Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

“So…. what are you?” Tess asked Miguel.

She had been prying him about his sexuality and views on the SCOTUS ruling and now the race bomb was dropped. Somehow I was caught in the middle of one of the unsolvable “race” conversations and unable to run away, my usual tactic. Tess continued to prod Miguel, seeking answers that no one seems to have and I sank even further into my wine glass. “Is this dude even an actor?” I thought, unable to save Miguel (maybe an actor?) from Tess (definitely an actor), unwilling to contribute to this conversation in any way and uncomfortable. At the other end of the table, a game of truth or dare had devolved into shirtless push ups and behind that the two waiters’ flirting was getting in the way of my urgent wine refill needs. This had become more awkward and drunk than all of my family holiday dinners combined.

To be fair, I knew what I was getting into; krāv (for all five senses) director Daniel Adams and I had talked over skype the week before. When the words “Lord of the Flies meets dinner party” were thrown around, I was rightfully terrified. Would the audience be the boys? Would my non-theatre person date be the boar’s head? krāv is a dinner party/immersive and interactive performance/ supper club, where the actors are plants, the explicit rules are on the wall and no one knows anyone else (you are separated from any dates).

With a Sleep No More mask hanging behind him, Daniel and I dug into the newfound “cool-ness” of the supper club/dinner theatre wave, the role of making new rules in immersive performance and how Sleep No More has helped and harmed immersive theatre makers.  The krāv team is experimenting with a model of interaction with strangers, one where a person is forced to talk to someone they don’t know. I can’t help but wonder if this is the wave of the future, where people pay to break out of their social spheres, to have face to face conversations with the other.

What happens when you remove the safety of a theatre seat and the knowledge of who is audience and who is actor? When one is invited to sit at a table, imbibe, eat and break all the rules? What happens when 15 strangers are thrown around a dinner table and asked to drive the show? When the quality and spice of a show depends on the boldness of the audience, are we the assholes who didn’t go far enough or the assholes who went too far? I spent too much time wondering what other audiences had done. Who made the “no lying on the bed” rule necessary? Are we mundane? Are we pushing the line? How does my experience match up to everyone else’s?

krāv gives the audience the space to do many many things in an unstructured way. But this begs the question, for me, of how much structure do we want as audience members? In the immersive theatre wave, where should our participation lie? On the other end of that, how much control do we want as artists? The creators spend time and effort to create a structure that, in the hands on the audience, might be completely destroyed.

Immersive performance inside apartments is on the rise for obvious reasons (cheap). But it’s also part of the trend to “break the sit in the dark” rules that keep theatre and film in a very similar building. Intimate spaces lend themselves to sensory experiences on the smaller scale, where smell and taste can be controlled. krāv’s founders (Adams and co-founder Sarah Burkhalter) have capitalized on this even more, by bringing in chef Rick Martinez to create a four course dinner with drink pairings, a dining-based structure that keeps the evening rolling.

Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

Performance consistently creates a role and relationship between the performers and the audience, but never have I had that line blurred so much, where the actors were hidden, the seams of the performance never revealed and the audience left with slightly drunk questions about what that might have been.

When the audience is allowed to have utter freedom (minus the breakable rules on the wall), what do we want to do? What are the goals on the of the creators? Daniel spoke of creating a good time for the audience and an unknown social situation that many of us probably hadn’t even been in before; the intrigue of a social experiment on roles, both curated characters and the roles that the audience fills in a dinner party situation. They’ve created an environment that you can’t trust, but where you feel taken care of. There is food, there is drink, the door is visible and seems to be a clear exit. You have nothing to lose, so what do you do? The spectator as a passive consumer of dinner, waiting for something to happen, unwilling to make something happen and constantly suspicious of everything that does.

I believe that calling krāv “theatre” actually hurts it. I was acutely aware that no one can be trusted, I was suspicious of every action, and I know that I was a part of the performance but I also couldn’t forget the waiver that I signed before entering. They even blur the lines with food, no longer is the chef behind the safety of a wall; instead, chef Rick Martinez is out, conversing with us, presenting food and operating under a character name. This is not so much of a show, but rather a well curated party of strangers.

Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

Photo by Tyler Rivenbark

There is an idealism in the company interested in human interaction, in pulling people to the edge and seeing how we can surprise ourselves. This company has the most faith in its audiences that I’ve ever seen and banks on our humanity, and on our willingness to talk and avoid awkward silences at all costs. I experienced an interesting balance, being told that the evening depended on me and then forced to connect with my fellow audience members. We apparently need to be forced out of our comfort zones and separated from our loved ones to be able to achieve the company goals. And then the other shoes drops: these forced and untrustworthy conversations become the place to talk to strangers about the hard stuff (race, gender, class, etc.) krāv pushes the audience to dig in, to explore topics with people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

So, I’m not sure about krāv. On one hand, it was a “from the history books”, classic dinner party experience that I don’t think I’ve ever really had. But I can’t help but wonder about if I just went through an evening of mass scale immersive group therapy for the socially inept.

*krāv is moving towards a monthly model, so please check it out for yourself.

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