What they say it is:
Put on some headphones. Enter the theater. Have your perception of reality break down.
Within a large, nearly empty theater, you sit, one of fifteen audience members, watching another fifteen audience members perform on stage. Then you replace those on stage, only to discover that a new audience occupies the seats you left behind. Now you are being watched. And so it continues. And as instructed via your headphones, you move though different zones of the theater, which is dormant, empty, and unlit save for your flashlight.
You’re cast—along with everyone else in the audience—as an extra. But an extra for what? Are you in a play, is it for a film, or are you like a temporary worker just performing the tasks you’re told to without explanation? You notice that your instructions differ from everyone else’s. Highly realistic recordings create an audio landscape so complete that you start to mistrust your surroundings. The only thing keeping you safe in a once familiar world becomes a childlike, computer-generated voice telling you what to do.
While studying for my profession as a pharmacist, I worked at an institution where the motto was “Caring People, Caring for People”. As new technology was introduced to the work place, I was required to wear a device that helped me select a specific product via barcode, and then deliver it to an automated dispensing machine. As employees, we soon came to feel less like people and more like cogs in a device-driven system, and joked that the new motto of the institution should be “Caring People, Caring for Machines”. Looking back on this unusual life experience, I do think that it allowed me to have a special understanding of The Extra People.
The logistics: Viewers / players were asked to wear fluorescent vests. These vests held an iPod connected to earbuds through which we would listen to instructions. I had a hard time getting the earbuds to stay in my ears, which lead to me missing a few of the directions, or occasionally being slightly behind the action. However, considering the immersive nature of the experience, I can understand why earbuds were necessary. Also iPods were individually coded, so not all individuals received the same set of instructions– an interesting feature to ponder during the production. I did drop my iPod once, as it slipped out of my vest pocket, but I was able to adequately recover and so it all worked out . . . maybe I just have abnormally shaped ears, or am a little clumsy?
Clay, proofreading Tara’s essay, interjects: I too dropped my iPod a few times—a natural hazard of the show’s requirement to frequently lean over, or even roll around on the floor. I don’t believe this necessarily proves that Tara is clumsy. I mean, she may be, but this isn’t the end-all proof.
By chance assignment, I had the good fortune of receiving a “leading” role in the production. I was given special instructions during the introduction to the play and during the first part of the production while we were still in the ‘audience’, watching players (i.e. a former audience) on the stage. My directions caused me to directly interact with other players in our group, which leads me to suspect that this play would NOT appeal to everyone. There is a feeling of discomfort that one must release oneself from to follow what might be considered “silly” instructions. One must trust that one is in a safe, non-judgmental environment in order to comfortably do things like sit quietly, alone, in the dark . . . and then suddenly, for example, follow directions to close your eyes and flail your arms wildly as though bees or mosquitoes are attacking your head. (Later, as the stage player, players have the chance to observe the next group following these wild directives). You also must allow yourself to give into the moment, and be comfortable with not being in control of the moment. You must participate rather than passively observing (as we do in so much of our daily lives-music, tv, books, etc). You must be okay with not getting to experience or observe all portions of the play you are in . . . because you are actively participating.
Though I think it was unique to our experience of the night, it is worth noting that I witnessed a would-be player making a premature exit from the previous show just prior to our own entrance as the (new) audience. I can’t be 100% positive, but it appeared that each group sets and resets the stage for the next group of players. A shortage of players would have caused the preceding group to be 14, rather than 15, people, which therefore might have impacted the staging and props for our incoming roles. Some of our group reported not being able to find some required props, although it was never entirely clear if this was an intentionally confusing element of the show, or a mistake due to ‘casting errors’ like the one above.
Although I was unsure of myself during the activities of the show–Was I doing it right? Was I messing this up? And what if I did mess it up?–I really enjoyed the experience of this play. The Extra People was unlike any other production that I have had the pleasure of seeing—or being in. Throughout the show, the in-ear narrator made a number of ambiguous statements, and asked several open-ended questions that prompted much conversation between Clay and I as we left the theater.
After exiting the stage and on our way to the street doors, we were welcomed to watch a video display that appeared to illustrate the various technologies and mechanical devices that (may have?) inspired this production. Although my own job never required me to use the specific technology featured in the post-play videos, I have used similar inventory tracking devices during parts of my employment and can imagine these technologies are used in warehouses and factories.
I thought The Extra People was an excellent commentary on technology, as well as a platform for some cultural and philosophic questions. How do we react to things that are out of our control? How do we react to being asked to do random tasks in public? What is real?
In some circles of music, fans use the term ‘the hose’ to refer to those ineffable, all-too-rare moments when art really touches you, when a sense of the infinite washes over your body, or when you’re filled up with the explosive and heady goodness of, well, everything. Symptoms of The Hose often include spontaneous cheering, the hair on your arms standing up, and/or a bolt-from-the-heavens-quite-literally-dizzying realization of how astoundingly powerful art really can be.
I tend to mostly experience the hose in relation to live music. Think of those times when a band just blows your mind–the part of the show when the song just lifts you off your feet, your stomach turns over with glee and joy, and you feel like you could smash the stars out of the sky and then put them right back into place with your own amazing two hands….all because this music is so damn good. But I don’t think ‘the hose’ is exclusive to any one form of art–not after you’ve learned that it exists, and how to channel it, anyway. MOVING ON, the point of this meandering introduction (and thank you for indulging me) is all to explain that when I first saw the advertisement for The Extra People, I immediately knew I’d come across something unique and important, and simultaneously realized I was in the throes of a full-on HoseDown. Hair on my arms standing up, check; brain buzzing with anticipation and giddy excitement, check; irrepressible bubbling urge to race out into the streets and shout ‘Hey Look at THIS, you’re never going to believe what awesome thing I’ve discovered!’ . . . check. If you’re still not sure of my meaning, allow me to clarify: I was quite excited by the show’s description, and had decided we’d be attending this performance. The Hose isn’t just goosebumps, after all; its a portal into the heart of the universe. No small thing, you see.
With a busy September that included an end-of-summer vacation and an extended-weekend wedding, we were barely able to squeeze two Fringe events onto our calendar. I’m glad to report that the effort, however, proved to be very worthwhile; Ant Hampton’s The Extra People was an unforgettable experience (note, I didn’t merely call it a ‘show’) that piqued one’s sense of curiosity, offered a rare artistic vision that confounded traditional audience/performer roles, and quite frankly, offered a sort of surrogate fulfillment for my own-unrealized dream of being a stage performer. I can’t deny it. As a ‘professional audience member’, I’ve long suspected that my passion for live art is, in part, the psychic upshot of a private, unfulfilled compulsion–to appear on stage, to act, to play, to PERFORM before the eyes of an anonymous, approving audience. So, a ticket to the The Extra People promised nothing less than a chance to check a major box on my bucket list of life. That’s cool, right?
We arrived an hour before our slotted time and had drinks across the street from the venue. When we returned for our insertion (scheduled for 8:15 PM), we could see some of the show’s preliminary activities taking place through the theater’s front windows. Guests looked to be wearing neon-orange safety vests and were seated in a semi-circle in the lobby. I averted my eyes to avoid spoilers, and spent time talking with one of the staff members, who I slightly recognized from other hose-worthy events of the past. When we were eventually admitted to the show, we were given numbers (I was allotted number 1, naturally, while Tara was given number 4), donned the aforementioned vests, and outfitted with preset iPods and earbuds. We then took seats and began to play our parts in The Extra People.
A voice was talking to me; the sound was calm, efficient, and overtly robotic. It was clear that the voice would be guiding me through the show, and that I should expect to follow directions as given. We began with a simple exercise: our group of 15 were asked to retrieve paper and pencil from below our chairs and sketch the lines of our own palms. The experience was interesting, even meditative. Nobody spoke or broke form; glancing around, I spotted reactions ranging from bemusement to curiosity. We then placed the paper in our vest pockets, and following the voices in our heads, moved to assigned seats in the theater. By this time, some players were clearly receiving unique instructions all their own; Tara, for instance, was now carrying a flashlight and moved ahead of the team, following a different schedule than the rest of us.
Entering the Merriam’s balcony, we hurried to our seats, spurred to a sense of urgency by the Voice’s tick-tock countdown. No player sat near another; I was on an aisle by myself, with my closest neighbor at least several rows away. A play of sorts seemed to be taking place on the stage far below us, but this was not a typical show; the house and stage lights were eerily dark (as was the seating area) but we could see shadowed players moving in cryptic forms and patterns. Other than the voice in my ears, the theater seemed completely silent. The experience began to feel a bit like a witching midnight mass, narrated and directed by an automatonic Other.
I was told to close my eyes; we listened to numerical sequences and other non sequitur observations of the voice. The tenor of both the voice and the overall show seemed to focus the listener in the immediacy of the Now; we were actively reminded that we were listening to a voice, that we were taking part in something, and most curiously, that we didn’t know what, exactly, we were doing here. The references quickly exceeded your typical 4th-wall confrontations; rather, this was ‘all wall’–a moment-by-moment live experience that entirely pointed back at the listener and show itself. One guest was appointed to announce, aloud, every time one-hundred seconds had passed, meanwhile, Tara circulated through the balcony shining her light directly into our faces. I was told to feign sleep, even as my own wife stood over me, unwavering flashlight in hand.
Eventually, our group was sent down to the lower level theater seats by way of narrow side-staircases. The current actors were huddled on the floor of the stage, transformed into lumpy islands of brown blankets and hidden from view. We were instructed to join them on the stage, and after some circulation and movement around the periphery, our group held the blankets in place while the former actors slowly rose and quietly left the show.
At this point, I need to press the fast-forward button on my review, if only to avoid throttling the spirit of this show with a tiresome, overly-didactic summary. The remainder of The Extra People was mostly comprised of my group circulating back and forth across the stage, following directions, performing strange activities according to whatever instructions we received. We’d now become the main players, while a new audience was in place in the balcony. At one point (assuming I understood my Voice correctly), I was told to find and wield a flashlight, but when I could not complete this task (there was no flashlight anywhere to be found), I was reduced to genuine frustration and near-panic–it seemed as though I’d messed up somehow, and might possibly derail the performance by failing to play my assigned part. However, on later reflection, this one of the more ‘meta’ experiences of the entire night, whether scripted or accidental; considering the show’s theme of conscious immediacy (not to mention the Voice repeatedly inquiring if I felt adequately prepared for my ambiguous role), my anxiety over a missing prop certainly riveted my attention and brought conscious time into stringent focus. In the moment, however, I waved my arms and made faces, hoping to gain some hidden stage manager’s attention (throughout, there were no staff visible anywhere in the theater–a genuinely excellent aspect of the show). I sweated, I looked everywhere for the flashlight, I nearly became angry. But . . . after nothing worked, I was left with no other choice but to zero in on the voice, reclaim the action before me, and to drop the frustration and ‘let something go’ . . .and so I passed on through the remainder of the play. Kind of cool, actually, when I look back on it. Fear as part of the stage. Not knowing what to do, and moving on, pushing through, succeeding as best you can, success only scored by your own final review. Theater, art, life.
Later, I placed my hands on the wall; I walked in wide circles, brushing the tips of my outstretched fingers across the hands of the other players. By the end, my group had become the folks under the bunched blankets, silently still, listening to our iPod recordings, waiting for the new group to arrive and set us free and send us out into the night.
In the end, perhaps my imagined anticipation of the show somewhat exceeded the final product. It was fun. The cost for The Extra People was around thirty dollars per person; if only for the experience of a mostly empty giant theater space, it was worth it–but I can’t deny that the actual stage elements left me feeling a little unfulfilled. The most significant elements of the show unquestionably took place in my own mind; the recorded voice challenged me to look within, listen to the silences in the air, to pause and realize and think, clearly, without distraction, to be In The Show and Of The Now. This was cool. VERY cool. But, if I’m honest, that interesting inner life made the stage action seem somewhat aimless by comparison. I liked the ways we walked in circles and that we were pulled out of ourselves through an insistent form of ‘stage therapy’. But I also thought we actors could have been used in more exciting ways; perhaps I was hungry to perform in a legitimate scene, to feel a real sense of risk as part of a clueless cast, or even to try my hand at playing a traditional script handed down by our iPod instructors. Clearly, The Extra People wasn’t aiming for an orthodox concept at all . . . so as for my secret desire to ACT . . . well, maybe I shouldn’t have toted it along to this show. I was supposed to be finding space and blankness and living the moment and renewing a sense of conscious balance . . . not sweating my delivery of a line, or lending dramatic support to a complex scene. I can say that I did successfully achieve the former. And I’ll look forward–but still staying content in the now, alive, happy, and completely prepared for my role, whatever it might be–to the latter.