A group of 65 gather on a cold November night in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle Theatre, and within the first seven minutes of the performance every person in the room is dead. Some die quietly, slumped in their chair or hunched over the person sitting next to them. Others die more dramatically, mid-song or mid-cough or mid-prayer. But everyone is dead. The room is still. Eerily quiet. And then a sound cue plays and everyone comes back to life, ready and eager for the next round of dog & pony dc’s latest concoction to begin.
A Killing Game, premiering at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop November 28, is a thrilling and unexpected experience even for dog & pony enthusiasts, a play inspired by Eugène Ionesco’s Jeux de Massacre (or Killing Game), Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast, and Fluxx (the card game with constantly changing rules). It is a piece about a deadly epidemic that begins taking lives quickly and without rhyme or reason. But the journey of the plague plays out over eight scenes or rounds, each with its own distinct set of rules and characters and circumstances. And like all dog & pony performances, the audience is integral to the action of the play. They become the coroners, the priests, the disease experts. They help to drive the story, transporting the dead to the morgue, noting observations about the spread of the infection, singing therapeutic songs as they mourn those who have passed. And they become the victims too, over and over.
This type of engagement and interaction has been central to dog & pony’s values since its inception. “The audience completes our ensemble,” explains Ring Leader (dog & pony’s equivalent to an Artistic Director) Rachel Grossman. But this active participation can be scary and disconcerting, and thus the ensemble is acutely aware of needing to carefully engage their audience. They meticulously plan the ways in which everyone in the room participates during A Killing Game, crafting language on the instruction cards every patron receives as they enter the space that is both specific (to create a sense of comfort) and allows for wide interpretation (so as to not limit the creativity of the participants). “Hopefully we are building a reputation of making interactive and audience-driven theatre okay and safe,” says Conspirator J. Argyl Plath. (Conspirator is dog & pony’s name for their core ensemble members.) “Sometimes you tell people that the audience is involved, and they’re like, ‘F*ck! I’m not going to that.’ [And so] one of our core beliefs is the soft invite.”
The soft invite has proved wildly successful, and dog & pony ensemble members are constantly surprised by the audience’s willingness to participate no matter what they’re asked to do. “There’s the rule in improv that if you hand [someone] a pencil, they’ll just take it,” explains A Killing Game Director and dog & pony Conspirator Colin K. Bills. “It’s the ‘yes, and’ rule. A lot of what we’re doing is giving people something and they’re more than likely to say, ‘Yea! I’ll do something with that.’” Quite simply, their audience is game: game to participate, game to die, game for a dog & pony experience unlike any other.
This experience, intricately and painstakingly created, is the result of an incredibly long rehearsal period, and fairly unique in the world of regional theatre. “Our process is necessarily exhaustive and inefficient,” declares Grossman. “We spend a lot of time working on stuff that will never make it into the show. Our conversations are full of didactic tangents.” And this necessary inefficiency is something that the entire ensemble embraces. “I certainly come to [this mindset] from a sense that the work I do at most regional or mid-size theatres is unnecessarily efficient,” says Bills. “Especially from a designer’s standpoint, we have a week and a half of tech and you gotta get it done. So you gloss over stuff, and [the short timeline] certainly doesn’t leave room for any investigation or discovery.”
A Killing Game, which has been marinating in Bills’ mind for 15 years but began in earnest back in February, has certainly been an exhaustive process, one filled with numerous open rehearsals and workshops to incorporate audience interaction as early as possible. A necessity for a play that relies so heavily on audience participation. “We’re producing a show that, in its soul, is conversational,” notes Grossman. “Theatre is dialogic. In most plays the artists are just talking first. And in ours we’re just trying to share that first thought together. What if we all talked first? What could we say second?”