The Hierarchy CANOE 2015

Featured image: Tim Mikula, Lee Boyes, Josephine Hendrick, Ian Pidgeon

“There were moments of complete and utter catharsis for me in this performance. Moments where I sweat and closed off my body language. Moments where my hands shook and my palms sweat, moments where I wanted to scream, moments where I wanted to cry, moments where I laughed hysterically”

-Taylor Chadwick, What It Is Podcast

In August, 2014, I was invited to bring The Hierarchy to Workshop West’s Canoe Festival for 2015. Excited for another chance to push the piece forward, I dug out my notes from Miami, and went to work honing it even further.

This production was a collaboration between MurmurWorkshop West Playwrights’ Theatre and Rapid Fire Theatre.

A Quick Refresher

The Hierarchy of The Lost Children is an immersive/interactive theater event designed to take an audience through the emotional journey of cult recruitment and initiation.

The experience progresses over three ACTs.

  1. ACT I: Interactive cult recruitment tests and techniques
  2. ACT II: The Three Revelations of Metamorphosis Initiation Ritual
  3. ACT III: The Lost Children film about the cult’s patron saint, Evelyn Hamilton

Combining What Works

Most of the elements remained, though in a new configuration. The multi-player game Group Dynamics(Formerly “Secret Society”), one-on-one Soul Readings, Psychic testing through “Intraphysics”, the Three Revelations ritual, and The Archangel’s sermons. These were all elements used in either the Film Society of Lincoln Center version, or the FilmGate version. Now, I combined the best of both.

The goal of this show has always been to develop it into a packaged experience that can be licensed to theater companies. And after the past three iterations, I feel that the shape of ACTs I & II are pretty much where they need to be.

Cult Boot Camp

Because there is so much direct audience interaction, this show relies on improv actors. And throughout the life of this show, the casts I’ve had have always been dedicated and effective.

But this time around, we came up with a new technique which I’m calling “Cult Boot Camp”. Basically, we did improv sessions within the storyworld.

Cast members asked one another challenging questions and discussed topics related to The Hierarchy. This gave everyone a chance to dig into their own characters, flesh out responses to potential audience questions, and develop their own opinions on Hierarchy practices, the outside world, and their own reasons for joining.

Cutting Away

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“Dots” inspire audience action and envy.

In the FilmGate experience, I had introduced an activity called “Side Missions”. These were cell-phone led scavenger hunts that revealed aspects of the cult that they may not want known. I designed these to give activities to those audience members who did not want to get involved in the cult recruitment techniques. But overall I found that, though Side Missions were successful, there simply is not enough time in the first act to have those along side the cult recruitment activities. They make it too difficult to focus the audience’s attention, thus reducing the impact of the piece as a whole.

The Film

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Programs lay out structure of event and introduce storyworld elements.

Preparing for this experience, I cut the film all the way to the bone. Now it clocks in 15 min shorter than it did in the last cut. But it’s still too long within the context of this experience. Combine that with the fact that I don’t think it’s having exactly the effect I want it to have, I may remove it from the live experience altogether, or radically alter it’s structure and presentation.

The film gets mixed reviews. It’s equally divided between those who find it terrifying, heart-breaking and compelling, and those who find it confusing and too long.

But in this production, I had the most interesting reaction to the film ever. One audience member told me that she was invested in the film, and felt it had meaning within the context of the show, while it focused on the real, human consequences of cult aftermath. But when the film veered into sci-fi territory, it lost a serious handling of the subject matter.

So this got my little brain working overtime. I may figure out a way to cut up the deprogramming footage and present it in some way that makes sense in the experience, perhaps spread over a number of screens in a gallery setting, so that audience members can take in smaller bits, discuss, share, etc.

Or I may simply allow the third act of The Hierarchy experience to be a discussion about the recruitment and ritual. One thing I find universal with this show is that people want to discuss the feelings and thoughts the show brought up for them.

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Josephine Hendrick gives audience members one-on-one “Soul Readings”

Challenging the Audience

This production got closest to what I want the show to be, in that it’s not a show at all. We even state that at the top of the experience.

The experience is designed not to entertain you, but to give you a space to explore your own reactions to being put in this situation. That is the entertainment.

I’ve always struggled with how to market what I want this experience to be, but after this production, I think I have a pretty firm grasp on it.

And what I want it to be cannot really be called “Theater” because that word brings with it a whole set of expectations that the experience will not satisfy.

This project challenges audience members directly, and asks them to contribute sometimes very personal details and feelings. This has never been a “show up and sit in the dark” kind of thing. No one is forced into anything, but if you do choose to take part, you will likely get into at least one uncomfortable situation. And your responses become creative contributions to the experience.

One young college student had a very negative reaction to the experience. She did not like feeling manipulated by this cult. And I am 100% okay with that.

But it brought up one thing I’m still working with in the experience design; giving people like her the permission to speak up and voice their responses. When I told her that the show had a period built in for exactly that, she perked up and seemed interested again. She had not understood that during the experience.

So I clearly need to work harder on clarifying that moment.

The next night, we saw some emergent behavior as another college student came and took on the role of skeptic. When that moment in the show came where we ask the audience to voice any concerns, he jumped right in. The tension mounted and everyone kind of sat there uncomfortable as this one man confronted the cult. Eventually he walked out of the show.

I approached him out in the hall and he had a big grin on his face: “I just wanted to see what would happen.” This is the kind of play I love to inspire in an audience.

So I often like to use the word “playspace”, rather than “theater”. This still doesn’t quite get at it, but at the very least it starts to communicate the sandbox nature of what we’re doing. I’ve also considered “sandbox”, but for some reason it doesn’t hit me the same way “playspace” does.

One more element that clarified in this production is the effect the experience can have on the cast members themselves. I like to think of the cast and audience collaborating together, with the cast acting as much as guides to the world as performers in that world.

I was very impressed by Ed Iskandar’s work on The Mysteries, and chatting with him about providing social spaces for cast and audience to mingle. So I think there’s a lot to think about regarding the cast’s experience is as well.

I love the idea that a show is a kind of party, where cast and audience meet in the playspace and create something together.

The Way Forward

Another interesting response I got to this production came from one of the young actors involved. He suggested I bring this show to college sociology and religious studies departments. He felt that those departments often study the subjects brought up in the piece, but that allowing students to actually experience those subjects would give them a degree of understanding they would never get from book learning alone. He said there were things he had learned in school that he never really understood until he did this piece.

I’ve done a lot of work with Epic Theatre Ensemble over the past couple of years. They are a company whose mission includes using art to educate and to affect meaningful change in the world, and they’ve had a profound impact on my own work.

So this may be the final piece of the puzzle for The Hierarchy as well.

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