Mysterious THE REPUBLIC Could Change How Florida Thinks About Theatre
Over the last half dozen years, the most exciting trend in theatre has been the emergence of experimental, immersive works as the leading creative genre in the artform. As developing technologies have made enjoying other forms of entertainment a more solitary activity, theatrical innovators have been inventing new ways to engage their audiences beyond the traditional stage play. While interactive shows are not new, with works like THE DONKEY SHOW, Murder Mystery Dinner Theatres, and TONY 'N' TINA'S WEDDING blurring the line between audience and actor for decades, this new wave of immersive theatrical experiences has resulted in some of the most creative works to ever appear anywhere but on a stage.
While Central Florida has a handful of legitimate interactive opportunities, they are generally of the Murder Mystery variety, but this May, one women's Graduate-level Architecture project could revolutionize how The City Beautiful thinks about theatre.
Launching in conjunction with the Orlando International Fringe Festival is THE REPUBLIC. This unique, one-of-a-kind production is the brain-child of Sarah Elger. With experience working for Broadway producers, as a set designer, architect, theme park creative, and a self-described "video game nerd," Elger is merging all of her passions into a theatrical experience that she hopes speaks to a segment of the Central Florida community that is looking for a new form of entertainment.
"This is for the people that are ready for something new. A lot of people who live here have gone to the parks, and love (the parks); I love the parks, I work for the parks," Elger said, "but this is definitely more on the darker side." Due to adult themes and partial nudity, Elger says that THE REPUBLIC is "Rated M for Mature."
Elger, who moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist and dancer, began working at the now dissolved Producing Office, which was run by Tony-winning producers Jeffrey Sellers and Kevin McCollum (RENT, AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS). That experience opened her to the world of set design, and she soon began working with Broadway and Off-Broadway designer Neil Patel ([title of show], OLEANNA, WONDERLAND). It was Patel, whose background was in architecture, who persuaded her to get a Master's Degree in the field. During her three years in graduate school, Elger had three different internships with Disney, which led to a Graduate Thesis project that looks like an even larger version of what THE REPUBLIC has become. Elger now works in the Creative Office at Universal.
During grad school, Elger volunteered to help do basic set construction on a mysterious new project by British theatre group Punchdrunk called SLEEP NO MORE. What was once set to be a very limited run, this haunting exprience (inspired by Shakespeare's beloved tragedy MACBETH), has revolutionized the world of immersive theatre, and continues to entertain and mesmerize New York audiences up to 10 times a day, seven days a week. That experience opened Elger's eyes to a new form of storytelling.
Like SLEEP NO MORE, THE REPUBLIC incorporates story elements from classic sources. The show merges Plato's "Republic," Fritz Lang's classic silent film METROPOLIS, and Greek mythology to create what Elger describes as "a real-life video game." However, beyond that description, it is difficult to nail down just what THE REPUBLIC is. Whether it is to maintain mystery, out of the lack of an appropriate description, or a little bit of both, it is seems that it is far easier to explain what THE REPUBLIC isn't, rather than what it is.
"It is a difficult project to describe, because it is something entirely new," THE REPUBLIC's Press Rep and Sound Designer Ricky Brigante explains. "It's not a haunted house, it's not an Escape Room, it's not a ride, it's not a stage show; it literally is something else. There is no term for what this is, and we hope that people will find that intriguing."
THE REPUBLIC, housed in an 18,000 square foot warehouse near Lake Ivanhoe, will welcome players (not to be confused with audience members) into a complex and elaborate world. Guided by a cast of 12, each of the 30 players will be given a role and costume piece when they enter.
"We're making an experience where we are empowering (the players). I'm not asking them to act, I'm saying, this is your type of person," Elger explained. "Here's information about who you are in this society, where you stand in the hierarchy of society, and I want you to take that idea and progress through the experience."
The world inside THE REPUBLIC is divided into a rigid cast system. At the top is "The Office," where the society's overlords look down at those beneath them. The second level, "The Republic," houses the society's bureaucracy, and the lowest cast, "The Labyrinth," is where those shunned and rejected by the more powerful citizens live.
"(The Labyrinth) is this second-world that nobody talks about, but everybody knows exists," Elger said. Ironically, she explained that despite its lowly status, The Labyrinth is the most alive and colorful world in THE REPUBLIC, which leads to tension, conflict, and perhaps revolution.
As the players become more accustomed to their roles in this society, they make decisions that steer the course that the actors take the story, which is very important to Elger. While attending a design work shop in London for Punchdrunk's new show THE DROWNED MAN, Elger had a revelation.
"You are encouraged to participate in (THE DROWNED MAN) set; open drawers, close things, touch things, but you're still observing," she said. "The whole time I was there, I thought, 'I want to engage, I want to do something, I want people to watch me.'"
While Elger says that the level to which each player participates is completely up to him or her, there will be some things that are out of the players' control.
Sitting in a secluded second floor office, Elger, in her role as the Dungeon Master, Zeus, will be watching everything that's happening below on monitors, and will be in constant contact with her actors, who "might" kidnap players or guide them in other physical ways.
"We are pushing people to get out of their comfort zones, mentally and physically," Elger said. "(The players are) gonna be touched, we might kidnap some people. It can definitely be physical, but within limits. We're not trying to hurt anybody. We want to make this the best experience possible."
In order to make THE REPUBLIC that best possible experience, the team has launched a KickStarter campaign to finance the finishing touches. While there has already been a considerable amount of money invested in this project, Elger wants THE REPUBLIC to live up to all imaginable expectations.
"We are trying to keep the production levels very high; to the standards of the theme parks," she said.
Working to ensure that those standards are met is a 15-person core design team, which includes a composer, a mechanical engineer who is overseeing the special effects, a four-person Costume Department, and make-up artists Eric Garcia and David O'Connell, from Syfy's hit TV show FACE/OFF, who are building Medusa and Minotaur masks.
With just under one week left to meet their fundraising goal, THE REPUBLIC still needs to raise roughly $3,600. In an effort to get over the final hump, THE REPUBLIC is hosting a Fundraising Party this Saturday, March 28, 2015 inside the performance space near downtown Orlando.
This one-time event will feature a chance to fully explore the 18,000 square-foot warehouse, while enjoying specialty drinks, music, live performances from the actors, and a few surprise encounters and announcements.
Special Kickstarter rewards will be available during the party for exclusive experiences. To RSVP to this special event click here. "You never know what will happen next..."
While there are always plenty of exciting things happening in Orlando, THE REPUBLIC promises to be one of the most unique experiences in town. Between the incredibly talented, creative professionals behind the scenes, to the complex and mysterious storyline, this already promises to be a can't-miss attraction.
Are you excited to venture into the world of THE REPUBLIC? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below. You can also share your thoughts with me on Twitter @BWWMatt.
Photo and Video Credit: The Republic