gloved arm of actor Ryan Edlinger, who voiced Kudo in clipped, polite diction reminiscent of Star Wars‘ C3PO. Soothing ambient music, composed by Eric M.C. Gonzalez, lulled you into an outer-space world.
This was the multi-dimensional stagescape of Don’t Wander Off, an interactive science-fiction play created and performed July 7-29 by Theater Ninjas, a peripatetic troupe in Cleveland, Ohio, led by Jeremy Paul.
The world building here had an elaborate and sobering backstory: The year was 2088, and we were part of a civilian space crew on a 15-year mission to explore new planets suitable for human habitation, all because Earth was in danger of environmental collapse. This eco-pocalypse was concurrent with the rise of the Human Liberation Front, a right-wing, anti-technology party that wanted to “plunge us into a new Dark Age.” To raise the stakes still further: A mysterious explosion had caused a power outage on the Relative Certainty, and part of the ship had gone missing.
“This is spacetime,” Kudo’s voice intoned, as though he was leading us in a meditation induction. “Your body is a million tiny droplets. You are the ocean. You are the universe. You expand in all directions. You rise and fall.” There was little suggestion in his confident serenity of the chaos that would follow.
Theater Ninjas, founded 11 years ago, calls itself “the food truck of Cleveland theatre” in part because of its nomadic nature. The troupe performs its experimental, immersive productions in nontraditional spaces: art galleries, basements, under a highway bridge, in the atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art, even in a coffee roastery (“best-smelling place we’ve ever been in,” proffered artistic director Paul).
Having no fixed address for all those years created a company ethos in which the environment is part of the theatrical experience. The troupe’s plays—more like “happenings”—have in the past been crafted to fit the architecture and acoustics of the venues they played.
Don’t Wander Off was a departure, because at last the wandering Ninjas had found a home. Last spring the five creative artists known as “the cadre”—Paul, Gonzalez, and Hisey, as well as Lauren Fraley and Ryan Lucas—took residence in a corner storefront in the Courtland, a handsome late-19th-century Tudor-style building in the Gordon Square district on Cleveland’s west side. Don’t Wander Off was the inaugural production in the new space—its title being slightly ironic in that the Ninjas had, for now, stopped wandering.
Moving into the new theatre while developing and rehearsing the most technically demanding show in its history was, Paul conceded, “a nightmare”—an ordeal that required him to add “head of renovations” to his already long list of jobs, which in addition to A.D. also includes playwright, director, and projection designer.
“It’s been a lot of work just getting this place up to a baseline functional level,” Paul allowed in an interview before the show’s final tech rehearsal. “That’s been going on during the days, and in the evenings we started having rehearsals here.”
In years past, the Courtland space housed a law firm, a tanning salon, and a spooky boutique, now two doors down, that sells things like taxidermy animals, alligator teeth, and black-magic totems. “There’s a long history in this building,” Paul said. “The place was last updated in 1990, and it was probably done with 1970s materials. There was a drop ceiling and carpeted floors. We demo-ed all that and added some doors. We made the staircase more functional. Now it’s a bit safer, and we can use it for our productions.”
Don’t Wander Off incorporated film projection, complex lighting, music, puppetry, and improvisation, as well as a blend of live actors and performers on film. Billed as an “interpretive fiction performance,” or “playable sci-fi story,” it was also a journey into the deep space of interactive theatre, in which the audience becomes part of the show.
In development for nine months, the play was influenced by video games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, RPGs (role-playing games), and the Megagame, a large-scale, live-action gaming event in the United Kingdom. The audience, in its role of spaceship crew, was invited to determine certain plot turns by solving puzzles and voting—the old-fashioned way, with a show of hands.
The cast and tech crew had to be nimble, because on any given night they didn’t know which narrative they would be performing. “The actors were really excited and willing to put the time into making sense of the multiple plot lines and emotional arcs,” Paul noted. For example, spaceship engineer Kathiya Chase, played by Hillary Wheelock, had to adapt to four widely varying endings, ranging from her joyful reunion with a beloved colleague (Rolon Dimilko, played by Davis Aguila) to being put in a seven-year coma as punishment for launching a failed mutiny.
During the show’s development, the cadre created a spreadsheet-style “master document” to organize the complex narrative. Paul explained the script’s Byzantine structure: “There were two ‘A’ stories: ‘Disease,’ in which an alien-borne virus infects Dr. Zarecki and threatens the rest of the crew, and ‘Action Stations,’ things involving interacting with the ship, like turning on the power. And there were two ‘B’ stories: ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Mutiny.’ Most of Act One is a single plot with a few variations.
“Throughout that, there are votes and decision points where the audience is sounding off,” Paul continued, “and we’re tabulating the votes, and that’s determining what the ‘A’ plot and the ‘B’ plot will be.” At one point, the audience voted on whether Phoebe Bernard, the “Situations Comptroller” investigating a power failure on the ship, played by Fraley, should light her torch, at the risk of causing an explosion.
As part of the “Sabotage” plot, the audience was asked to vote to identify a bomb-placing saboteur on the ship. Was it the pert, efficient Phoebe, or was it R.L. Feinrich, played by Michael Prosen, the amusingly arrogant sci-fi novelist Phoebe has appointed as her deputy? Once the saboteur was named, the miscreant was ejected from the ship, consigned to cosmic oblivion.
Originally, the plot was much darker. “In the first five minutes, you were told it was a lie,” Paul said. “There was no mission, and a calamity was going to strike Earth.” After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the cadre decided the play should offer a modicum of hope: Audiences could vote on whether to return to help the devastated Earth or build a new civilization on the Planet Dionaea.
For Fraley, the uncertainty aboard the Relative Certainty made performing the show exciting. “The creative process really continued into the performances. Halfway through, I didn’t know whether I was sabotaging the ship or not.” The branch narrative, she said, made it “essentially like learning four different shows.”
“Mathematically, it’s not that complicated,” Paul explained, describing the play’s structure as “sort of a 2-by-2 matrix.” But remembering it all was still complex. “As an actor, you really have to pay attention and listen,” he granted. The text of the alternative scenes remained the same, but the actors had to adapt their line readings to the emotional tenor of vastly different narratives. “The actors couldn’t do anything by rote. They always had to be alert to what was going on that night.”
Another challenge for Fraley was having to play many of her scenes with only the disembodied Kudo voice and “virtual” actors on video screens. “It’s like having the tech team as your scene partner. Getting the rhythm of everything is definitely a challenge, but when it does flow, it’s a really fun structure to play in.”
Passive viewing was not an option for the audience. Spectators were divided into small groups, and each was given a series of puzzles to solve in order to fix problems aboard the spaceship. While some worked to identify a possible saboteur, others mixed chemicals for a vaccine to cure the virus that had infected Dr. Zarecki and threatened the rest of the crew.
One puzzle consisted of papers with grids representing the ship’s log. The selected group was tasked with finding gaps in crew members’ reported whereabouts. Another group was given domino-like blocks and asked to perform a gene-sequencing task. The vaccine-development group worked with liquids and test tubes.
Hisey, the chief game developer, explained how he devised the vaccine puzzle: “I had test tubes with different materials, like corn syrup and alcohol and water. Each of them was colored differently, identified by a Greek letter on the test tube. So the challenge was taking a little pipette and putting certain amounts of what we called ‘concentrated alien residue,’ but it was really an Alka-Seltzer tablet shaved into a shape. Not all the test tubes would react, and because each of those materials has a certain density, they stacked on each other in a cool way. So there’s a blue layer of liquid, then an orange layer of liquid, and a clear layer, and the Alka-Seltzer tablet would fall through in one of the test tubes and reach the bottom, where there is water, and it made this fizzing reaction. And that became the ‘successful vaccine’ that you, the spectator, helped design! It gave [participants] a little triumph when the thing bubbled up.”
In keeping with the show’s tech emphasis, Theater Ninjas called its Friday-night preview a “Beta Test,” like those preceding a Silicon Valley software launch. In his curtain speech, Paul to those gathered, “You are watching a show that needs an audience to get to the next level. Sometimes things break. We like that too. If there is a slight hiccup, you know why. You get to be part of the development of Don’t Wander Off.”
Audiences seemed captivated by the show, which ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes. A collective “Ooooh!” arose when Phoebe was named the secret saboteur. But, as expected, there were hiccups. One group was slow to complete the ship’s log puzzle, and Prosen, as Feinrich, stepped in to fill in the solution in order to keep the play moving. In the Ninjas’ parlance, the game had been “broken.”
At the next day’s rehearsal, Paul, Fraley, and Hisey huddled over the problem. They decided to split the puzzle between two groups, and if one group finished early, they could help the other group.
“The Beta Test was intended to identify these kinds of issues,” Hisey said. “It’s hard to test a lot of that stuff without a full audience. Even if you test with a small group of people”—as the Ninjas did prior to the Beta Test—“you might know that this particular logic puzzle works, but until you do it at scale, with time and logistics, you don’t really know how it’s going to work out and connect with other things.” The Ninjas also tweaked the structure of audience voting, dividing the audience by the “sectors” on their plastic badges and limiting some votes to only one group.
There were other changes. Kudo, for instance, was originally meant to be operated mechanically, using a rig Hisey devised using a bicycle brake cable. “We tested it with handlebars, making it move around like a tentacle,” Hisey recalled. “Once I saw how high up the set was, I realized it would have been too much work and cost too much. So we took out some of the wire puppetry stuff and added the ability to manipulate it by hand. Looking back, I wish we would have started there. It would have been a lot easier. But all of this is learning, right?”
The change provided an interesting challenge for Edlinger. “It’s my first real puppetry experience,” he said during tech rehearsal. Animating the puppet with his hand “helps give the work a lot more character. It feels more alive.”
The Ninjas’ nomadism is a reflection of Jeremy Paul’s restless mind. The 34-year-old director first encountered devised theatre as a film and theatre major at Wesleyan College in Connecticut. “I was lucky; I had a couple of professors who, right out of the gate, exposed us to more avant-garde work. It was important and formative.”
He recalled the creative jolt of going from performing in high-school musicals to doing “obscure Theater of the Absurd plays, like The Underground Lovers by Jean Tardeau.” He loved the idea of breaking rules and subverting structural expectations. He was fascinated by the ideas of Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish experimental theatre director who coined the term “poor theatre,” a performance style free of lavish costumes and detailed sets and performed in nontraditional spaces, with the audience placed in the midst of the action.
When Paul returned to Cleveland and founded Theater Ninjas, he put into practice Grotowski’s ideas, filtered through his and his cohorts’ imaginations. Don’t Wander Off was not the Ninjas’ first foray into interactive theatre. The Excavation, a 2011 exploration of the ruins of Pompeii, had audience groups participate in archaeological tasks in an abandoned industrial building. Tingle Tangle, in 2014, performed in a bookstore basement, explored gender-bending sexuality in Weimar Germany in a cabaret setting; audience members were guided to their seats by a German-accented professor inquiring about their sexual preferences. The Last Day, held in 2016 in a historic building arcade, invited audiences to solve puzzles and manipulate machines to investigate a mysterious woman’s past.
But it’s fair to say that Don’t Wander Off represented a new level of ambition and sophistication for the troupe. Early in the show on opening night, the entire second row was ushered by astronaut Daniel Kerry, played by Ryan Lucas, into a small back room representing the Planet Dionaea, where several of the mission’s escape pods have crash-landed. The six audience members chosen for the Planet experience engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons-style collaborative narrative, with Lucas as prompter, reading a script from an iPad.
Seated around an illuminated table, the participants drew cards, carefully removed blocks from a small Jenga tower, and filled in the story with their imaginations, prompted by questions from Kerry: “Who did you rescue? Who would you contact, if you could get in touch with anyone?” The participants’ tasks included finding a water source, identifying an alien being, and evading “bees with knives for legs” before being rescued and reunited with the Relative Certainty.
Interactive theatre can be stimulating, both for audiences, who get to be part of the action, and performers, who are nourished by the enthrallment of audiences doing more than just watching. “When people are asked to actively engage, then even when they’re sitting passively, their blood is flowing,” Fraley observes. “Something else is ignited.”
But the form has pitfalls. Sometimes immersion borders on coercion, and audiences protest the roles they’ve been assigned. This happened at an immersive show called De/As]cending, performed recently at Arizona State University’s art museum. Phil Weaver-Stoesz, one of the show’s creators, described audience members rebelling against the sacrifice of characters in the show’s doomsday scenario: They were “stealing things, talking back to the actors’ instructions and questioning their motives,” Weaver-Stoesz wrote. “At one point in the show, I am to drug and capture a scientist who the audience has come to love. I step towards her when, all of a sudden, my arm is grabbed by an audience member who shouts, ‘We won’t let you take her!’”
No such mutiny took place during the run of Don’t Wander Off, though on opening night, some Planet group members grew visibly fatigued as they sat in the overheated back room. Prompted to describe an alien creature, one young woman replied wearily, “I’m sorry, I’m a wilting flower here.” The Planet sojourn lasted over two hours before the group filed back into the cool air of the main theatre, only to discover it was just moments before curtain call. The Planet people had the “different” experience Theater Ninjas promises its audiences, but a much less “theatrical” experience than the colorful multimedia show the other playgoers enjoyed.
The Ninjas, however, are uninterested in catering to traditional expectations. Their audiences tilt young, in no small part because of their embrace of game culture. Millennials—members of the “always on” generation—are attracted to experiences that resemble video games and digital media. Younger generations, Paul believes, are “not coming up with the same level of theatre culture” as when he was a boy attending plays at the Cleveland Play House, the town’s venerable professional regional theatre. “Access to a lot of different kinds of media at an early age changes your approach to live entertainment.”
Still, games aren’t everything with Theater Ninjas. “The interactive element is the ‘hook’ to get people to come to the show,” Paul reasoned. “But I don’t think they come just because it’s interactive. That provides an ‘in’ that a lot of other theatre doesn’t provide.”
Rebecca Calkin, a theatre and gaming enthusiast, praised the show’s “world creation” as “unique and fun.” The Planet experience, she said, “made it easy to participate in the storytelling. You were never ‘wrong.’ Your idea wasn’t stupid. It was safe to be creative in the not-safe environment of crash landing in an alien world.”
To the Ninjas’ delight, many patrons raved about the Planet experience and bought tickets for second and third viewings to experience the show from different angles. Paul said he wants to create more productions incorporating role-playing games, maybe dispensing altogether with traditional theatre elements. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while, and to have it be so successful is very exciting.”
“We were really conscious of making sure that everyone who walked in felt that they were involved,” Paul concludes. “Audience members got to contribute something beautiful to the show. They actively contributed, so they were engaged in what was happening.”
Pamela Zoslov is a writer, critic, and photographer based in Cleveland.