Eight strangers stand in a cramped, sparsely-decorated living room in Brooklyn. We reach, stretch, and strain to recreate a two-person tableau that sums up our relationship with one of four people. My shoulder aches as I lean forward for five silent minutes for a lost friend I haven’t seen in 20 years. Within 90 minutes, a meteor will crash onto the Earth and we – and the rest of the world – will be dead. How we spend these last 90 minutes is up to us.
That meteor threatens the Earth every time people play this show. And, this summer, you are invited to the last hour of mankind.
“This is When We Rest” has just been launched by Live In Theater, and I have no idea how to pitch it. You might remember Leland from the Brooklyn Gaming Lab. Leland, an avid game designer and tinkerer of the human experience, has collaborated with Carlo D’Amore, founder of the interactive and immersive theater company Live In Theater, to create an experience that is “ultimately a curated experience within your own home,” according to D’Amore.
I was lucky to be invited to the beta-testing of this audience-driven social experiment late last June. I left in tears, I left with chocolate cake smeared on my hand, I left shaken, I left wishing I had seen Sister Act Two, and I left with hope. “This is When We Rest” is part long-form improvisation, part role-playing game, and part dirge. It’s either a game you act or a play you … play. Carlo sits eight people in the living room, pairing off with another person four times. We pull two cards from a deck, and then we have five minutes to build a relationship, given the prompts from those cards. I sit across from a well-groomed gentleman in his late 20s…
His card reads “You Abused me.”
My card reads “You Saw Me Break Down.”
Suddenly, 11-year-old Frankie Morton and 7-year old Lawrence talk about their toxic and tumultuous relationship, the vulnerabilities, and the physical tragedy. I still have three more relationships to build. Within 15 minutes, I will understand who Frank Morton is.
The lines between LARP and theater have always been blurred. You can turn the Clue board game into a role-playing game if you add intention and wear a hat. You can turn that role-playing game into live theater by standing up and having someone watch you, and we already have Clue: the Musical. While New York is reaching a saturation point of immersive, site-specific events like “Sleep No More,” “Then She Fell,” and “The Illuminati Ball,” a new breed of player has joined in the conversation: the gamer. The gamer brings direction, goals, and a frame into which players can bounce ideas. They bring an accidental narrative structure with an end-point in mind.
Leland approached Carlo “originally looking for an internship.” Carlo, an actor/director/writer, built Live In Theater to do murder mysteries and immersive historical pieces, always asking “how do you get a non-rehearsed participant to co-create stories” with him and his cast. It was no surprise when Carlo stepped in to be one of the eight people to play “This is When We Rest.” He constantly moves around the kitchen, pulling people aside, hugging us and holding hands to initiate us into the space of the [play/game/countdown to Armageddon]: “We’re big on touching,” Carlo told me later, “It helps ground people, connect people.”
Leland and Carlo have agreed to send out “trained interactors” to other festivals or cities in order to make “This is When We Rest” a national but intimate franchise. It is, after all, totally dependent on the space and the people. Imagine a player in New York connecting afterward with a player from Seattle and sharing what they did with their last hours of life. While “writer” Leland and “director” Carlo are in the final stages of developing “When We Rest,” hearing them troubleshoot each night is teaching them how to push and pull people to pursue conclusions to the relationships they build. “When I say ‘you can do anything you want,’ it’s not enough [to make people take risks],” Carlo mused. “Even non-theater participants have relished in the character creation part of the show, but have a habit of defaulting to their reactions rather than their characters’.”
In the 90 minutes during “This is When We Rest,” this was my experience: Frank Morton had driven from the Ohio border to the West Hamptons on the off-chance of reconnecting with a failed love interest from college. He was surprised to find people from his neighborhood all grown up: the kid he used to bully, the insincere best friend he strung along, lied, and stole for just to appear interesting, and the woman who swiped a major promotion from under his feet. But those people had lived lives before and after his time with them, and they had their own hatchets to bury. Clenching beer cans in his hand and repeating desperate scientific theories from TV news pundits, he forced himself to forgive the people who wronged him – even if they wouldn’t accept it. Frank Morton hugged harder and verbally defended people he barely liked more than he ever had in his life. Even when scowled at by the woman he would never kiss, he pushed harder, interrupted conversations, and made himself into a walking lasting impression to cover his fear and insecurity. This was the final hour of mankind, and we could do anything we wanted. Frank Morton stood alone in a corner, held a stranger’s hand, and watched the skies.
“This is When We Rest” is live now on www.liveintheater.com and you can join in a game, or offer to host in your own office or home. It is an experience you have to live to believe, because in order to believe “This is When We Rest,” you have to commit to living.