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Life & Arts

'By The End Of The Week You Save The World': Penfold Offers Interactive Theater-By-Phone

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Penfold Theatre is launching its 13th season this month with the interactive theatrical experience The Control Group: A Mission in Time. Producing artistic director Ryan Crowder says they took inspiration from a Canadian troupe that was producing improvised theater over the phone.

“We thought that sounded really cool, especially given the pandemic and the limitations that we have right now,” Crowder says. After buying a ticket and enjoying the experience, Crowder and the Penfold team decided to attempt a more complex, scripted take on the idea of theater-by-phone.

After getting a little advice and guidance from that Canadian theater company, Crowder brought in playwright Monica Ballard to craft The Control Group. “I think one of the hardest things was limiting down the possibilities,” Crowder says, “because there’s actually so many things you could do with this medium.”

Ballard agrees. “The idea itself really started to sprawl,” she says. “There were so many threads that it just became confusing and difficult to manage. And we really, really needed to find the strongest threads so that we could be relatable and really draw people in and have them be a greater participant in this theatrical experience.”

The story that eventually took shape involves a mysterious government agency (the Control  Group of the title) from the future that needs your help to repair a problem with the timestream.

“So people who sign up for the experience get a package in the mail that explains what has gone on,” Crowder says. “[The Control Group] is reaching out to you because your life is mixed up in this series of events. And then Dr. DeSouza, who’s the director of the Control Group, gives you a call the following Monday and every day for five days… and together you guys walk through this case, trying to repair the damage to the timestream. And then by the end of the week, you save the world.”

Audiences have decisions to make along the way, but the creators have made sure that you’ll end up with a happy ending.

“They think it’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, but really we’re funneling it down,” says Brett Weaver, who’s both a voice actor in the project and also its audio designer.

Weaver’s a veteran audio producer, but he says that creating sound that’s meant to be heard over a phone presented some unique challenges.

“There is no stereo. There’s absolutely no stereo affect,” he says. “But the technical thing makes me remember how the Beatles recorded, originally, in mono. And how then it wasn’t left-right, but it was front-to-back. It’s very exciting that this is a new venue and that I have to adjust for it. It’s very interesting.”

“This whole system is totally new. It’s a different way of telling stories than we’re used to,” Crowder says. “And it does involve many technologies. As far as theater-making goes, it’s been really interesting. The writing process has been different, the rehearsal process has been different, and it’s been a really fun puzzle to figure out.”

“This is an important story for our time,” Ballard says. “With all the conflicts in the world and all the things we feel so helpless about, I’m hoping that it’s a story that can empower people. To make them feel like, yeah, there is something you can do just be changing the way you’re thinking about a situation or person. And so I hope that the people who do take part will find value in it for just that.”

“And I think there’s something magical about connecting person-to-person, especially right now,” Crowder says. “Getting to talk to someone and go through a genuinely live experience, I think, is really buoying. The tone and message of the show is also about connection and kindness, and kind of commiserating on this is a hard time that we’re moving through. And so The Control Group gives us a way to make sense of it in a fun and fictional way, and also kind of diagnose what might be a solution to these kind of stressful times.”

You can sign up for 'The Control Group' at penfoldtheatre.org

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