New Theatrical Worlds,
Hidden on the Streets of Pittsburgh
By Sam Owens | Photos by Brynna Trimble
On the evening of June 23, an unprecedented theatrical experience reached its conclusion at the north end of the Sixteenth Street Bridge.
About 50 audience members mingled with a handful of performers in a parking lot as a gentle rain began to fall. Among the crowd, a beautiful woman in a long, black dress began to say her goodbyes. Viola Sayre, a glamorous, tortured poet, embraced friends and offered words of comfort to loved ones before gliding deliberately to the foot of the bridge. Raymond Maat, a world-weary, handsome detective clad in a old-fashioned trench coat, waited for her. The pair linked arms and silently began to cross the aging span.
The gathered observers began applauding without a word as the doomed duo receded from view. After a few minutes, a young woman appeared, marching somberly in the opposite direction. Cat (“just Cat,” she had told everyone,) a street-smart, no-nonsense fixer, surveyed the crowd; the fear and uncertainty she had once worn on her face had turned to resolve and determination. She clutched a pair of snakeskins — all that remained of Sayre and Maat, sacrificial offerings to an ancient power.
This was a singular experience, the likes of which had never been attempted. And its success could herald a deeper understanding of what immersive theater can be — with artists and audiences in Pittsburgh at the forefront of a movement.
To understand Serpentine, one must understand its story and its structure.
The story: For almost a century, a destructive force has been contained in the Sixteenth Street Bridge. Tied to Egyptian mythology and Masonic ritual, this being is represented as a serpent, though it does not seem to have a physical form; its victims, willing or otherwise, vanish as they cross or approach the bridge, leaving only a “husk” (in the form of a snakeskin) in their place. If regular sacrifices are made, the creature is kept in check and the city prospers. If it goes unfed, natural disasters and other calamities befall Pittsburgh, allowing the serpent to take lives via other means.
The task of keeping tabs on the serpent is that of a functionary known as the avatar. The avatar locates and selects people to be sacrificed to the serpent and sees that the monster is fed; in exchange, a portion of the victim’s vitality is transferred to the avatar, allowing him or her to forestall death indefinitely.
At the moment that Serpentine began (the earliest bits of the story kicked off on May 19,) that job had been Maat’s for decades. Maat had gone missing, however; despite the presence of a willing sacrifice (Sayre, who told audiences that she sought a spectacular departure from this world), he had gone into hiding. And, according to the Moiras — a trio of eternal, not-quite-human assistants tasked with serving the avatar — there were only weeks remaining before the serpent had to feed.
In broad terms, that was the world that audience members — better termed players — encountered when they arrived on the scene. The structure of Serpentine required players to first make an appointment with Maat; when they arrived, one of the Moiras would inform them of the detective’s disappearance and give them 45 minutes to scour his office for leads. After gathering whatever information they could, players were provided a photocopy of Maat’s personal calendar, enumerating where the show’s other characters could be found throughout the next five weeks.
After that, the world of the game was entirely open. Save a handful of scheduled events, the path players took through the experience was up to each individual participant.
Some began visiting characters on a nightly basis, pressing for information and establishing trust; others followed clues found in Maat’s office on a scavenger hunt throughout the city, decoding messages and gathering information. Alliances and rivalries formed, both among players and between players and characters. Text messages from characters would appear on players’ phones. The game began to creep into social media. Meetings and rendezvous never scheduled or scripted — as a matter of fact, there was never a script of any kind — would take place entirely at the urging of the audience.
After those initial appointments, nearly everything that followed was devised in real time by audience and creator, in constant, free-form collaboration. No ending had been written at the moment Serpentine began; no one, including the show’s creators, could’ve predicted the path the story was to take.
Uncumber Theatrics, founded in late 2013, isn’t the first Pittsburgh-based organization to venture into immersive theater. The arrival of that particular subgenre — which still lacks a formal definition but is broadly used to describe any production in which the audience are incorporated into the action — was heralded by Bricolage Production Company’s acclaimed STRATA experience in the summer of 2012. Halloween attraction The ScareHouse has also developed immersive theater experiences via its annual Basement creations (and in a manner of speaking, all haunted houses are a sort of immersive theater).
The common link between all of those local inventions is Ayne Terceira. Terceira is the creative director of Uncumber; she was a vital member of the STRATA cast and served as a creative contributor for the first three years of the ScareHouse Basement.
She is the co-creator of all of Uncumber’s projects along with technical director Aaron Tarnow. (Terceira is quick to stress that her and Tarnow’s titles are essentially meaningless, and they’re best thought of as collaborators.) A lauded improviser and talented actress herself, Terceira is a Carnegie Mellon grad and New York native; with Uncumber, she has found herself the keeper of an interconnected universe of narratives.
As ground-breaking as the methods of presentation are, however, Terceira is eminently humble about her intentions. “Aaron and I are not sitting anywhere and thinking, ‘Let’s create avant-garde theater,’” she says. “What we want to do and what we continue to do is, ‘What would delight us? What would we want to see and do?’ So we talk about experiences that we have. Some of those are gaming experiences; some of those are theater experiences.”
The influences of video games on Terceira’s creations are broadly evident; in many ways, Serpentine operated like an open-world adventure game. There are specific influences at hand as well; Her Things, Uncumber’s inaugural production, was highly influenced by the PC game Gone Home, and Serpentine was in part borne out of Grim Fandango and Undertale. To Terceira, these ties help to draw Uncumber’s audience to her games.
“This was really fulfilling to me, because I’m an introvert. Tamara [Siegert, who played Sayre in Serpentine] likes to say that I create theater for introverts,” she says. “It’s very difficult for me to start a conversation or be around people in an organic way. And I think there’s a lot of people in this who kind of feel the same way.
That appeal — the ability to not just observe a work of art, but to connect with others to enter its reality — opens a show like Serpentine to audiences beyond that of a traditional stage show. “These are not people who are seeking out a theater experience,” she says. “That’s not how they’re defining it in their mind.” To talk to the cast and crew of Serpentine, words such as “audience” and “performance” are rarely uttered; typically, they’ll refer to the experience as a game, and the participants as players.
By necessity, that requires a class of performers prepared for anything; if they’re the shepherds of a game where the audience can say or do anything they want, they must be prepared for any eventuality. And without a script — without even a fixed endgame — that can require very sudden changes.
Ian McIntosh played a troubled young man named Charlie Dockens in Serpentine. Dockens’ backstory is winding and probably only known in full to McIntosh himself (many details of the characters are never disclosed, even to Terceira and Tarnow). In short, Dockens was a homeless drifter who wanted little more than to be left alone.
In a game that invites players to knock on each character’s door — literally, in Dockens’ case, as his usual hangout was an out-of-the-way garage in Bloomfield — few can be left alone. And McIntosh found that players tended to trust Dockens; even as he stressed that Charlie had done some bad things and was capable of doing more, players allied themselves with him much more easily than some of his castmates.
So McIntosh made Charlie less likable.
About halfway through the game, a video appeared on a YouTube page credited to Dockens. It showed a man in a plain suit — a character new to the story, portrayed by an actor whom players hadn’t encountered before — bloodied and strapped to a chair. The video jumped as Dockens demanded information; who did the man work for, what did they want from him. The implication was that this man was an agent of Omega, a powerful, time-hopping shadow organization that seeks to stamp out the unusual and uncanny; Omega has appeared in multiple Uncumber productions.
At the end of the video, it appeared that Dockens had killed the man. When players arrived at Charlie’s garage the next day, they found him still covered in blood, a series of similarly bloody blunt objects sitting on a nearby table.
This was never part of any plan; until the video was uploaded, Terceira didn’t know what McIntosh had in mind. But he believed that his character needed to be seen as dangerous, unhinged, unreliable.
“When I made that decision, I actually legitimately got scared as I did it,” McIntosh says. “I thought, ‘I might have killed off my character.’ … That was a heavy decision that I made on my own.”
Terceira’s only warning that this radical change was coming was a series of texts requesting certain props. But at no point did she consider pressing McIntosh on what the plan was. “Much to our chagrin, we like to yes-and as much as possible,” she explains. “So when Ian texted me, ‘Can I have blood, can I have a hammer,’ my first question isn’t, ‘Explain to me what you want to do with that.’
“My first question is, ‘Yes.’”
That degree of anything-goes willingness to relinquish control over the show is unique to Uncumber. “I have to say that I’m very thankful that Ayne would trust me with that,” McIntosh says. “In my head, it was like, ‘I don’t want to kill any of the other [established] characters. I don’t want to make a decision for any of the other characters. I just want to make another color for Charlie to have.’”
In traditional theater, that would mean shifting the way a line is delivered or a scene is played. In Serpentine, that meant that a performer had free reign to invent a new character, assign that character a role and then kill that character off.
Obsessive attention is required. Fortunately, Terceira and Tarnow have spent years cultivating a crop of performers ready and eager to take the ride.
Many of Serpentine’s key moments revolved around Viola Sayre, the fatalistic poet. Maat’s first public appearance was at a poetry reading Sayre gave at the Brillobox. A multi-character summit a week before the show’s conclusion turned when Sayre, uninvited, interrupted the proceedings. One of the show’s final acts occurred when two factions confronted one another at her regular hangout, the Speakeasy in the Omni William Penn Hotel. And, of course, she was the one to willingly sacrifice herself to the bridge at the show’s conclusion.
Yet Siegert, who has appeared in all of Uncumber’s shows to date, confirms that barely anything that happened to her character was part of a greater plan. “I knew that we were having a reading that Maat was going to show up at; I knew we were going to end at the bridge. That’s all I knew,” she reports.
To many performers, going into such an involved experience (Siegert and other performers report that several hours a day were spent tending to the affairs of their characters, even when they had no physical location to report to) without a plan would be daunting. But Siegert didn’t see the movements of Serpentine’s story as her primary charge.
“What I focused on as an actor was making connections with audience members and coming from an emotional place. I have never been terribly concerned about plot. I find that kind of takes care of itself.” To keep the overall sweep of the tale front-of-mind would prevent an authentic performance, she says. “The most successful nights were the nights when it was less about trying to win something and more about hanging out with a friend … There was never a night that I went to Speakeasy thinking, ‘This is my goal for the night, this is what I’m trying to get out there.’ It was always, ‘I wonder who I get to hang out with tonight?’”
Those real connections became key to allowing patrons to play the game in a more meaningful way. But being introduced to such an open-ended experience is no doubt intimidating; while many Serpentine patrons became more and more involved as the process wore on — some participating on a daily basis — others were sheepish about forging those connections, reluctant to treat encounters with performers as meeting a friend rather than questioning a character.
Parag S. Gohel co-created a previous production, The Voyage of Seasoar, with Terceira, and appeared in the Uncumber production Mingled. In Serpentine, he played the villainous mob-boss type C.T. Vang; he saw willingness to engage honestly as essential to the audience’s level of immersion. “If you don’t interact, you don’t really move forward,” he says. “I can talk at an audience member, I can give them a monologue and they can leave, but they don’t really get anything from that … For audience members who are ready and willing to take that risk and that chance with us, there was a huge reward.”
It was on this class of performers — all of whom are versed in improvisation as well as theater — to not only be truthful and honest in their portrayals, but also to give more time, attention and information to those players who were able to give something of themselves to the experience.
Bevin Baker, who also appeared in Seasoar and Mingled as well as Bricolage’s STRATA, played Professor Bronwyn Hague, a quiet historian who served as the gateway to much of the show’s background information; she was where players went to learn the rules of the universe. “You would just give some people a little bit more interaction, or different interaction, than others — based on what they brought to you and based on what the interaction was like,” she says. “But really remembering the gameplay and how everything fit in, it really was work. Because there was what Bevin knew, there was what Bronwyn knew — I had to remember which was which at all times — and then how different characters tied in and what would be realistic for the patron.
“At the end of the day, I want the people coming to see me to enjoy it and to get something out of it. I’m not particularly concerned with how I felt; I’m like … ‘Are you invested? Are you enjoying this? Do you feel like you got something out of this?’ That was really important to me.”
Serpentine blurred the lines between patron and performer by putting such emphasis on the audience experience; the more players were encouraged to openly interact with the characters, the fuzzier whatever fourth wall exists in a show such as this became. “It’s funny, because the audience is playing the game, but I feel like the players started playing the game with each other,” Gohel says.
That strikes at Serpentine’s originality and unprecedented nature. Because even in a rapidly developing and growing form, no one has tried anything quite like this.
Immersive theater has become somewhat trendy in certain parts of the country, with plenty of companies attempting something outside traditional formats and giving it that label. In New York City, where shows such as Sleep No More and Then She Fell have become sensations, new productions open on a monthly basis, ranging from elaborate narratives to experimental games.
But Serpentine still managed to innovate in several key ways. Its combination of alternate-reality game structure and immersive theater is fairly novel, but not unprecedented. But the manner in which this show broke the rules of both of those formats may be entirely original.
There have been alternate-reality games that operated on a wide (even global) scale before; the documentary The Institute depicts a long-running example that took place over several years in San Francisco. In those experiences, however, the clues and the information were the currency; most such games operate like particularly inventive scavenger hunts. Constructing an alternate reality game where connections with characters were the main driver of the action? That’s probably Uncumber’s invention.
There have also been plenty of immersive theater productions that link into a grand narrative, that offer recurring characters that move from one production to the next. But, at least to the knowledge of Terceira, Tarnow and others versed in the form, no one has ever tried to have an immersive theater show unfold in real time over the course of five weeks. In most cases, such shows are distinct, repeating events; if you went to Her Things or STRATA on Thursday and then again on Friday, your actions on Thursday would not affect what happened the next night. When the metaphorical curtain fell, the world reset.
That was patently not the case in Serpentine, where time passed for the characters just as it did for the players. Sayre’s week was just as long as an audience member’s, and something that Hague told a player on Wednesday might make it to the ears of Vang on Friday.
“I believe that is our own very dumb, dumb idea,” Terceira says. She’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek when she calls it dumb; it’s not that it was a mistake, but rather, she says, “It’s definitely exhausting for all involved … If you wanted to really get the full scope of everything that happened, you had to invest a lot of time.”
Glenn Ricci is the co-artistic director of Submersive Productions, a Baltimore theater company focused on immersive works. He’s attended a great deal of experiences like these, and while he can cite some similarities with other recent works, he says, “I have not heard of one that did exactly what Ayne did. Ayne’s piece sounded more open to change depending on wherever the audience took it.
“The extended and ‘after hours’ nature of the relationships between audience and the show’s characters … definitely sounds different from other immersive shows I’ve been a part of.”
Even as such forms are becoming more popular — or at least more understood — there is still some question on how they can become profitable and sustainable.
Terceira does not hide the fact that Serpentine was not a financial windfall, by any stretch; while more than 140 tickets were sold, that amount served to cover the costs of the production. She and Tarnow did not make any money on the show.
To a certain extent, the nature of a form that relies on one-on-one interaction with audience members will always be limited in how many people it can entertain. Ricci reports that this problem is not unique to Uncumber, or to Pittsburgh: “We’ve decided to keep focusing on smaller audiences and figuring out how to make it special and engaging for everyone involved,” he says. “It’s not exactly a recipe for turning a profit, but there are other rewards.”
Uncumber is still exploring what those rewards are, for creator and audience alike. “Honestly, because we are still very much in the experimental phase, we’re trying out a bunch of things to see if they work,” Terceira says. “So the next project we do will be a huge deviation from what you’ve just seen.”
It’s hard to understate, however, the implications of this show’s success. With Serpentine, Uncumber demonstrated that the right audiences are willing to devote dozens of hours to a single theatrical experience, giving a part of their lives over for the right to play in an alternate world. It showed that a cast of performers can not only interact, improvisationally and truthfully, with real people, but forge relationships that go beyond the bounds of a theatrical space and seep into the real world. It dramatically stretched the bounds of a budding format already defined by breaking the rules of an artform, and it did so through discovery and willingness to experiment, rather than brute artistic force.
Can it be replicated? Can another company do what Uncumber did and send another cohort of patrons on a month-long quest to save a city from an ancient evil, allowing real audiences to forge friendships with fictional characters and finding a story only as the story finds itself?
Siegert has an answer to those questions. “Yeah, I think other people could do it,” she says.
“Can anyone do it as well as Ayne Terceira? No.”
By Sam Owens
Photos by Brynna Trimble
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