Spotlight On: Gyda Arber 

Helene Montagna 
5/19/2014 

Please Remember to Turn All Cell Phones & Electronic Devices ON Before the Performance


 
"I'm here for the show," one confused audience member said during a performance of Red Cloud Rising, a 2011 production by Gyda Arber. Red Cloud Rising is just one of several interactive experiences that Gyda Arber has produced over the years. You see, this isn't your typical night at the theater. In fact, Red Cloud Rising wasn't even in a theater at all, but in a swanky Wall Street boardroom. 

The set-up was that of a mock job interview in which you are brought into the conference room of the fictitious Bydder Financial.  There, you are told you will receive phone calls and text messages providing clues to solve the puzzles. It was an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), a combination of gaming and the real world. When Arber first came up with the idea, she knew she wanted to use a combination of voice calls and SMS messages. To achieve this, she used an open source application called Twilio, with which, in addition to some PHP coding, the back end of Red Cloud Rising was built. Red Cloud Rising ran for three months in 2011, with 500 people playing the game.

Arber is also known for creating Suspicious Package, an interactive "iPod Noir," in which the audience ends up playing all of the parts in the show.  Audience members received a costume and an mp3 player upon arrival.  Each mp3 player contained an audio visual file that was character specific and lines for the "characters" to read aloud. Suspicious Package went on to play at the Edinburg Fringe Festival and also spawned a sequel, Suspicious Package: Rx.

Arber said that she has always been drawn to theater that engages the audience in an active way rather than just let the play "wash over you. That's the beauty of live theater, to me - there are actual actors, there, in the room with you, and the most electric moments are when they acknowledge that fact, even if it's just a performer chastising an audience's lack of cell phone etiquette," she said. "I love it when the audience is a character in the show, even in a small way, like in [The 25th Annual] Putnam County Spelling Bee", Arber added.

These interactive experiences can be a bit tricky at times, because in addition to the element of live theater, there is the added element of not knowing how an audience member might react. Arber stated that she tends to work with actors she knows and trusts. Scripts are mostly just an outline and actors need to be able to think on their feet and improve rather quickly based on the audience. In terms of audience attendance, Arber said that she has definitely gotten a different audience for her work than the "standard" indie theater crowd, including strangers and people that don't normally attend Off-Off-Broadway shows.

"I'm thrilled that with the success of Sleep No More, people seem a lot more open to the idea of immersive and untraditional theatrical experiences. I'm hoping to see more and more of this kind of thing. There are a lot of amazing groups out there making all sorts of cool stuff. I love all of it!" Arber said when asked about the future of this unique type of theater.

Arber's latest foray into the world of immersive theater is called FutureMate, created with Brian Fountain, David Gochfeld, and Allen Hahn. This experience explores online dating in a post-apocalyptic world.  After a catastrophic event, "The Cataclysm", which has wiped out most of the population, this "dating" is a government initiative designed to repopulate the world. FutureMate utilizes multiple platforms that include: futuremate.us (a government-run dating site), a commercial for the FutureMate system; gn0s1s.net (an anti-government manifesto); a guerilla-style anti-government print campaign; Twitter feeds from this post-apocalyptic world; and a cell phone-based speed-dating experience to pair audience members with one another. By the end of the show, each audience member will have met their match in this futuristic world. Whether or not they decide to move on from there is entirely up to them. Should you wish to find your post-Cataclysm match, FutureMate plays the last weekend of every month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For show details, visit the FSLC website.

Of course, the interactive theater experience isn't for everyone. As Arber has attested, there are still audience members who insist they are just there "for the show." But, artists like Arber prove that you can be more than just an audience member - and not even have to turn off your cell phone.


 

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