Ship Out, Soldier: Notes on The Speakeasy Society’s

The Quick and the Dead

What I admire most about The Speakeasy Society, the Los Angeles based immersive theater troupe, is their willingness to experiment.

Each of the three productions I’ve seen has been different from the others. Not wildly different, mind you. It’s still possible to unearth a core DNA that animates the troupe, but different enough to suggest a restless creativity lurking behind the scenes. Always searching for a new way to express an idea.

Which brings us to The Quick and the Dead, the first part of a planned trilogy of productions based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. The underlying story is that of a WWI veteran who loses all of his limbs, eyes, teeth and tongue, but somehow manages to live on — drifting between memory and fantasy. Staging the production in Pasadena’s American Legion Post 13 finds the troupe playing with one of the more unique aspects of site-adaptive work: when the real world location itself becomes part of the dialogue of a piece.

This is not, however, one of those productions where the location does all the heavy lifting. Not at all. In fact it’s the most ambitious piece I’ve seen from The Speakeasy Society, as co-directors Julianne Just and Genevieve Gearhart have stepped away from the sandbox construction of Ebenezer for a linear narrative that emphasizes interaction between audience and cast. (Editor’s note: Just and Gearhart were the guests for the first episode of the No Proscenium podcast.)

The Speakeasy Society has advanced the interactive part of the immersive equation this time in a number of simple, but effective ways. Agency isn’t so much given to the audience as it is occasionally entrusted for a moment here and there. The roles are strictly prescribed, but that limitation is turned into an advantage.

Much of the action of the piece is confined to four playing areas, which are pressed on top of each other. This inevitably causes audio bleed through, which under most circumstances would be maddening. Here somehow it works, with the directors seemingly running with the reality of cacophony and turning it into something that the audience has to push their way through. Instead of subtracting from the experience I found it additive, particularly once I realized that while it might have been something that they found once they moved into the space that the troupe embraced the effect. The temptation for memory to squirrel away down a different track and the din of battle are both evoked by the effect.

Alright, I don’t want to spoil the experience here for you, so if you’re considering seeing the show I’d recommend stopping here. If you’re wavering on whether or not to go: just go.

Earlier I spoke of agency being shared briefly with the audience as the play progresses. This is accomplished by drawing individual members of the audience temporarily into the roll of Johnny, the wounded solider whose memories we are walking through. Each audience member has a “draft card” and that card acts as your de facto voucher for having a “spotlight” experience.

These experiences are not the solo affairs known as “one on ones.” Each of the scenes requires at least one or two audience members to step into the “spotlight,” which the other audience members bear witness to. Sometimes it is in small groups — a “full” audience numbers eight people, and this ends up subdivided — who get one half of the story. This is what happened in what was probably my favorite “bit”: a game of telephone between two characters played through myself and my friend over an actual telephone line. We couldn’t see each other, but we could hear each other as we relayed the messages back and forth between actors.

The interplay between actors and audience isn’t limited to tech-enabled gags. One by one members of our party were drafted into playing opposite the troupe’s actors, being fed lines by their temporary scene partners. By accident I wound up getting to sit in the hot seat for a second time; which I actually feel a bit guilty about, save for the fact that it was so much fun.

Just and Gearhart’s troupe have tackled the problem of how to design for small group experiences without sacrificing the intimacy of the immersive form. With this production they’ve offered up a solid solution, yet I know that the company won’t halt here now that they’ve found a tool to work with. Instead The Quick and the Dead hints at what the company might be capable of if given access to bigger resources. Here they’ve managed to derive a lot of production value from smart design (E.M. Gimenez on sound, Anna Cecelia Martin on lights) and a willingness to trust the audience to play along. Where they came across obstacles, like the audio bleed, they drove right into them and found something that resonated thematically with the material.

None of it would work, however, if the cast wasn’t as game as the audience. Luckily this young troupe appears as excited by the form as the company’s founders are.

If there’s anything of a knock against piece it’s that the troupe is so young. It’s not like that requires a greater amount of suspension of disbelief as any given piece of theatre does, but it does inspire the question of what happens when you get a work like The Quick and the Dead up to a scale where you cast a piece the way you would a feature film. Would it help with the illusion of presence at all? Or is the critical thing about this format the ability of the performers to make an empathic connection with individual audience members over and over again?

My gut tells me that the connection is more important than getting the “look” right.

The real problem is that this run of The Quick and the Dead is mercilessly short: the show is scheduled to close on June 6th.

The Johnny Cycle Part One: The Quick and the Dead. Through June 6th at The American Legion Post #13, 131 N. Marengo Avenue, Pasadena, CA.