Entering the fairgrounds, everything seems normal–at least at first.
The flashing lights and blaring sounds of midway games beckon you closer. The familiar smell of buttery, greasy fair food fills your nostrils. Tumblers, jugglers and clowns smile as they put on their performances, all for your entertainment.
But the more time you spend at the fun fair, something seems off or broken. Something seems unfair at this funfair.
This is the concept behind “(F)unfair,” a new immersive theater production from award-winning game designer and Northeastern associate professor Celia Pearce. A partnership between Pearce, director Nick O’Leary and Dacha Theatre in Seattle, “(F)unfair” is a take on immersive theater, a kind of production that has gone from experimental theaters to cash cow.
For Pearce, who started out as a theme park designer, melding the interactive elements of video games and live action roleplaying (LARPing) with the world of professional theater holds inherent appeal. But more than that, it’s a potent new way to engage audiences and tell stories.
“If you go to see ‘Sleep No More,’ which is based on ‘Macbeth,’ it’s never different,” Pearce said. “The story is always exactly the same. But if you go to ‘Inside Hamlet,’ which was a Danish LARP based on ‘Hamlet’ which took place in a castle, even though it’s based on the play ‘Hamlet,’ everybody has a different story about what happened when they played it.”
With “(F)unfair,” which started on July 22 and runs through Aug. 7 at Billings Middle School in Seattle, audiences are invited to a “surreal, dysfunctional carnival.” They can play fair games, eat fair food and interact with the various carnival performers–played by actors–to learn more about their stories. Audience members also come to learn that the rules governing this slightly off-kilter world are not quite what they seem.
“There are some unfair aspects of this world, and there are ways in the show that the audience is invited to help change the rules and transform the world of these characters,” said Nick O’Leary, the director of “(F)unfair.”
The concept for “(F)unfair” came out of a 2018 workshop hosted by Playable Theatre, the nonprofit Pearce founded at Northeastern to help produce interactive live performances. As part of the workshop, Pearce organized a game jam that tasked teams with generating ideas for immersive theater concepts under the general theme of “agency.”
“Our group sat down, and I was like, ‘I would like to do something about Bernie Sanders, Scandinavian socialism, broken capitalism,’” Pearce said. “Nick O’Leary, who is the director working on the project and who I had never met before, said, ‘How about a carnival?’ … Everyone just looked at each other and went, ‘That’s it.’ It was the fastest brainstorming session I’ve ever had.”
Coming out of the workshop, Pearce and O’Leary, a New York-based theater director and board member of the Playable Theatre, were excited about where they could take the concept for this funfair-themed experience. In 2019, O’Leary pitched the idea to Dacha Theatre, which agreed to put on the show in summer 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was delayed several times before its summer 2022 run.
Designing an interactive live experience like “(F)unfair” is entirely different from directing a traditional play. Since participants can move around the space freely and engage with it in any number of ways, Pearce, O’Leary and their team had to create an overarching story that is intentionally designed but flexible enough in the details and moment to moment experience to bend with the audience.
“A lot of [it] comes down to managing the audience and their expectations and curating out of them the participation that we’re looking for,” O’Leary said.
Pearce and O’Leary have taken the concept of “agency” and built it into the structure of the funfair. Throughout the experience, audience members will have the chance to vote on suggestions for how to change the carnival put forward by the fair workers. It’s one of the only ways the whole audience gets to work together, and O’Leary hopes it provokes a conversation that goes beyond the fairgrounds.
“When we live in a world that is struggling with massive inequality, with dysfunctional capitalism, with a failure to address basic human needs, the show invites us to take a step back in our world and think about those systems, how they work and how they could work differently if we were to open our imagination up to that,” O’Leary said.
“(F)unfair” is Pearce’s first experience with immersive theater, and she is already eager to do more.
“As someone who’s worked in computing and AI … and online game design, working on this show the last couple of months has just reinforced that people are so much better at storytelling than machines,” Pearce said. “I see these actors and they’re so much better than computer-generated characters. They’re funnier, they’re more interesting, they’re more responsive and they have real intelligence, not artificial intelligence.”
In 2005, Pearce got involved with Indiecade, an independent games festival held in the U.K. At the time, indie games were still finding their footing in the industry, but Pearce knew they would become small but powerful players.
“I bet the farm on indie games,” Pearce said. “That was a pretty good call on my part. Now, I’m betting the farm on this.”