Imagine attending a theatre performance – except you don’t know who the actors are, where the audience is or why you’re suddenly sitting alone on an airplane heading to the United Kingdom.
That’s the conceit of The Curious Voyage, a new site-specific, immersive theatrical experience thought up by Arkady Spivak, the Russian-Jewish artistic director of Talk is Free Theatre, a cutting-edge theatre company in Barrie, Ont.
That’s where the journey starts, and where the 71 audience members who’ve bought tickets for the full show will arrive later this month. One by one, they’ll be sent on a three-day scavenger hunt of sorts, piecing together a plot from a variety of clues, while engaging actors (or “secret agents,” as Spivak calls them), fellow audience members and real locals on the street.
The catch? Audiences have no idea who’s an actor, who’s an audience member and who’s a regular schmo going about his or her daily life.
“It uses each person as the protagonist in the story they’re watching,” Spivak explains. “They’re actually engaged in the creation of their own story.”
If it all sounds vague, that’s deliberate: Spivak exclusively speaks about The Curious Voyage in these oblique and obfuscatory terms, to maintain the secrecy of the project – and because each individual narrative will be different.
The experience culminates in a “secret musical” that Spivak describes as reflective of “the journey of the people up until that moment.”
Mitchell Cushman, the director of the musical segment, explains that it’s a popular musical that audiences have probably seen before. The goal, he says, is to “take a show that’s familiar to audiences and give them an entirely new perspective on it.”
Tickets for this three-day odyssey include some meals and accommodation abroad – $1,450 for the hostel option, or $1,950 for a hotel. Theatregoers on a budget can buy tickets just to the Barrie portion for $35, or just the London show for £45. The show runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 10.
To help pull it off, Spivak brought in Sara Schwartz Geller, a Torontonian who’s spent much of her career developing site-specific immersive theatre in California. The pair sat down at an Aroma Espresso Bar, so Spivak could outline his master plan.
During that meeting, Schwartz Geller recalls thinking, “Wow, this is really over-the-top, this is really next level.… It takes a lot of chutzpah to put up for sale tickets that are thousands of dollars.”
What sold her on the idea was the meaning behind it. Spivak wasn’t being radical for no reason – there was logic behind his madness.
“When you normally go to see a play or movie, you generally don’t have the benefit of three days’ preparation,” Schwartz Geller says. “I love the idea of taking the audience on a journey that was all about preparing them to experience a piece of theatre.”
Spivak says the show “explores to what extent we’re strangers to ourselves, and to what extent we’re liable to become different from what we were.”
He conceived the idea during his site-specific production of The Music Man in 2016. Ditching a formal theatre, he staged it on the streets of Barrie: Marian the librarian worked at the downtown library, while Barrie city hall became the raucous town hall of River City, Iowa.
Watching this naturally broken fourth wall, Spivak realized how silly it was that his actors and audience could see each other – and that they simply pretended they couldn’t.
“The audience is not actually used for the purposes of the narrative,” Spivak thought. “What if they actually became characters in the story?”
Schwartz Geller hopes The Curious Voyage will serve as a testing ground for future adaptations, swapping London for other cities around the world.
“There’s a real appetite for people to have an immersive experience like this,” she says. Audience members are flying in from across Europe to see the musical in London; one guy is travelling from California to Barrie to do the whole thing.
Spivak is excited to see how it all pans out – not just for audiences, but passersby, too.
“When you put an art into everyday life,” he says, “art dominates completely.”