The Universe is a Small Hat - 1st Play Test

Engineering meaningful participatory theater.

Photos by Nora Mericicki from the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor workshop/playtest June 21, 2013. 
The Witness Training. Safiya Fredericks (background) as The Founder and audience member/colonist Melissa Nigro

During my time in The Civilians R and D Group and the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor Program I have been studying how to turn the experience of my musical into an immersive and interactive game. My piece is entitled The Universe is a Small Hat and tells the story of a techno-Utopian space colony which encounters a mysterious non-human atmospheric intelligence. Each audience member plays the role of a colonist and has to choose how to behave and interface within the micro-society on the ship. The decisions that colonists make influence their experience of the piece, opportunities they have, their access to the ship itself, and ultimately the ending that they experience.

A Song from the show:

“A game is an experience created by rules.” - Anna Anthropy (Rise of The Videogame Zinesters)

Games are systems and so they are well-suited to tell stories about systems. Small Hat is at its core about a society, which is a network of shared laws, customs, and/or organizations. My piece also deals with physics which is a system of laws capable of describing and predicting aspects of our Universe. The idea for turning my piece into an immersive experience first came from this video of futurist Jason Silva talking about his experience of Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

When I found the Jason Silva video I was trying to figure out how to tell a futuristic story in a theatrical context, but I feared that being conventionally presentational would come off as hokey. My sense is that science fiction has a bad reputation in theater. Perhaps science fiction works better in novels and films because both forms are so good at immersing us in a fictional future. Silva connects Sleep No More to virtual reality and frames its (albeit analog) interactive environment as an evolution of the video game and “the future of storytelling.” I think he has a point. For centuries theater has served to create a moment of physical rest and reflection after a day of labor. But now, as more jobs than ever require hours of isolation sitting in front of a screen, plugged into a network, theater might be well positioned as a place to engage our bodies, and allow us to interact with one another in physical space. George Lucas recently came out with a similar point in his Times article The Future of Movies

The Healer Training
"Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role – and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role.”  - Anna Anthropy

Below I've presented some game concepts alongside a few thoughts on how we are integrating the concepts into The Universe is a Small Hat. The words that game designers use to describe their work have been helpful as I try to merge these two worlds. My hope is that more theater artists will start creating work that generates story-driven interactivity. In the two large playtests we've done I've found an incredible willingness on the part of audiences to participate as long as the system makes some sense to them.

Player Character - is a character in a video game or role playing game who is controlled or controllable by a player, and is typically a protagonist of the story told in the course of the game.
In Small Hat the “player” is the audience member. And as I develop the “script” I am viewing the audience member as an actor in the play. The script should be a delineation of circumstances that allow for a mediated experience full of sensation, story and choice. The audience members will not be asked to “act” or play a character other than themselves. Since they are cast as members of the space colony we are asking them to be themselves exactly as they are, or as they'd like to be. Each colonist is given one of five “identities,” or jobs, based on an evaluation, but each individual can embrace, switch, or reject the identity as they see fit.

Non-Player Character - any character not controlled by a player. In our case, the actors.

Reward - The reward is the positive consequence of conquering the challenge; it can be anything from an increase in score, new items, or a scene.

The Bluelight

Risk - a situation involving exposure to danger, or in the case of a game, the loss of points, rewards, or status.

Cutscenes - A cutscene is a sequence in a video game over which the player has no or only limited control, breaking up the gameplay. Cutscenes are used to advance the plot, strengthen the main character's development, introduce enemy characters, and provide background information, atmosphere, dialogue, and clues.The video game form of scene/gameplay/scene/gameplay reminds me of the musical theater form of scene/song/scene/song. In Small Hat we will move the narrative primarily through songs, direct address, and gameplay, with few scripted scenes between characters. The colonists also have a lot of time to interact directly with the drones, in which case the drones will be improvising based on their understanding of the world.

The Belief Ladder

Items – Objects which play role in the story. The might contain clues, unlock elements of the story, offer powers or privileges.

Score - In games, score refers to an abstract quantity associated with a player or team. Score is usually measured in the abstract unit of points, and events in the game can raise or lower the score of different parties. Most games with score use it as a quantitative indicator of success in the game, and in competitive games, a goal is often made of attaining a better score than one's opponents in order to win.

Playtesting – This is an idea in games that you have to play the game in order to gauge its effectiveness. Is it challenging? Too repetitive? Too easy? Interesting to both expert players and novices? Factors of the game can be tweaked and adjusted according the to subjective experience of the playtesting. I thought playtesting is the game design version of workshopping in theater, but I've actually discovered it is more analogous to rehearsal. We actually need the players (audience) to see even the most basic elements of the piece on their feet.

Skill and Chance – This is a polarity that is present in many games. There is a randomizing element (dice or cards) but also a system of rules which can be employed though a player's skill. Specific strategies will allow Colonists to achieve higher and reach greater depths of the world. But the randomizing elements will add unexpected outcomes.

Level - In a video game a level is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective.

Audience members fill out exit surveys after the playtest.

César Alvarez - Creator/Composer
Sarah Benson - Director
Ivan Safrin and Syed Salahuddin - Game Designers

For more information on the The Universe is a Small Hat tweet or contact César.


Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812

14 Reasons I Love Dave Malloy's Opera based on War and Peace.
Phillipa Soo as Natasha in NATASHA PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, Photo By Chad Batka
  1. You get perogies and vodka.

  2. Dave uses bass clarinet, english horn, and gut rumbling club music all in the same piece.

  3. One scene inside of the opera is a hilarious parody of an opera.

  4. A bunch of the actors, and almost all of the musicians, are also composers.

  5. At one point two female singers in a tense situation sing the lyric “constraaaaaaained” a half step away from each other, and it is beautiful.

  6. One of the actors passed me a tiny folded paper during the show that had “you are hawt” scrawled on it. (Data suggests this was part of the show, and not an impulsive appraisal of my hawtness).

  7. Dave's melodies pour from the piece so effortlessly. I waited for something to be repetitive or predictable but each musical moment is an ingenious transformation and/or departure from the previous.

  8. The opening number is a cumulative song

  9. Mimi Lien created a magical Russian Cabaret.

  10. I'm incredibly impressed that Dave could tell such a complicated story using no spoken dialogue, without the exposition ever feeling forced. This makes me hopeful about the potential of song to tell big stories in an authentic and light-hearted way. It cleverly triangulates musical theater and operatic tropes so it can make use of them, without ever being subsumed by them.

  11. Every one of the actors approach singing differently. I love this. I like shows that have a few classically trained singers and a bunch of singers that are using their voices with folk, blues, rock, and experimental sensibilities. The sonic patchwork is what makes the piece feel current and authentic. Our culture is so heterogeneous that when a large group of performers stand up and sing according to a single musical orthodoxy, the product can feel institutional, dated or even corporate. This is the experience I have, though not always an unpleasant one, at many Broadway shows and big budget operas. Comet on the other hand feels homemade. It may not feel as homemade in its current commercial incarnation than it did at Ars Nova, but that leads to my next point.

  12. I love seeing a commercial production of a truly downtown piece or performance. Rachel Chavkin and Dave have kept the core of the work intact even though there are now many more costumes and chandeliers. To quote the brilliant Taylor Mac, “The avant-garde IS commercial!” It is inspiring to see commercial backing for a work as quirky, honest and courageous as Comet.

  13. The waitstaff are all actually Russian (or have convincing accents), and I think this actually adds a lot to the experience.

  14. It's in a damn TENT!

    Go see for yourself.


It's Better With a Band

The Lisps and I are featured in the April 2013 cover story of American Theatre Magazine. The article, by Rob Weinert-Kendt, offers some nuanced insight into the emerging musical. Here's an excerpt:

It’s a funny thing, what’s happened to the word “musical.” Like “novel,” this simple adjective has grown into a giant noun encompassing an entire art form. But even as the term has inflated, the form itself seems to have shrunk. Even after Rent, even after “Glee,” the American musical has a particular vocal and compositional sound, and we all know it when we hear it.
For all their pleasures, and for all the crowds musicals continue to pack in, stage music itself has become a niche genre, and apart from a devoted cadre of show fans, it’s not what most of us choose to listen to on our iPods, on our Pandora stations, in concert halls or on our party playlists. Indeed, though it’s got the word “music” inside it, the varieties of music typically excluded by that innocent little word, “musical,” could fill several lifetimes of listening—and for many audiences stubbornly immune to the charms of musical theatre, they do.
Arguably, there’s new blood pumping into the form via so-called “jukebox” shows, which range from bio-concerts (Fela!Million Dollar Quartet) to broadly narrativized samplers (Movin’ OutRock of AgesMamma Mia!); or via theatricalized concept albums, like Green Day’s American Idiot or Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend(both originally mounted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before moving on, to Broadway and to Actors Theatre of Louisville, respectively). That pop stars like Elton John and U2 have conquered Broadway may be most notable in how exceptional their cases are. And the fact that not-so-huge stars like Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening),Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) have pressed pop sounds into fresh storytelling service is certainly some cause for hope.
But perhaps the most heartening and transformative trend in American musicals—and we might as well reclaim the word, all the better to broaden its purview—is a swelling wave of hybrid shows created, and often performed, by indie bands and singer/songwriters. Some begin as staged concept albums (the Lisps’ Futurity, Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys’ 28 Seeds, Black Francis and the Catastrophic Theatre’s Bluefinger). Some begin as devised-theatre pieces in which live music is as integral as the script (PigPen’s The Old Man and the Old Moon, Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die). Some begin as quasi-cabarets built around performers with stories to tell and/or roles to play (Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange, Ethan Lipton’s No Place to Go, and the trannie granny of them all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Some even begin as essentially traditional musicals, but with the clear stamp, and often the actual presence, of their composer/performers (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Once, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Groovelily’s Sleeping Beauty Wakes).
None are Broadway-tooled properties by brand-name stars, though some (OncePassing Strange) do end up on the Main Stem. And while most are mere flickers on the radar of the nation’s resident theatres and play-development houses, that is rapidly changing. In a trend analogous to the way “devised” ensemble work is increasingly welcomed by institutional theatres (see “Group Think,” March ’13), bands and actor/musicians are teaming with directors, playwrights and dramaturgs as full partners on new stage pieces, not simply rolling their gear through the stage door just before tech rehearsals to play through scores fully notated by a single composer.
It was César Alvarez, the lanky, curl-topped frontman for the folk-rock band the Lisps, who floated an analogy between novels and musicals in a recent interview. Since he and his band wrote Futurity, a concept album about the Civil War–era inventor of a steam-powered artificial intelligence, which was staged last year at Cambridge, Mass.’s American Repertory Theater and at Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center (and will hit New York in 2014–15, with Soho Rep co-producing), they’ve been bitten by the theatre bug. They recently scored and appeared in theFoundry Theatre’s Off-Off Broadway revival of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and they’re developing a show with Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor. And while the Lisps still tour and record, Alvarez now thinks of himself, at least in part, as a theatre artist.
“Musical theatre has become a genre, but it’s actually not a genre!” exclaimed Alvarez, climbing on what is clearly a favorite hobbyhorse. “You hear from musicians all the time, ‘Oh, I hate musicals,’ which is like saying, ‘Oh, I hate novels.’ It would be as if somebody invented the novel, and then for hundreds of years, the only kind that became popularized was the mystery novel.” He feels that the American musical has been similarly constrained, sonically and aesthetically: “The classic musicals, they’re classics—but they don’t encompass the entire spectrum of what musical theatre can be. That’s why I say musical theatre has been genre-fied in a way that is a complete disservice to the form. It’s basically music, dialogue and narrative on a stage, telling a story. That’s it! It doesn’t say how to sing or what kind of music.”
In the case of Futurity, what began as a staged concert at New York’s Zipper Factory blossomed into a play-with-a-band, with Alvarez and singer Sammy Tunis taking lead roles and drummer Eric Farber sitting at the helm of a contraption he constructed called the Steam Brain—which Alvarez described as a “handmade percussion machine which is a musical instrument, a storytelling device and an interactive set-piece.” The style of the score, true to the Lisps’ artisanal indie-rock sound, encompasses twangy folk, old-timey Americana and pristine chamber pop. And the style of the piece, even as it’s added a script, by Alvarez and playwright Molly Rice, is still centered around the Lisps’ presence.
The challenge, as director Benson put it, was “trying to figure out how to keep it being a show where the band was telling the story, and yet blow it out into a musical. When I was stuck, I would just think, ‘What would the Lisps do?’ Casting solutions, design solutions—all came out of that musical language.
Full Article and music samples are HERE


The Good Person of Szechwan

It's been an absolute revelation working with the cast and creative team on this show. I wrote 7 songs for the production and the other members of the Lisps will be on stage rocking every night. Here's a demo/download of one of my songs from the show:

La MaMa presents the Foundry Theatre production of 
Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan.
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Featuring Taylor Mac
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps

New York Times REVIEW


Dates: Feb 1st - 24th, 2013
LaMama's Ellen Stewart Theatre 66 East 4th Street
NYC (between 2nd Ave & Bowery)
Tickets: ONLINE /// or call: 212.475.7710