How to Build an Interactive Virtual Theatre Experience in the Era of COVID | Playbill

Special Features How to Build an Interactive Virtual Theatre Experience in the Era of COVID From story and character development to digital technology, Seize the Show is leading the charge for stay-at-home entertainment.

Since COVID-19 shut down theatres, Seize the Show has been offering audiences a chance to enter the interactive world of a theatrical production from the safety of the couch. Using special technology developed by CEO David Carpenter and designer Dave Keene, ticket holders become a part of the story as they make decisions that guide the story—whether it be in outer space, a theatre, or a mansion.

The next production is A Chorus Crime, debuting September 18 at 8 PM ET (with an additional performance set for September 24), as part of Playbill Social Selects. Click here for tickets.

Seize the Show has a team of writers, including Caroline Prugh, Kevin Hammonds, Drew Paryzer, and Thompson. Those four collaborated on the upcoming story, which follows time-traveling detective Sydney Styles as she and the audience try to solve which of four chorus girls has killed a costume mistress.

“We've been working together long enough to know each other's strengths and how to draw on them,” says Prugh of the partnership. “We each have our individual responsibilities at the beginning and then shift as we begin to craft the piece as a whole.”

David Carpenter and Jacob Thompson
David Carpenter and Jacob Thompson

Despite the familiarity with each other, Thompson calls the process of developing the story itself “bonkers.” After an idea is chosen in a pitch meeting, the original author takes over the lead to give a basic outline of the story. Following that, Carpenter and Thompson begin to map choices and branching paths for the interactive components. Once the overall story is completed, the writers jockey for the characters they want to develop.

“Each writer has a character and a scene they are principally responsible for, including a back story,” says Thompson. “Within three days we have a draft and within seven days, there’s a table read.” The final week is dedicated to daily rehearsals and nightly rewrites—all while work is completed with graphics, video, sound design, and original music.

To Prugh, it’s “creative brain candy” to be working on a project that’s so new to the dramatic form, where the rules have yet to be written. It’s aspects like time travel that make it so exciting to the writer. “With a digital production, we can take you to 1970s New York without building it from scratch, and take you to locations we still love today, without ever having to get on the subway or put on a mask,” adds Thompson.

Audiences choose whether to go Uptown or Downtown in Seize The Show's latest adventure.
Audiences choose whether to go Uptown or Downtown in Seize The Show's latest adventure.

In order for the interactive component to work, users access a web-based software called Gamiotics, which allows for real-time interaction during the course of the show on their smartphones while they watch a performance unfold on Zoom. These interactions allow the audience to do things like vote on what a character should do when they reach a decision moment

The digital technology helps bring Seize the Show to an immersive level, but in order to be successful, the story still has to be great. “We are creating narrative games and a balance must be achieved between those two elements,” says Prugh. “If we don't invest in the characters and story why should we care about the game? Without the game, we're basically a web series (and there are plenty of those).”

The brainchild of Hammonds, Sydney Styles is a cross between Hedda Hopper and Dorothy Parker, according to Prugh. “Her loves are, in this order: theatre, women, and quality booze,” adds Thompson.

Kim Morgan Dean, who plays the character, likes to think Styles stepped out of a long-lost Joseph Mankiewicz screenplay. “The only things she loves more than Broadway shows are her own punchlines,” says the performer. A Chorus Crime also stars Jennifer Babiak, Samantha Blain, Lynn Craig, Kim Morgan Dean, Michael Indeglio, Michael Pilato, Mary Stout, and Olivia White with Thompson as the MC.

Clockwise from top left: Jacob Thompson, Kim Dean Morgan, Samantha Blain, and Jennifer Babiak.

As an actor using a whole new medium, there are plenty of challenges. “Things like interruptions, time lags, etc., require more finesse because these platforms haven't quite made it up to the speed of in-person human interaction,” says Dean. “This ensemble is full of actors who are willing to jump right in and roll with the punches and trust one another on sight. I feel 100 percent supported, even though I’ve only ever met two of these people in real life.”

For Thompson, who is also a performer, the lack of instant audience reaction is tough. Without laughter, applause, or even silence, he can’t tell whether a joke lands or not (post-performance surveys eventually offer insights).

Performing from home does have its perks, though. For Dean, it’s wearing sweatpants and being barefoot during a show. “I doubt I will ever again have a costume as comfortable,” she says with a laugh. Thompson is just happy to be close to his husband (Seize the Show CEO Carpenter) after spending years traveling as an actor. “To work my butt off and know he’s two floors away also working so hard to help me tell my stories is amazing!”

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