Zeitgeist festival gets audiences involved in the show


“15’000 Gray,” an interactive production put on by the German company machina eX at the Zeitgeist International Festival and Symposium. (Copyright machina eX)
May 3

One minute you’re a ­theatergoer, the next, you’re an avatar in a ­cyber-thriller.

Such is the transformation one apparently undergoes at “15’000 Gray,” an interactive production that is part of the Zeitgeist International Festival and Symposium, running May 10-12 at the Goethe-Institut Washington and Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center.

The festival focuses on “Participatory Theater: The Intersection of Theater and Social Action.” But that solemn rubric might not do justice to the adrenaline quotient in “15’000 Gray,” which was devised by Machina Ex, a German company that specializes in fusing theater with the principals of digital gaming. “15’000 Gray” (the title refers to a radiation level) conjures up the laboratory of a scientist named Professor Hovel, whose trailblazing discovery is about to fall into bad guys’ hands. Audience members make decisions for the scientist characters, racing to protect Hovel’s discovery before a bomb goes off.

“Theater performance and gaming-arts culture combine really well, because they give each other something that the other is missing,” Philip Steimel, one of the leaders of Machina Ex, said. Theater gives the computer- ­gaming format the immediacy of live experience, he notes, while the fun vibe of gaming can counteract the all-too-frequent assumption that theatergoing “has to be very earnest and serious.”

Moreover, added his colleague Laura Schaeffer, theater can bestow a mantle of social significance that gaming culture covets. It is perhaps not surprising, then, as Schaeffer says, that interest in theater-gaming hybrids “is skyrocketing!”

Well, skyrocketing in Europe, perhaps.

“There are more pockets of folks thinking and speaking about a more immersive theatrical experience” in Europe than in the United States, says Washington thespian Rachel Grossman, who is co-facilitating the Zeitgeist symposium. Grossman recalls that when her company, Dog & Pony DC (“Beertown,” “A Killing Game”) began staging its brand of interactive theater a few years ago, “People thought we were crazy” even though such involve-the-spectator experiences were hardly new.

But there is increasing awareness among contemporary American audiences that participatory productions constitute a valid subgenre of theater, says Grossman. That uptick in recognition — combined with the fact that at least some contemporary audiences appreciate being actively involved in culture (they may well be tweeting and posting videos in their spare time) — lends an aura of timeliness to this year’s Zeitgeist proceedings.

Launched in 2011 by local director Gillian Drake, the Zeitgeist festival has been co-produced annually by a group of local theater folk and European diplomatic and cultural entities. Collaborating on this year’s edition of the project are the Goethe-Institut Washington, the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington, the Embassy of Switzerland, and — from the greasepaint side of the spectrum — institutions including the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Studio Theatre. (All the festival’s events will be in English.)

Studio is partnering on the “15’000 Gray” production. The Shakespeare Theatre is helping to present “Coffee & Prejudice,” the Swiss company MerciMax’s experiment in pairing an audience member and a performer, one-on-one, across a table.

Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics is co-producing “Love Club,” created by the Austrian troupe God’s Entertainment: In the piece, audience members armed with devices reminiscent of gaming controls steer a make-out session between two performers. The audience members can choose between four instructions — touch, kiss, undress and “intensify” — says Georgetown professor Natsu Onoda Power, who is directing the D.C. production. A performer can quit whenever the intimacy becomes too uncomfortable. So, for the audience member with the control, “You want your person to be romantically aggressive, but you also have to gauge what the person’s boundaries are,” Onoda Power says.

“Love Club” might sound like a very personal — not to say racy — project for a festival that has proclaimed its interest in “social action.” But several of the Zeitgeist organizers say that interactive theater implicitly poses questions about civic and personal responsibility, power structures and even democracy.

Expect discussion of such matters at the May 12 symposium, in which Grossman will be sharing facilitator duties with Georgetown’s Derek Goldman and with Michael Rohd, who heads Sojourn Theatre, a company with a national scope.

“Even if the content isn’t social justice-related,” participatory theater opens a discussion about “responsibility, or what the rules are, or who is really in control,” Goldman says. The format builds the audience’s sense of themselves “as chroniclers of their own lives,” and “there’s a power to that,” he says.

The Zeitgeist festival is of-the-moment. For international art with a through-the-ages luster, you can turn to the upcoming D.C. appearances by the Gundecha Brothers, virtuosos of the centuries-old Indian music form known as Dhrupad. The Gundechas — two brothers sing; another accompanies them on the pakhawaj, a two-headed drum — will give a concert at the National Museum of American History on Sunday. Then, on Mondayat the Embassy of India, the siblings will preside over an evening devoted to Dhrupad appreciation.

Dhrupad can be intensely meditative; it can also be stirring. Accompanied by drone instruments, as well as — for some portions of the music — the pakhawaj, the Gundecha vocalists sing in a duet format, known as jugalbandi, that involves passing musical notes back and forth.

“You feel as if one is handing it to the other. One elaborates on the other’s [sound], improvises on it, and the other one picks it up from there. So there has to be a perfect understanding [between performers], because it’s so improvisational,” says Manjula Kumar, the Smithsonian project director who is producing Sunday’s concert.

Kumar has worked frequently with the Gundechas and has traveled to the academy they teach at in Bhopal, India. She says even newcomers to Indian classical music will enjoy the upcoming concert (to be live-streamed at museumstudies.si.edu). The Gundecha Brothers’ art can touch everyone “because of its spirituality” and because it speaks in “the universal language of music,” she says.

Zeitgeist International Festival and Symposium. May 10-12. Visit www.zeitgeistdc.org

“Dhrupad: The Mysticism of Sound,” with the Gundecha Brothers, at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater. 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit museumstudies.si.edu or e-mail kumarm@si.edu.

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