For a performance company whose guiding vision centers on immersive stagecraft, the Experience Theatre Project has been surprisingly busy during the pandemic. May's chillingly minimalist Turn of the Screw webcast was among its most successful productions. The late-summer launch of monthly showcase Le Chat Noir Moderne, hosted by an eclectic, ever-changing roster of artists from around the globe in an online salon has been a hit. For Halloween, ETP even invited viewers into a seven-story virtual haunted house for the two-night Tower of Terror.
Even though the Beaverton company's upcoming A Drunk Christmas Carol will face far more competition from other local theaters' digitized offerings, this improv-fueled Dickensian piss-take won't resemble anything else in our little corner of the internet.
"Granted, a lot of other people are doing these now," admits founding artistic director Alisa Stewart, "but that just makes us strive to improve ourselves and keep moving forward instead of making Zoom calls. At the end of the day, we always want to innovate."
WW: How'd the idea for A Drunk Christmas Carol come about?
Alisa Stewart: I was of a mind that we needed to do something that really went back to the performing arts, but didn't know exactly what. We toyed with the idea of doing another livestream play like Turn of the Screw, and one of our board members suggested we have some fun with a well-known tale—just goof it up and have a good time. I'd already been considering something along the lines of Drunk Shakespeare for a fundraiser next year.
It's a classically trained theater group from New York and Chicago, where I worked professionally a long time ago, and the performances were so funny. One of the actors is chosen to be the night's designated drinking artist and given five shots of alcohol. An audience member usually takes one as well to confirm the presence of alcohol. Then, they all move forward performing one of Shakespeare's plays, and it's a hoot because some of the other actors try to keep the train running while others just try to mess with the drunk. I wanted a show like that but our own thing—not too crazy, not Shakespeare, something that people would really dig in to have fun with—and the idea of A Drunk Christmas Carol was born. I adapted the original story to incorporate masks and social distancing. There's a dash of game show involved.
When the audience registers, they'll be asked questions that feed us information for the show. What kind of alcohol should the actors drink? What's the ending line? In this tale, Tiny Tim does not say "God bless us everyone." The funniest answer wins.
So, a game show for the actors?
Sort of. They're contestants but, at certain moments, the audience can win prizes. We'll be giving away gift cards to Golden Valley Brewing. Also, two audience members can buy tickets to be All-Seeing Christmas Spirits who can stop the show at any time and have actors spin what we call the "Big Wheel of Fate," which could make them drink, or switch to Southern accents, or change genres, or continue as they were but now inside the locker room of the Seattle Seahawks.
Where are you planning to film?
My living room is big enough to sit everyone comfortably, and we can really deck the halls. We've got wireless mics, we're using five different cameras, and our stage manager will essentially control the whole broadcast from my home office. So, basically, we're creating a miniature television station.
With the success of your online content, do you plan to continue to make virtual programming once the quarantine lifts?
Once we get back again next year, we'll try combining the live immersive stuff with the livestream for a little hybrid programming for people unable to see the experience. In the last six months, we've acquired webcams and microphones and all the equipment to make sure that we were able to produce. Transitioning online has been an investment in assets, but I think it's been pretty creative and pretty fun. We've been finding our way around in the dark, figuring out what works best and what didn't work at all, what we could improve upon and what we'd just like to drop.
One show, we sold tickets while another was pay what you can, which seemed to attract more interest. If people don't have to pay for something and can turn off what they don't like, there's not much of a risk, and we don't feel the same heavy pressure to take care of everyone like we would in a live setting. Only one person wrote an angry note complaining because, after donating $10, he didn't like the act. We sent back the 10 bucks. You know, art's not for everybody.
SEE IT: A Drunk Christmas Carol streams at experiencetheatreproject.org on Saturday, Dec. 19. 7:30 pm. Pay what you can; $10 donation recommended.