Total Immersion: Crime And Punishment

Crime And Punishment. Photo by Dan Norman.

Live Action Set (LAS) and Dangerous Productions mounted an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment (C&P) in the industrial basement of the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, a 17,400sq-ft. space with 12,000sq-ft. available for the performance. Patrons wandered through a St. Petersburg slum, choosing their own adventures in some 30 rooms that a team of designers created within the basement’s three structurally-divided spaces. More than 20 performers presented 12 story lines simultaneously, some through physical theatre or dance as well as in dramatic scenes. Each patron was cast as the novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, and was required to wear a mask for the entire performance and be silent while interacting with the environment. Patrons were able to interact by touching objects or reading a character’s diary. Play money could be earned by sweeping a room or carrying a crate from one place to another and allowed them to make purchases at a liquor store and market. Some described the event as a video game, with each spectator as the protagonist.

The Slipstream Theatre Initiative performed an adaptation of Hamlet in two rooms of a storefront near Detroit. The main room was less than 900sq-ft., accommodating a seating area and about 500sq-ft. of playing space; a second room was a little larger. Spectators were cast as psychiatric experts who were at the Elsinore Asylum to evaluate inmates as they presented the Shakespeare play. Visitors were warned that, although “security measures are in place, these are girls who have severe mental disorders and many have a background of violent crimes,” and asked to remain in their seats, later required to move quickly to the second room as a safety measure. Spectators not only had blood on their hands when they left, but some had blood splashed on their clothes.  

LAS did a fully immersive production loosely based on a novel, while Slipstream did an adaptation of a play, employing just a few immersive techniques.

Crime And Punishment: Total Immersion

Photo by Dan Norman.

C&P first surfaced at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival after several workshops. When remounted in the same space this year, scenes were added and others deleted or revised. In 2014, spectators entered a nightclub. This year, they began in a tearoom with low lamps, couches, and tables. “Up to 80 people could have a cup of tea, listen to some Russian music, and then receive instructions on how to interact with the piece,” says director/story adaptor Noah Bremer. “We wanted them to have a moment of transitioning into the world,” he says, adding that some spectators were confused at the Fringe Festival. This time, a character would give them masks and instructions before dispersing them into the larger environment in groups of eight. “As soon as everyone was in, the music kicked into high gear, and the action started.”

Actors sometimes addressed spectators or looked at them as if they knew them. The idea, says Bremer, was to “give them the feeling they’ve been here before. They’re reliving fragmented moments that they repressed.” The team took liberties with the novel, combining characters and adding some. Character arcs were detailed and linear, even though they were all transpiring at the same time. “If you stuck with one character, you would get a complete story arc and get their perspective,” says Bremer, noting that there were too many distractions for most patrons to do this. With numerous houses, back alleys, a strip club, and other areas to explore in a single hour, some people saw the show more than once.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Technical director Søren Olsen says the old basement with low power, water leaks, no exit signs, and low ceilings with sprinklers, raised safety concerns. Concrete walls and a concrete floor made building difficult. “How do you keep the set off the floor so if it rains, it won’t be damaged?” he wondered. In a production where audiences can’t touch the set, you can have exposed screws. Not here. “People might step in fake blood, and it gets tracked around the space. Every little thing can turn into a nightmare,” he says. “All the walls were angular. Nothing felt like it was in place, and it all felt like it was about to fall down. We were trying to both make a Dostoevsky novel and a scary experience but one comfortable enough [and safe enough] so people could explore.”

Crowd Control

Photo by Dan Norman.

Crowd control was another issue. What if one scene attracts 80 people to a tiny apartment? Bremer called on Jason Quick, an industrial designer who had worked for NASA designing the movement of people through a spaceship. Quick created a floor plan showing the flow of spectators through the space. Sometimes, he made it possible to see three different scenes from one vantage point; a person could then walk 3' to join one of them. Holes and windows also allowed spectators to experience some scenes without being in them. He created hiding places for actors and sometimes blocked people’s views, preventing them from going where they wanted to go to control their experience. “You design for an envisioned experience, and then you have to let go,” Quick adds, noting that spectators, lighting, sound, and other elements can come into play in unpredictable ways, and he could only begin to create the “playground.”

Once that flow was established, designers got to work. After Bremer, co-director/story adaptor/blood effects producer Tyler Olsen, and assistant director/story adaptor Joanna Harmon imagined different environments, some needing to be larger than others, set designer Erica Zaffarano began thinking about where to put them. “A funky area underneath a big cement staircase spoke to me as a hovel of a bedroom for Raskolnikov,” she says. One favorite was a linen storage room that was “a little scary and difficult to work through.” They hung a variety of sheets, tying them in different configurations and casting shadows on some, throwing projections on others. An actor might whisper from behind a sheet. “You turned around, and nobody was there,” she adds. “You could be lost in that room.”  In one room, a character sees a corpse of himself and is forced to eat the entrails; Zaffarano stuffed a figure with Jell-O and made a life mask of the actor. A liquor store featured bottles lit by LEDs. There were locks everywhere in the pawnbroker’s room, and patrons could unlock doors, trunks, and more.

Raskolnikov's apartment.

Olsen used 35 different blood effects. Piñatas exploded with blood and guts, and characters could have their throats cut or their heads chopped. “When we enter Raskolnikov’s fever dream, it gets very visceral and bloody,” he says. “The reason for doing it in the soap factory was to create a mood of oppression.” A small concrete square that had been a coal storage room had an echo and a claustrophobic feel, making it perfect for an interrogation room. “The building stepped up and had amazing things to offer,” says Olsen. “The pawnbroker’s environment was a totally realized apartment, with working clocks, a piano, a radio, all entered into the action of the show. It seemed to be furnished by this greedy old woman. It became a place where terrible things happen.”

Photo by Dan Norman.

It even smelled like her place. Olfactory designer Mike McGinley created the smell of hay and leather for a market, cedar and mothballs for one apartment, and a sweaty musty scent, with a hint of urine in the interrogation room. “Some were not pleasant, but none were horrible,” he says, explaining that they didn’t want patrons to run from a space, just the way sounds couldn’t be too shrill. By placing odors in a doorway and not the entire room, patrons would get a whiff that fades. McGinley achieved these by diluting chemical compounds with oil or water or by finding available scents used in some candles.  

Set decorator Sarah Stone added the tiny details that might have unsettled some spectators. “Each space had its own feel, based on characters in the book,” she says. For one, she created a wall made entirely of shoes. For another, she did a C-section on a 5'-tall teddy bear, filled it with a bread box, and placed a suffering character’s sweetest memories in the box. The bear hovered over patrons, with its guts emerging: dolls, vintage family photos, and children’s books. She turned a hallway into a church, “not a place of peace and worship but a place with pews and a piece of furniture repurposed as an altar,” she says.

Alyona's house.

Because storylines unraveled simultaneously, scenes had to be timed so that one character could enter into another’s storyline at the right time. The production was broken into 13 blocks, three to five minutes long. “At the end of each timed block, chimes would ring, as if from a main bell tower located in our town square from hell,” says sound designer Michael Croswell. At the end of block one, 12 chimes rang, at the end of block two, 11 chimes, and on. “Time ran backwards in this twisted world,” adds Croswell, who also used sounds to help actors who needed cues within a block. “I placed things like a blast of steam or an identifiable factory sound that would cue an actor to move along to their next location.”

This Twisted World

Shanty Town.

The space had built in rooms with thick walls, hallways, and corners that helped contain and isolate sound. Speakers helped move traffic. “For example, sound would shoot down a long narrow hallway, and when the audience turned a corner at the end of the hallway, they turned into a new space filled with sound coming from another strategically placed speaker,” says Croswell, adding that he had a total of 16 channels of audio distributed throughout the entire space and sent two eight-channel snakes out from the main sound control space, splitting the basement in half. “I ran individual XLR cables from the end of the two snakes to each speaker location,” he says. “There was one sound location that was a self-contained system, separate from the synchronized sound system.”

In the main sound control center, the sound department had an Apple iMac with a basic Figure 53 QLab license that connected via USB to a Motu 828mk3 Hybrid. QLab provided eight channels of synchronized sound that went to each of the powered Behringer speakers scattered throughout the basement. “I augmented the synchronized sound using MIDI to trigger two old Roland SP-808 digital samplers that had 32 minutes of audio on each machine,” says Croswell. “By splitting the left and right output channels of the old samplers, I added four more channels of synchronized audio. One of the samplers failed during tech and was replaced by an old-fashioned CD player.”  

Croswell composed music after designing the audio system layout and then visualizing how compositions might be distributed through the space. He juxtaposed instruments, textures, frequencies, and types of speakers. “We also discovered that, by pushing the density and volume of the music and sound, we could subtly force the audience to crowd in closer to the actors and playing spaces.”

Photo by Dan Norman.

Two lighting designers, Ian Knodel and Tony Biele, were confronted with too little AC power to light the whole show with traditional theatrical lighting, “but the entire space is also wired for 12 volts DC, which is perfect for LEDs,” says Biele. The pair used a traditional lighting rig with dimmer packs and a parallel 12V lighting grid that Biele built from scratch using Arduino micro controllers. “Both received MIDI commands from the computer running QLab that also provided the soundtrack, Biele adds. “We also had video in one area, also triggered by QLab, and were able to get multiple video projectors to act independently from a single video feed using a Matrox TripleHead2Go.” Knodel adds that the LEDs allowed them to splash color into the world, too.

The show’s complicated choreography, and the absence of a tech booth that might allow an operator to see everything also challenged them. Biele says they had to closely follow action that couldn’t be precisely timed, and they hid pushbutton triggers in the scenery that an actor could push to begin a sequence. Other switches would detect when cupboard doors were opened to trigger lighting sequences when spectators discovered certain props. “This was all made possible due to the versatility of the Arduino-based LED system,” says Biele. “It was, however, tricky to program because it all had to be written in computer code, a C/C++ variation.”

Photo by Dan Norman.

At the Fringe Festival, lighting was dim. “The idea was to open up pockets of light where things were happening and plunge it back into darkness,” says Biele. One space went dark, another lit up, helping spectators move through the space. In the second run, lights were brighter, and people were encouraged to explore.  

The large team also included Laura Thaisen, production manager; Mandi Johnson, costume and makeup designer; Kristen Leigh, makeup designer; William Harmon, stage manager/story adaptor; Donna Meyer; assistant set designer; Jon Bradley, lead carpenter; Craig Kossen, makeup assistant; Theresa Purcell, blood assistant; Abbee Warmboe, properties manager; and Anna Johnson, assistant stage manager.

Stay tuned for Hamlet.

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