Spies like us: New play casts the audience as secret agents

Spy games: In the interactive play “The Institute,” audiences must delve into the mind of the kidnapped Agent Anderson (Corey Roberts), shown in one of the show’s many film clips.

For this show, the audience takes the stage.

In “The Institute,” a new multi-media show opening on July 10, the audience becomes part of the cast, playing special agents breaking into the mind of a kidnapped spy. The “Inception”-like show is part of the Brick Theater’s annual Game Play Festival, and the creators say they want to push the boundaries of how audiences experience the theater.

“We’re trying to further the art of storytelling using interactive design and technology,” said Sharang Biswas, who wrote and directed the play with his friend Clio Davis. “I don’t think there are many groups doing things with this format.”

The show has a cast of 12 — not counting the audience members, who must separate the kidnapped spy’s real memories from the fake. They do this by watching video clips, questioning cast members, and solving puzzles, some of which involve custom-made physical objects. In one challenge, for instance, participants must correctly sort geometric shapes in order to hear a musical clue. How the audience reacts will determine how the plot progresses and which clip of recorded footage will roll next.

This fluidity means that each audience will experience a different show, say the creators.

“When you get an audience that is shy or reticent it can be a challenge,” said Vincent Cooper, who plays Agent Phillips, one of the primary conduits of interaction for the audience. “Sometimes you can hit full throttle and they’ll come along for the ride. Other times you have to ease them into the water.”

But the creators say that despite the unpredictable nature of the audience, they don’t worry too much about the story going off the rails.

“Most of the puzzles have a success or a fail state,” Biswas said. “If they do well, something happens, and if they do poorly, something else happens. And there are three separate endings to the story.”

The Brick Theater seats about 70, Biswas said, so he devised a system that will allow all audience members to participate in the games. Audience members rotate to new seats throughout the hour-long production, sometimes spending time on the stage. And the whole crowd comes together at times to vote on the next action.

Cooper said that the most rewarding aspect of working in this type of theater is seeing how the audience reacts.

“As a performer, I get enjoyment from giving the audience the space to make their own choices,” Cooper said. “The play doesn’t just happen to them. They happen to the play.”

“The Institute” at the Brick Theater [579 Metropolitan Avenue between Lorimer Street and Union Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 285–3863, www.bricktheater.com]. July 10 at 8 pm, July 17, 23, and 25 at 9 pm. $18.

Reach reporter Eric Faynberg at (718) 260–2508 or by e-mail at efaynberg@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ericfaynberg.

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