Faster Than Night

Interactive sci-fi drama lets audience, via Twitter, make game-changing choices

FASTER THAN NIGHT by Pascal Langdale and Alison Humphrey, with Langdale and Melee Hutton (Digital BlackBox/Harbourfront Centre/Hatch). At the Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). Saturday (May 3) 2 and 8 pm. $12-$15. 416-973-4000. See listing.

How’d you like to get more involved in the theatre you see, even affect a play’s outcome?

The final show in this year’s developmental Hatch series, Faster Than Night, takes the audience to the stars and asks viewers to make some hard decisions in a fascinating world the blends motion-capture technology, live performance and Twitter.

Devised by performer Pascal Langdale and directed Alison Humphrey, with the help of creative producer Vanessa Shaver, the show follows the space journey of social-media baron Caleb Smith as he tries to escape a life-threatening family illness.

With the help of an artificial intelligence he’s created, Interactive Socially Mediated Empathy Engine (or ISMEE), he travels faster than light in order to slow down time and his body’s degeneration, hoping that while he’s away from earth a cure can be found.

“The bulk of the story was my idea,” recalls Langdale, an actor who just finished playing rogue werewolf Karl Marsten in the first season of Bitten. “I used it for a company demo, but that version didn’t have the emotion that’s in this story. What Alison and I have been able to do is find the show’s heart – the storytelling has to be strong on its own, or the experience won’t work – and link it to the technology that we’re using.”

Yes, the technology. Langdale wears a headcam during the show, working to the side of a large screen on which his avatar is projected. ISMEE, voiced by the offstage Melee Hutton, shows up visually on the screen as a voice-wave as we hear her interacting with Langdale.

And that’s just the start of the technological creativity here, for the audience can take part by tweeting questions and comments (@ISMEEtheAI) before and during the show as well as making choices about the direction the plot takes.

“Caleb’s a young genius with a troubled medical past, a man who refuses to accept his mother’s death and absence,” says Langdale, who’s been screen-captured previously in the interactive adventure game Heavy Rain. “She’s left behind an audio legacy that he used to create a virtual mother, ISMEE, who is infused with her empathy.

“But she’s also a quantum computer that he created, which makes ISMEE incredibly powerful as well as being a surrogate mother that he doesn’t want to abandon. She has an attitude and position about what her son/maker is doing she’s not like HAL in the film 2001, but rather a mum-in-a-box who’s close to her creator. In fact, they’re co-dependent characters.”

Langdale wants to push the interactive mode with the audience beyond what he’s done in a game like Heavy Rain. He’s also been involved in adaptations of Shakespeare that animated him as Caliban and Bottom.

“As progressive and ground-breaking as Heavy Rain was, the players could make some changes in the direction of the story but my character would keep returning to the same narrative track. In Faster Than Night, anything in the world can happen, depending on who participates and what they have to contribute.

“Even if someone just tweets a question to Caleb, that might reveal an aspect of Caleb’s character that affects the end of the play for him.”

Just as importantly, the audience’s decisions in various polls during the show have emotional as well as narrative repercussions.

“We don’t let the audience get off lightly. When a choice is made, it’s not like a video game where you can kill someone and move on without the sense of having done something to the character. This is more than just a story, and I’m hoping that viewers will be immersed in what they watch.

“Because they have input, they have to take responsibility for their decisions. I want them to know they’re responsible for thinking through the most difficult of quandaries and accepting how they act.”

Because of that, this isn’t a show for youngsters, despite its use of animation.

“It’s a very emotional show, with the sci-fi genre used to explore a very tough human drama.”

The creative team hopes to answer some questions about the form’s success with this Hatch workshop, not only for audience members who tweet but also those who don’t. The play, the writer/performer says, has to succeed on its own whether people interact or not.

Langdale sees this sort of theatre-as-interactive-experience a way of moving the genre away from what he calls passive entertainment.

“I see a new generation of people who want to be part of the story, a fan base who like to get engaged, get their hands dirty. Theatre director Peter Brook said that theatre-makers have to create their own audience. With Faster Than Night, we’re starting to do that.”

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