A mind-bending new theatrical work based upon the surrealistic art of M.C. Escher, Poe’s gothic stories, and quantum mechanics. This piece of interactive theatre asks the audience to participate with the performers in choosing what direction the play will take. With twelve different productions possible and only six performances, each night was explored a different pathway through the same story. Exploring issues of choice, destiny, and meaning making, the Fall of the House of Escher takes the audience on a ride through a house forever falling and rebuilding itself. Throughout the production large scale projections bring the house, and the quantum world that it represents, to life as the characters struggle to escape the looming danger.
The Trailer for the ASU’s Production – The Fall of the House of Escher
What azcentral.com had to say about the show:
The design elements are superb. Digital images of cosmic art and subatomic particles are projected onto an array of sliding panels (which, uncoincidentally, might remind you of the parallel-universe romcom “Sliding Doors”).
– Kerry Lengel | read the full review from azcentral.com here
My work on the Fall of the House of Escher began in the Spring of 2012. Before the winter break at ASU I was invited by the director of the school of Dance, Film, and Theatre (Jake Pinholster) to join the Graduate Cohort of Actors, Designers, and Directors as they began the process of devising a new work to premier in the Fall of 2013. The work was to be inspired by The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, surrealism, the artwork of M.C. Escher, and quantum mechanics. Our homework going into the Spring semester was to read Poe’s short story, at least one book about quantum mechanics, and to look at the art of M.C. Escher. In our first meetings in the Spring of 2013 we started our process by talking about what we had learned over the break, and by bringing in as much source material as we could find. One of my initial responsibilities was to organize the website that would host our source material, discussion notes, production meeting notes, and all of the other materials that we created or stumbled across in the process. You can still see our handiwork of collected materials, and process here on the web. To say we were prolific would be an understatement. This extraordinary group of collaborators collected and collaged more material than I can truly do justice describing here. Over the course of the ensuing semester we moved from gathering material to building the skeleton of a script. In that time the designers, myself included, began the process of creating a shared aesthetic that scenic, lights, media, and costume would all share. In this way, the designers were able to guide the process of crafting the world and feel of the production that the team was building.
Early in the process the cohort settled on the structural methodology of crafting this production as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Many of the collaborators were excited about the prospect and challenge of creating a show where the audience got to make big decisions about what happened next. This was especially connected to ideas of audience agency and engagement, as many of the performers were (and continue to be) interested in subverting traditional story telling to create a sense of empowerment within the attendees. The choose your own adventure (later shortened to CYOA) approach took on many different manifestations, initially having a proposed eight possible endings. Eventually we landed on a total of four possible endings for a shortened begging section, a middle section that resembled the choice motif, and finally an ending section that functioned more like a traditional play. There was also a call for as much interactivity with the media as possible. The actors and directors had been able to work with traditional playback media systems in previous shows, and for this production were interested in erasing as many boundaries as possible between the actors and the media. This certainly made for a tall order – a show with a non-linier repeating story with a call for direct relationships between the media and the actors.
Before any of the technical issues could be addressed, however, we first had to settle on a script and on an aesthetic. The challenge of a new work like this took shape in many ways, and one of the most difficult to manage was, ironically, in the performer’s and directors enthusiasm for the inclusion of media in the production. This enthusiasm sometimes manifest itself as disjointed discussions about aesthetic elements, and often as a call to media as a saving plot device – “in this moment we could do a montage of memories to explain what’s going on.” While this enthusiasm shouldn’t be overlooked, it did pose sometimes mean that we put the cart before the horse. Rather than focusing on our narrative and journey, we sometimes (myself included) got lost in the glitz of large scale projection. It’s no small thing to meaningfully integrate projection into a performance. Video content brings with it the suggestion of many filmic conventions, ideas, and story telling devices. While that often frees the production to tell bigger stories, it also requires a foundational grounding in the nature of the story itself. It shouldn’t be enough to just add media to a production as scenic gloss and glamor; the addition of a design element should carry with it some intellectual and designed intention. In many of our discussions I found myself frequently being a voice that asked for our intentions and story before we began a discussion about what magic media was going to portray. Ultimately, as our story began to take shape we settled on a more specific role for media in the production that allowed it to communicate a particular piece of the story in a way that only media could.
As the semester drew to a close our story had the following shape – we roughly told the story of The Fall of the House of Usher with an every-person narrator as a guide; this guide would be challenged to discover the mysteries of the family and of the house, and at pivotal moments a mysterious character trapped in the fabric of the house would emerge and call to the audience to make a decision about what would happen next. The house would fall, literally and figuratively, and we would begin the process again. In the second trip through the house the audience again would be able to choose our pathways as we looked to uncover the mysteries we had seen during our first trip. At the end of this section the house would fall again, beginning the third trip through the house, as well as the subversion of our audience activation motif. After the house fell a third time we end up in a place we’ve never been before where our narrator, and the mysterious character trapped in the house finally meet. In this place, this break in the cycle of time and space, our characters have an opportunity to discuss the nature of choice, and what it’s meant in to our narrator. Structured out of conversations about multiverse theories, the show looks to explore the complications of choice, agency, and what it might mean if you could repeat pivotal moments in one’s life.
After a summer of percolating, the cohort came back together a week before the Fall 2013 semester started in early August. Once we reassembled it was soon to be a mad dash to the production’s opening. With a script that still needed final development, the group initially begin by revisiting the work that needed to be completed in order to give us a strong footing to begin rehearsing the play. This, however, would prove to be more challenging than initially expected. The production timeline gave us seven weeks until opening, with two of those weeks being held for tech and dress. With five weeks we needed to finish the script – this would eventually mean rewriting – and mount the production. This also meant that I had five weeks to install my media system, craft interactive scenes, program a playback system for non-linier navigation, and program the regular cues for the show. In hindsight, I should have gotten an assistant to help me with this process. Like all new works, we eventually would hit some roadblocks. Our script stayed in development until a week before Tech, leaving the actors only a week to block and rehearse the show before entering a technical rehearsal environment. We also settled on cutting a significant portion of the interactivity in the production, despite the creation of digital environments purpose built to be driven by the actors. With only a week of rehearsal the production simply didn’t have time to explore the one to one relationship between the actors and the media.
True to the initial designs, Media came to represent the invisible quantum properties of the house made manifest. During the production the house would be constantly activated by a sea of rolling particles, waves, or strings. The etherial and roiling quality of the media left the house feeling distinctly other, active, and on the verge of shifting. This was amplified by a collaboration with lighting to ensure that our aesthetic and technical approaches would feel complimentary. Sound was added to the production during Tech week, and further amplified the sense of inner / outer space that was created with lights and media. Scenic and costume provided a stunning physical environment, and once we began to see the pieces come together it was clear that the design team had truly shared a vision of this other place and world that was the House of Escher.
By opening the cast, crew, and designers had pulled together to tell an interesting story. Driven by the focused aim of our directing team we accomplished something that had just six months prior seemed like only a dream. In the end our challenges, successes, and failures were all trumped by the truth that we had created a new work that had come from all of our individual contributions. Our final product was greater than its component pieces, and certainly bigger than any single idea that had gone into its formation.
Interested in seeing the show? Choose your own adventure below.