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Diy Days Paris - Breaking the 4th wall

I've been researching and exploring immersive and participatory theater experiences over the last few weeks, trying to get my thoughts in order for the workshop I'll be running on March 22nd.

(Parentheses here! I'm doing the workshop in the context of the first Paris edition of Diy Days, a creative think tank event that happens over three days and has a definite transmedia slant. If you're in town and interested, don't hesitate to sign up - it's free!

Participatory theater and even certain types of immersive theater are nothing new. When I look back to when I was first going to theater in Boston as an under age student in search of entertainment, a few examples immediately spring to mind.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an almost weekly event for me back then. I loved the mix of watching the movie, seeing it simultaneously being acted and sung as a stage show, and being inside the audience as we shouted out the lines and covered our heads with newspapers to protect ourselves from the spray bottle showers of rain. And although I never dressed up as my favorite Rocky Horror character like many of the audience members, I did usually have a handful of rice to throw at Brad and Janet...

Rocky Horror, when you think about it, is simply a continuation of the very English "pantomime" which is defined by Wikipedia as "a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers." In other words, this type of entertainment has actually existed in one form or another since the 18th century...

A participatory play also comes to mind from that time: Shear Madness, which has been running non-stop since 1976. Here's the pitch from their site: "This unique comedy-whodunit takes place today in the "Shear Madness" hairstyling salon and is chock full of up-to-the-minute spontaneous humor.  During the course of the action, a murder is committed and the audience gets to spot the clues, question the suspects, and solve the funniest mystery in the annals of crime.The outcome is never the same, which is why many audience members return again and again to the scene of the mayhem." If you're curious to see this one here in Paris, it is currently playing at the Théâtre des Mathurins under the name Dernier Coup de Ciseaux.

And finally, an immersive dinner theater experience that is also still going strong after almost forty years is the Medieval Manor, where you enter into a medieval tavern, eat your food on bread trenchers with no forks, and enjoy the antics of the "King, Minstrel, Jester, Oaf and Wenches as they entertain one and all with slapstick and song". A similar concept also exists here in Paris with Nos Ancêtres les Gaulois, although their floor show has today been reduced down to a wandering minstrel.

What is it about this kind of entertainment that is so appealing? The current trend is taking us in an increasingly immersive direction and heading toward the ultimate audience experience - completely personalized plays with YOU as the lead actor and sometimes single member of the audience. How far can this all be pushed? When is it useful for carrying your story forward and when is it just a trick, a bit of hype? If you have only one or two audience members at a time, how can you possibly make this financially feasible? How can new technologies be used to bring audience participation into the 21st century?

All these questions are buzzing around in my brain...


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