Two Houses [Alike in Dignity]

On March 24th and 25th 2016, we did an abridged version of Romeo & Juliet we called: “Two Houses: Alike in Dignity.” An immersive theatre production where the audience is moving and interacting around in spaces, and not a traditional stage & theatre seats, told between two physical houses on a street in Oakland. The production is framed as all the scenes with Romeo up till and including the balcony scene.

Like most good art, this started as a Twitter joke between Bunny (the director), Aaron Muszalski, and Jonathan Pirro (Mercutio) of doing the balcony scene in the middle of Oakland, ambient noise and all. One and a half months later, we did the show.

Note: All of the photos are by Joe Carrow, our official photographer of the production.

My role was ‘usher,’ but much more involved in the immersive theatre context. Me and a friend were in charge of making sure the audience felt safe to enjoy the performance. We’re asking people to go out of a comfort zone with rules not normally placed in theatre. Therefor this role is a liaison between the show and the audience. Keeping the secrets about the show for the audience member, not from them. I’m working on a lecture that covers these topics and how that relates to experience and immersive arts.

An Invitation

As this show was not a commercial venture, the “payment” for the core cast and crew were four invitations to the performances. With four performances and a capacity of 16 people per performances, it was our only way to limit the show to 64 people.

For my invitations, I made an effort to invite people who weren’t in our normal immersive art circles, but whom would need to be apart of this kind of experience. I already have a list of people for these things, so it was me going down that list, going to the next person if someone wasn’t free that weekend.

The invitations themselves were in the physical form of a wax sealed letter from Mercutio. The letter containing registration instructions and the following:

  • Wear formal goth or close to black as possible.
  • Wear a mask to physically cover part of your face.
  • Be very prompt to your performance time.
Two Houses: Seg's Usher Roll
Tools of my trade as immersive theatre usher.

Once folks arrived at the house of Montague, I greeted them with a smile and a gray suit coat. While I was to wear a mask during the performance, I purposefully place mine on my forehead at the start. This is the part where people can ask questions about the performance and their concerns. Putting the mask up allowed me to communicate they were about to enter the performance space, but they weren’t in the space completely yet. I find this pre-show procedure as paramount in immersive productions.

As I welcome them in, I ask their name and present them with an envelope. Directing them to my compatriot, they would be asked to do the following:

  • Turn off/silence your phone, place phone into the envelope and seal it.
  • Do not talk during the performance.
  • Always be in the same space as Romeo.

Audience members kept their phone-in-envelope. The best way to insure no phones are used while not holding on to other people’s stuff. We don’t want to deal with people’s stuff.

House de Montague

Flyers placed in the Parlor.

Once the audience secured their masks and sealed their phone envelopes, they walked up the stairs to the parlor of the Montague house. Mercutio (played by Jonathan Pirro) was silently preparing himself for the Capulet party as everyone waited for the performance to begin. When I arrived at the parlor, that was the sign for the show to begin.

Mercutio walked further into the house with the rest of the cast behind him to the living room. There Benvolio (Egan Hirvela) and Romeo (Ian Dawson) were waiting. I refered to them as “the boys” as the three were mostly together for the show.

Two Houses: House de Monteque
Romeo on the far left, Mercutio in the middle, and Benvolio sitting on the chair armrest. Picture from dress rehearsal.

The first introduction the audience has to Romeo whom they will follow for the rest of the show. Act 1 Scene 4. Jonathan did an amazing job with the Queen Mab speech and was uniquely situated for this particular passage with his mohawk (direction notes added by me).

This is that very Mab
[ Clasps his hands upon his head, squishing his mohawk hairs. ]
That plaits the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled,
[ Unclasps his hands, where the mohawk springs back into place. ]
much misfortune bodes.

During the performances, there were about two people in total who chuckled.

Traveling Show

At the end of that scene, Romeo would walk out of the living room and I’d see how many people would follow instructions. A few would stand up immediately which would cue the rest of the audience to move. I was the caboose behind the progression of audience members, making sure no one was left behind.

This movement involved walking out of the house which had a particularly hidden last step down the outside stair. Most of our work as ushers were using our hand torches to point out safe walking paths. Along with “the boys,” the audience crossed the street and down a few doors to a warehouse with music thumping louder and louder as they approached.

As “the boys” and most of the audience gather at the front door, Benvolio would say his line and lead people in:

Strike drum!

House de Capulet

Remember how all of the audience members are dressed in formal goth? This is what they walked into:

Rave party with DJ Dino!
Rave party with DJ Bootz-n-katz! (Reese Brindisi)

Full power pastel candy rave! For 17 minutes at the House de Capulet and 25+ extras partying with everyone, including ball pit and circus acts. It was glorious!

By the time I came in, the audience was in the space. At least four people would already know what’s up and partying (if not already in the ball pit). The rest would be wallflowering watching everything going on. It’s an honest assumption an audience would have that a part of a the production may happengoing on, so I understand people’s hesitation.

Pastel Candy Rave!
Pastel Candy Rave!

I had a mark to hit at the other end of the ballroom, so I used my cross to break through the wallflowers by politely touching them on the shoulder as I passed by them while dancing and gesturing them to move into the floor. It’s perfectly OK to be a wallflower, but this action gives the invitation for people willing to engage with the party to do so.

Paris dancing with Juliet.
Paris dancing with Juliet.

The only scene of the play that occurred during the rave was Lady Capulet (Erica Mulkey) introducing Juliet (Teaghe Yalon) with Paris (Colin Donkeyboy Creveling). A minor scene where you would get the idea even without hearing the lines spoken.

A raver transferring a candy to an audience member.
A raver transferring a candy to an audience member.

The real key moment of the show was individual to each member of the audience. Our cast of extras were instructed to initiate a moment where they would connect hands physically, then transfer a candy bracelet. This served two purposes. One is for the audience to have a physical object to take along home with them. The second was for later…

Back to the Shakespeare

Elder Cousin Capulet and Lord Capulet.
Elder Cousin Capulet and Lord Capulet.

At the end of the rave, we did a hard cut to Elder Cousin Capulet (Jonathan Fortin) and Lord Capulet (Logan Saltsman) greeting the party goers and continuing the play in act 1 scene 5. Glitter beards and all. From here we were back on the rails with the play as written.

Two Houses: Tybalt

Our Tybalt was performed by Elle Armageddon, seen here with freshly fetched saber. Elle channeled a lot of bratty raver for this performance which fit very well to Tybalt being the prissy thing that character is. That’s also a lightsaber with motion controlled sounds making for some great stage play. Especially when Lord Capulet shuts Tybalt down with an effective power down sound effect.

Romeo & Juliet, palm to palm.
Romeo & Juliet, palm to palm.

When Romeo & Juliet meet, it’s the scene we all know. But for this production, we had a moment that immersive theatre can bring to the audience.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

With that, Juliet transfers a candy bracelet to Romeo and the audience has a personal connection with the scene. If there is nothing else important about this piece, this gesture makes the immersive arts worth doing. Connecting the audience with the narrative.

Two Houses: Nurse & Juliet
Nurse (Carrie Sownie) and Juliet (Teaghe Yalon)

The rest of act 1 scene 5 plays out with the reveal of the houses the both are from and with a very drunk Mercutio & Benvolio. Mercutio getting out of the ball pit and putting his boots back on.

The “After Party”

"Drunk" Mercutio & Benvolio
“Drunk” Mercutio and Benvolio

As “the boys” leave the Capulet house and outside on the streets of Oakland. I do a final sweep of the ballroom of audience members with DJ Bootz-n-katz (Reese Brindisi) using her high perch above the ballroom to confirm I got everyone.

Here we get to act 2 scene 1 with Romeo hiding from Mercutio & Benvolio from behind the audience members. There’s a certain degree of magic when doing Shakespeare in a public space that isn’t normally a theatre space. Including passers-by who would also stumble upon and watch the proceedings. We didn’t have anyone mess with the show, though we did have a few very loud cars pass by from time to time. Not to mention Romeo using the audience as cover an a source of interaction.

The Balcony Scene

Then there was the balcony scene.

Two Houses: Balcony Scene

The reason for the production is for this very scene happen out on the streets of Oakland. The biggest issue I had as an usher was to guide audiences to not clump onto one side of the action, but be able to pull a few others to the other side of the action. Ultimately it was walking in front of Romeo while gesturing others to come with me. Then I’d hit my mark to protect Romeo’s marks.

Then I had to end the production with this scene. I thought I’d be able to think of a speech to close it up, but we couldn’t think of a fancy way of writing this kind of ending. So it was more practical of a closure than something witty and/or meaningful. The task was insurmountable, but I’m still feel let down with myself for not thinking of something better.

What did work was my magical device, the mini Lumio. Where a torch would light a specific area, the Lumio brings attention to me along with filling the space with light. This brings attention to me and away from Romeo and allowing me to close the night. From there we would stay out until every person had their safe ride home available to them.

Closing Thoughts

Two Houses: The Book

I have a new job title as “Immersive Theatre Usher.” Between this and HiNGE, there’s a lot of other insights I’ve made into what goes into welcoming an audience to an immersive show. The role is about making the people feel safe to explore the world presented to them. There are rules and safety issues to insure, but it’s about gaining and earning trust before and throughout the piece. Material I hope to turn into a lecture at some point soon.

I want to thank everyone on the cast and crew of this production. Despite my years in theatre, this is the first Shakespeare production I’ve ever been involved with.

For all the photos and cast/crew notes, check out the big old Facebook Album of Joe’s photos.