Immersive theater experience invites audience to partake in ghost support group
Brady Richards, Dana Benedict and Zippy Cardozo star in “Afterlife Anonymous,” which is running through Nov. 1. The show incorporates audience and cast participation as it follows a support group for ghosts trapped in purgatory by their addictions.(Courtesy of Jor-el Vaasborg)
Oct. 25, Oct. 31, Nov. 1
By Kennedy Hill
Oct. 24, 2019 10:27 p.m.
Shinbone Theatre Company would prefer LA residents immerse themselves in comedic theater instead of candy bags this Halloween season.
When alumni Jonny Perl and Leland Frankel founded Shinbone in 2016, they envisioned the company as a platform to heighten audience experience through immersive, comedic storytelling. Running through Nov. 1, their production “Afterlife Anonymous” allows both audience and cast members to attend a support group for ghosts, whose haunting addiction traps them in purgatory. Perl said the company wanted to create a show in which the audience could relate to monsters, and encouraging participation as ghosts allows the audience to live a night in a monster’s shoes.
“We’re always villainizing the zombies, the wolfmen and the whoevers,” Perl said. “The idea of a support group came in because Halloween is a hard time for these creatures.”
Perl said the cast and audience members will sit intermingled in a circle, with both groups able to divulge what hardships their ghost characters face. The support group format primarily functions as an unconventional situation to explore the difficulties of being a monster, while also enabling the cast to comment on darker, humanist themes, Perl said. Shinbone often attempts to criticize broader social issues in their productions, taking inspiration from the witty, biting style of TV series “BoJack Horseman,” he said. “Afterlife Anonymous” in particular emulates Tim Burton films, in which themes such as death and longing are presented in a more accessible, light-hearted tone similar to “Beetlejuice,” Perl said.
Although most of the show’s comedic elements are scripted beforehand, humor also arises from audience members – referred to as “spect-actors” – who participate in the group discussion. Perl said some Shinbone projects support an audience of up to 200, but this performance necessitated a much smaller capacity of 12 audience members to mirror a support group’s intimacy. Frankel said this smaller setup allows for dynamic improvisation between cast and audience members without disrupting the overall structure of the performance.
Along with the smaller audience, the lighting also bolsters the production’s intimate tone, said lighting designer and alumna Brittany Cobb. Lighting immediately sets the mood for an immersive audience, so she needed to find a balance between the dark, ethereal feel of the afterlife and the brighter look of a church basement in which typical Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held. Many of the light fixtures also served as set dressing, which allowed Cobb to play with both the output and decor of her lighting.
“The joy and fun of working in immersive theater is that I could put up just a regular light fixture, or we can turn it into a scenic part of their world that helps tell the story,” Cobb said.
Once the spect-actors understand the mood, Frankel said it’s up to the actual actors to draw the audience out of their shells and into the story. Some audience members immediately throw themselves into the plot and their character, while others prefer to remain observers, Frankel said.
Even though Shinbone wants the entire audience to become involved, he said it’s necessary to respect each attendee’s desired level of participation in order to maintain enjoyable energy throughout the show. Albeit, Perl said overzealous audience members can also throw the show off course, which happened during their previous project. In that project, a spect-actor’s overly enthusiastic courting of a cast member derailed the character from coupling with a castmate as the script outlined.
Even though the fine line between actor and attendee in “Afterlife Anonymous” could possibly derail the planned narrative, Perl said this level of agency and influence in the performance is the experience Shinbone hopes to offer its audience. Frankel said this looming presence of spontaneity in immersive theater is what injects excitement into and drives the company’s productions.
“We’re not immersive where it’s, ‘Oh, there’s a play happening in a room,’ and you’re just sitting there still watching a show,” Frankel said. “For us, immersive means a show where the audience is actively participating and feeling the energy of the show.”