Alisa Stewart, founding artistic director of the Experience Theatre Project, took an odd path back to the stage, but so little about her company obeys traditional theatrical guidelines. Following a '90s internship with Chicago's famed Steppenwolf, the trending singer-songwriter toured the country and then settled down in Portland to run the city's first pub quiz franchise, which she sold to Geeks Who Drink to finance the launch of her true passion.
Beaverton's ETP specializes in immersive dramatic productions (2017's steampunk version of The Tempest, a 2018 Halloween burlesque romp titled The Rise of Houdini, and last year The Picture of Dorian Gray, presented promenade style) that place onlookers within classic narratives. The COVID-19 outbreak should have been especially devastating to a company that relies on physical stagecraft and manipulated crowd movements, but Stewart's troupe has found a way to return this Friday with a livestream version of Henry James' classic The Turn of the Screw. Teasing an ingenious advance in virtual performance, Stewart spoke with WW about the peculiar challenges of engaging an audience she'll never see.
WW: What was your original vision for Experience Theatre Project?
Alisa Stewart: The point of theater for me has always been to lose yourself in the story like a good book. I loved shows that basically transport you to another place or time, and I realized that was missing. Immersive theater needs to bring you in and hold you there. You can go anywhere you want and look at anything you want. You can go into a space and experience everything. What really engages people is the sense of exploration, when you can talk to the actors and they don't ignore you during the story. You're part of their world but not required to do anything. You're not asked to, like, clap three times so the fairy will appear. We focus on what a good story should be all about—your imagination.
Can that survive a prolonged period of physical distancing, though?
We are an innovative theater company. Slowly but surely, all of the theaters folded their shows, and if everybody's canceling, we thought maybe we should do something out of the box. This can't be just a Zoom meeting. We have to bring [viewers] into the show. Over the last month, I've been educating myself on how to present things over livestream that won't just be someone's face reciting lines. We can't be there physically to direct your attention, but we're going to do our best.
Why this play?
Honestly, our board had already approved The Turn of the Screw for next winter when the pandemic hit. This is a great story with a lot of its narration that we switch up. There are only two actors. This adaptation is very minimal, even the way the stage directions are written. At this mansion with these children, does the governess see ghosts or is it all in her head? We're doing our best to be true to the playwright's wishes and keep everything very ambiguous. It's all about seeing things that aren't really there in an isolated space. At this time in history, that just sort of spoke to me as an interesting show, but we had to do it in an innovative fashion.
What does that innovation look like behind the scenes?
The theater has sent cameras for each of the actors to set up using what amounts to a 6-by-6 space in their respective living rooms. Cameras one and two are situated so that they cross in the center, and based on what's happening in the story, we'll switch them live. You can actually see them on their feet moving about the space, whole body on camera, through most of the show. We're juxtaposing different angles. We're blocking movements. The actors have been given lights we can pull up and down remotely through smart outlets that the stage manager can control from her own home. She lives in Vancouver, they're both in Northeast Portland, and I'm in Beaverton.
To a certain degree, it's hard to be immersed in something you watch on the screen, but finding new ways of doing a live show is really thrilling. We've been rehearsing at night to get a sense of whether supplemental lighting is needed. The costumes are dark blue. The backdrops are all black. We make it spooky. However, spoon-feeding familiar dark-and-stormy-night tropes just take people out of the story. I don't want you to know what's going to happen.
This is very different from putting you inside of the story, which is what we like to do. However, even if it's streaming, there is some small thrill to doing a live show—like when NBC does Jesus Christ Superstar or The Little Mermaid. There's a sense of magic knowing that this is live, and that's something we never want to lose.
SEE IT: The Turn of the Screw streams at experiencetheatreproject.org on Friday, May 1. 7:30 pm. $5 per person donation is encouraged.