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Unique, immersive theater experience inspires new audience perspective

May 25, 2016

Phil Weaver-Stoesz has been spending some of his summer writing about one of the more unexpected moments of his life.

It happened this past spring when the MFA candidate in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts was directing, and performing in, “[De/As]cending,” an immersive theater project presented at the ASU Art Museum.

More than just a show presented off the stage, “[De/As]cending” was a unique project born of a communal creative approach without hierarchy – everyone involved had equal say on the story’s path and presentation, including the audience.

Because of the motif, the show about an oppressive regime in a bunker was going to be a unique experience. But even with that understanding, Weaver-Stoesz was surprised what happened one night in the museum.

“We had created this thing ... but somewhere along the line some audience members felt as thought they didn’t want to just watch. They wanted to change the outcome of what they were seeing,” Weaver-Stoesz said.

As Weaver-Steosz wrote on the website Howlround, “At one point in the show, I am to drug and capture a scientist who the audience has come to love. … I step towards her when, all of a sudden, my arm is grabbed by an audience member who shouts, ‘We won’t let you take her!’ ”

He was startled, but shook off the audience member and continued onward to a sacrificial altar where two cast mates were lying next to an audience member.

Again, not part of the plan.

The performance continued on point. But the experience lingered in Weaver-Stoesz, prompting reflections on the idea of audiences – are they there just to observe, or to also participate in the creative process?

[DE/AS]cending: An Evening of Theatrical Experiments from ASU School of Film, Dance & Theatre on Vimeo.

His story and reflections have proven popular enough on Howlround that the site for experimental theater has hired Weaver-Stoesz to write a bimonthly series about soft skills in theater.

On top of that, Weaver-Stoesz will be directing “On Display” as part of ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s MainStage season this fall at the Lyceum Theatre and starting to organize plans for a workshop that would incorporate actors and scientists to design a spaceship that could hold 100,000 people and last for 150 years.

Through it all, he’ll carry a new perspective on the people who watch his productions.

“I am very intrigued by the prospect of letting the audience make choices.”