BWW Interview: BWW Meets with Ronn Burton Creator of PRESENCE, a New Show that Encourages Audiences to keep their Phones On
I met with Director, Actor, and Artistic Director, Ronn Burton, to learn more about 19th Century Hound's upcoming show Presence being presented as a part of the first annual Theatre Crude Fringe Festival in Oklahoma City.
BWW: So tell me, what is going on with 19th Century Hound? What is coming up next?
Ronn Burton: We have a new show we are creating for the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival. Jenny and Adam, who are creating the festival, came to see our last show, Those Who Lie Beyond. Knowing they were going to create this festival, they came to us and asked if we would like to create something for it and we were like "Yeah! Absolutely!" So my company does immersive, site specific theatre, and this is going to be a more traditional venue, so we thought that a way to make it still within the mission of the company, was to blur the lines of audience and performer through the use of technology. So the audience is going to keep their phones out the entire show and use their phones to interact and influence the show. It's like a live episode of Black Mirror. We are using technology to explore our relationship with technology as a society and culture right now. So yeah, the audience will keep their phones on! Usually you get the announcement to put your phone on silent, this will be like, keep it on the whole time and see what happens!
BWW: Patti LuPone and Lin Manuel would be so mad!
RB: (laughter) SO mad!
BWW: How did you get the idea for the show?
RB: I knew that because Those Who Lie Beyond was so great but so big, I wanted to see what it would be like to devise something smaller and I also wanted to act because I don't get to act very often. I thought if I want to act, I have to hire myself to act! So I got together with some people from the cast of Those Who Lie Beyond and we just started talking about where we were in life. I had the idea of using technology because Bandersnatch, that episode of Black Mirror, had just come out on Netflix, a choose your own adventure. I thought that was cool and wondered how I could do that in a live theatrical setting. So we just started talking about each of our relationships with technology and what that looked like. We are still in the devising process. We are a week out and the show is not set yet.
BWW: Wow! I think a lot of people used to traditional rehearsal processes would be really scared by that! Can you talk a bit about how in this type of process, why you are still in the creation phase just a week away from performances and why that is maybe not as scary as it might seem?
RB: Right. Yeah, it can feel scary. Luckily, everyone in the show was in the last one so they got an idea of the process so they weren't going in fully blind but even now, at yesterday's meeting, we all were honest. We felt like we wanted to quit. It's hard and it's scary but that is also the creative process. There is something about doing it together, communally rather than being a writer with a laptop at a coffee shop typing and working on a new play for years, all on your own and figuring it out. You have people to bounce ideas off it. And I think the work is ultimately stronger because it really is communal and it is OUR play that we are creating rather than me, sitting in a room, writing my play how I want, and bringing it saying, "Memorize these lines!" We are changing lines constantly. We have ideas we come up with and we have a writer in the room who is taking those ideas and shaping them, but even then, the first draft of his script is being adjusted. We just changed the entire ending yesterday. We're not going to end the way we thought we were going to end. And I think because of this particular group of people, we all really trust each other as actors and we know that even if we are improving a little bit, we know what the themes and the ideas are and that is exciting to keep it alive and fresh so the lines aren't always the same. It's a different way of creating theatre. America is so playwright driven and respect the text and memorize every punctuation, word for word, and this is more about bringing something to life that might be fluctuating every night but I think that's more electric and exciting for an audience.
BWW: Can you talk a little bit about devising and how it works for this production?
RB: Unlike Those Who Lie Beyond, we don't have a director. It is truly devised. In Those Who Lie Beyond, it was so big. There were 19 people in the cast. We needed that outside eye. This is only a 4 person cast and 2 crew members so it is so much smaller. We have had both challenges and excitement not having a director, seeing what it's like creating when it's really, truly communal and we don't have that outside viewpoint. We are sitting here on stage like, what's our stage picture right now? How do we need to adjust? How is an audience going to watch this? So there have been challenges with that. Sometimes we are like, "We wish someone was watching this." But also, I think it has added an extra layer of trust with the performers that we wouldn't have gotten. We really have to be sensing each other in a way that we wouldn't normally. We can't just rely on a person to tell us to go over here or go over there.
BWW: So talk a little bit about the technology you are using and how you are using it. What kind of logistics are involved?
RB: So we had a lot of grand ideas for creating an app. I even spoke with app developers. I think there is something behind this idea for down the line. We might get our own app. But for now, for a no-budget fringe festival, with 10 minutes to load in and 10 minutes to load out, some of the ideas that we would want to do in a full production, we are going to have the essence of that there. So we are using existing technology that most millennials and lots of people now use every single day. The app is probably already going to be on your phone and we are going to use it in a way that you might not have used before. But the same principles will be used in a way to explore a narrative concept. So you might have to follow a new account. Ideally, that's the only thing you are going to have to do as an audience member coming in.
BWW: Do you have a specialized crew member designated to help with that very specific technical aspect of the show?
RB: We have somebody, an actor friend, who knows social media and knows how to use it. Nothing is going to feel very foreign in the format. It's going to feel exciting in the way that it's being used. But it's a fringe festival so the set is three chairs, a screen, and your phones. Your phones are a part of our set, so it's a very stripped down version of what this could potentially be down the line in a big Broadway type thing, with lots of screens, but for now we are taking the essence of the idea as a starting point and jumping off from there.
BWW: Is each audience member required to have a smartphone to participate?
RB: No. It's a show. You can sit and watch the show and enjoy it. There's a screen in the middle. There are things for you to watch. The smartphone adds a level of integration with the show that you don't normally get when you see a show, when you are the audience, they are the performers. It's a very removed relationship. So we are using the smartphone to bridge that divide. But if you don't want to participate in that way, there is still a lot for you to sit back and watch.
BWW: So tell me a little bit about the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival.
RB: I love that Oklahoma City is finally getting a Fringe Festival. I think there are a lot of artists here that might not have had the opportunity to fall into the more traditional forms that are offered in Oklahoma City, nothing against those forms, the ballet, the philharmonic, all those kinds of things are wonderful, but I think now we are seeing places like Factory Obscura having so much success, I think there is a market for people that don't know that they want theatre and this is the type of theatre that might feel a little bit more exciting and engaging for the type of people that go to the Criterion or Jones Assembly or indie food restaurants. This is the theatre version of that. So you aren't going to get something you know already. This isn't another production of Mary Poppins or Shrek, which have been done a lot. And I love both of those shows, so I am not downgrading those, but this is giving artists in Oklahoma City a chance to show a side of themselves they haven't had the opportunity to show or new artists you have never heard of that have been working and doing things that didn't fit into the more traditional models that have been available. I am really excited that Jenny and Adam Brand are starting this fringe festival! And it's not just local Oklahoma people. They are bringing in people from all over the country. There are half local shows and half shows being brought in. It's also a chance for audiences to see what's happening around the country that you might have not gotten to see before. So you're doing both. It's, what do they say, "Glocal." It's local artists and artists from out of town.
BWW: So why should people come see Presence at the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival?
RB: I hope that people go to see the whole festival! I am excited to see the other shows from the descriptions I've read. As for my show specifically, I really don't think people have experienced a show like this where you keep your phone on and use the technology. I think if you come to see this show, you could hate it! But that's great! You came and you experienced something that will at least get you talking and having conversations rather than, "That Mary Poppins was slightly different than the other Mary Poppins I saw three years before."
For more information about Theatre Crude Fringe Festival and to purchase tickets, click the link below:
Who should you follow? Become an influencer: use your smartphone to influence the story in this interactive dark comedy. PRESENCE examines our relationship with technology through the lens of your phone. Like a live, interactive episode of Black Mirror, push these characters' limits... and maybe you'll connect to your own profile along the way.
Alerts on. No filter. Follow us.
Ashley J. Mandanas
19th Century Hound ...though our name may be old-school, our ambitions are cutting-edge. We are a company for the digital age: devising theatre, film, and performance art by hybridizing technology and media. We ponder and probe the world around us, exploring empathy through disappointments, dangers, delicacies, and delights. We seize the accustomed and expected models of presentation and flip them on their heads - utilizing non-theatrical spaces in a theatrical way, we offer our community nuanced, immersive, artistic experiences.