If you're interested in working in interactive theatre, you'll be glad to know that the actors I talked to—who have worked, respectively, in Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Shear Madness, and in Teatro Zinzanni—enjoy their jobs thoroughly.
Interactive theatre keeps your instrument in tune, so to speak, over long time periods and is artistically rewarding in its own right. You probably already have the skills needed, and you'll learn new ones as you go.
Improvising: This is your most important tool. Kevin Kent—who originated and still plays the chameleon-like cook in Zinzanni (a non-Equity cabaret-circus with dinner that opened in Seattle two years ago and is now in San Francisco)—trained in Chicago with such improv luminaries as Del Close. He also worked for 10 years with a company that mixes text and improv. "Improv is the training that allows you to have interactions with [the audience] in the same way you have interactions with people every day," he explained. "You just learn to dramatize them. In real life, we all talk to each other even if we're shy."
How much ad-libbing you'll do with co-actors and audience depends on the show. Zinzanni's performers have lots of leeway to create their own individual acts. Shear Madness (a murder mystery that originated in Boston 20 years ago and now plays in San Francisco and many other cities under an Equity Cabaret contract) is tightly scripted, although the criminal varies nightly depending upon audience feedback. For Tony 'n' Tina, very few of the lines are scripted, although actors receive a back story. Explained Jackie Tohn, who plays Tina in the Los Angeles incarnation, "The back story is the skeleton." The show is a non-Equity re-creation of an Italian-American wedding ceremony and buffet reception that goes hilariously awry; some of the cast helps serve food. The actors' activities are cued by the music.
Reading the audience: "You develop a sixth sense about this," said Kristi Scott, who plays the bride's godmother (and sometimes mother of the bride) in San Francisco's Tony 'n' Tina. "If you start to approach someone, you can tell if they're going to be open or not." Added Tohn, "If there's someone with their arms crossed looking glum, you're not going to go up to them."
"There are always those don't-touch-me people," agreed Kent. "If you can get people to look you in the eye, they'll be responsive."
Listening: This type of work shows you what it's like to really listen, which you absolutely must, to the audience, as well as your co-actors. Kent said, "If you don't really listen, it becomes hollow and odd. Sometimes people throw you for a loop, and you have to respond in that loop. It's quite an exercise."
Creating a character: In some interactive theatre, for example Tony 'n' Tina and Zinzanni, you have more room to create a character than you would in a traditional play. "For mother of the bride," said Scott, of her T&T role, "I got a bio, kind of corny and melodramatic: 'A window of hope has opened for her.' So I tried to find where my window was. That gave me a key to playing her a little more frightened, with somewhere to go, a personal journey, over the course of the evening." She added, "In our cast, we have actors classically trained at American Conservatory Theater, and they have the clearest, most in-depth characters. If you don't know who this person is, there's no arc.
"You have to be as real as you can be besides being funny and improvisational," she added, "or they're not going to buy any of it."
Remarked Tohn, "No matter what you do, you can't overact. What's funny is the reality."
Staying in character: Once you've created your character, the trick is to sustain it for many hours, with few if any backstage breaks. The T&T cast members do what they call table work, schmoozing the audience members individually. Some of the Shear Madness cast is already onstage and miming action before the play begins, and they remain sequestered onstage during intermission—except for the bumbling chief detective, who schmoozes with the audience.
Not Offending the Audience
Which leads us to one of the particular challenges of interactive theatre—Fatigue: You'll need lots of physical energy for the three to eight shows a week. Kent said it took him awhile to realize that he was essentially hosting a party for 300 people every night, and to give himself permission to really rest on Mondays. Scott said, "You have to talk over 200 people and a band. And the songs are insidious. I go to sleep with 'Wanna Be' pounding through my head." All agreed it's exhausting.
The audience factor: "Bridal parties are hard because they're tipsy before they come and try to interfere with the show," said Scott. With shows like T&T and Zinzanni, which serve drinks, it can be a problem when people arrive already loaded. Some boozed-up men in the audience can get lecherous. In one performance of T&T in San Francisco, a jealous husband actually decked an actor playing a groomsman. (Police hauled the rambunctious party away as cast and audience proceeded from the church to the reception; it all seemed part of the show.)
"We once had a drunken lady screaming through the whole wedding ceremony," recalled Tohn. "You have to react to that; you can't pretend it didn't happen. But we can't stoop to their level if they're inappropriate." She noted, "People will try to stump you. It's important to be on your toes."
"We got regular women's bowling teams who are wonderful," reported Wanda McCaddon, who played the snooty society matron in San Francisco's Shear Madness for five months, "whereas we also got convention people half asleep. Younger people tended to do better than older people." When ad-libbing responses to obstreperous audience members, she learned how to be just rude enough to make everyone laugh but not make the victim feel bad. "It's tricky to learn because you're doing it on the fly," she said.
Some audience members are just plain grumpy. Kent has learned to spend not more than 15 seconds reacting to a rejection by an audience member. "You turn around and you're in a totally different reaction," he said. "You don't want the residual of the last interaction to carry over." But, he said, the best moments are those engineered by the audience—an experience you won't have in other theatrical genres.
Indeed, the rewards of this type of work can be great. For one thing, every performance is different because of how the audience responds. Also, casts rotate regularly, sometimes nightly, which helps keep things fresh. "Everyone's dependent on everyone else [in Shear Madness]," said McCaddon. "It's fun when the ensemble changes. It's hard to keep it fresh after a few months, so a new person gives you a buzz."
And there's an opportunity for personal growth, too. "I'm not a great improv actor," confided McCaddon, a classically trained professional, "but you get better at it, taking more and more chances, feeling comfortable with the risks, which is rewarding."
"I'm a stronger performer now than when I started," declared Scott. The work has bolstered her self-confidence and sharpened her wit. Kent observed that, although he's done Shakespearean roles for as long as four or five months, it's only with interactive theatre, in which he's free to improvise and re-invent his character, that he can imagine sustaining a role for two or three years.
"All of your actor tools are used here," concluded Scott. "You have to know who you are, what you want. You have to listen and respond in the moment. You have to have clear relationships—clear all the way across the room. You have to give and take. And you have to have a joy in playing. If you're afraid of improv, this probably isn't the right place for you."
The cast of Zinzanni shares a meal after the show every night in the old circus tradition. Audiences come and go in interactive theatre, and so do cast members, but at the end of the day, just as in all theatre, it's the way the ensemble of the moment collaborates that defines the experience.
In the last Craft column on medical school Standardized Patient Programs (BSW, 2/15/01), in which actors play symptoms for money, we failed to mention SoCal locations for this work. Interested actors can send headshots and resumés to Standardized Patient Program at: UCLA School of Medicine, ED&R 60-051 CHS, Box 951722, L.A., CA 90095-1722; Keck School of Medicine at USC, Division of Medical Education, 1975 Zonal Ave., KAM 218, L.A., CA 90033; UCI College of Medicine, Room 290, Building 802, Irvine, CA 92697-4089, or UCSD School of Medicine, Office of Learning Resources, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA 92093-0611. BSW