Presented by Dutch Kills Theater, KlaxAlterian Sequester is an immersive solo quarantine adventure which makes audiences radically re-evaluate their immediate surroundings. After receiving an urgent message sent from sixty years in the future, the audience is asked to avert an alien invasion by understanding how the KlaxAlterians view our species. We spoke to creators Ben Beckley and Asa Wember
What inspired you to choose science-fiction as a theme for the show?
ASA: For me, science fiction has been my favorite genre since childhood — my across-the-street neighbor was the late sci-fi novelist Brian Daley. There is also a nice futuristic quality about a show that is received on a technological device like a smartphone.
BEN: If you look closely, the world is a strange place. (Most of us, most of the time, don’t look closely.) Science fiction, to me, is a way of making the world we think we know look a little stranger, so we can see it more clearly.
What should people expect from this immersive online experience within their own homes?
ASA: A short commute, and no wait for the bathroom. This show is designed to be as universally applicable as possible, and explicitly asks you to examine yourself and your surroundings. Your own home is a place you tend to know quite well, and we are hoping to succeed at making you reframe and reconsider even the most familiar of locations.
BEN: I’m a guy who loves reading reviews… AFTER I’ve seen a show. So don’t expect anything. Just do it. And feel free to let us know what you thought!
How has the show changed between the version that you did in 2020 and the version you’re presenting this year?
ASA: The show has changed minimally since 2020; mostly updating the date references. The general sense of uncertainty about the future, environmental and with regards to Covid, is still as relevant as it was a year ago. Additionally, we have done a little bit of polishing and refinement on the interface and visuals, as well as implementing a GDRP-compliant back end.
BEN: The show was designed to apply to just about anyone, just about anywhere. So we didn’t need to change it dramatically, though we did make a few tweaks to bring it up to date, and to simplify the pre-show sequence, so it was clearer and easier to access.
Can you tell us a little about the year and a half in which you developed the show, and what that entailed?
ASA: We worked with a play development group called Fresh Ground Pepper, alongside roughly ten other projects. There had monthly meetings — in person in 2019, virtually in 2020 — where groups would share work-in-progress and then discuss it. We showcased three different prototypes of the various mechanics that would eventually become Klax; the largest consisting of a four-scene walking version along 42nd & 43rd streets in between 8th & 9th. The audience was split in half and went around the block in opposite directions.
BEN: We experimented with getting those groups to interact with each other, subtly. We tried recording some footage of me and then having me act with myself. We also had one iteration where we divided our users into three groups — without telling them! — and one were travellers from the past, one from the future, and one a group of aliens with a unique relationship to time. We calibrated these three sections so they all took the same amount of time, so the audience didn’t know until the discussion afterwards that they hadn’t experienced the same show. And speaking of alien time, Saint Augustine’s Confessions was a big influence on that. And also Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. We experience time linearly — existing only in the ungraspable present as it slides ineluctably into the future. I wondered what it would be like to experience time in a different way. Augustine wanted to preserve both the idea that God knows everything in advance and the idea that humans have free will. That was a real problem for him, because if we have free will, then how does God know exactly what we’ll do. His solution was that God experiences all time as an eternal present, so God literally sees what we’re doing in the future (and the present, and the past) before we’ve done it. Milton was also a big influence. Because John Milton was an anti-monarchical parliamentary revolutionary, and also a devout Christian. And yet, when he writes Paradise Lost, after the spectacular failure of Cromwell’s regime and the restoration of the monarchy, Milton makes Satan an anti-monarchical parliamentary revolutionary, and he makes God a king. And this from the guy who advocated openly for killing the king! The reason Milton does that, I think, is that he believes that the reader — or, in our case, the audience — has to engage actively and critically in what they’re experiencing. Like him, we’re deeply interested in perspective, and we’re asking you not to take anything for granted.
It has been created to be accessed on a phone at any time – did you consider other mediums? Or would you consider other mediums if they were possible post-pandemic?
ASA: The smartphone is an ideal medium for multimedia narrative. Practically everyone has one; they’re always connected; and we are all extremely comfortable watching video and listening to audio at any time and any place. We wanted to create specifically for this storytelling engine , and not to merely pipe more passive material through it. The post-pandemic possibility I am most excited about is exploring how this phone-based form can work in concert with more traditional, real-time, live actors & staging.
BEN: The vast majority of folks we know have a cell phone and an internet connection, so it offered an easy mechanism to reach folks at any time, in any place. Though of course, it’s not just a cellphone-based show. It’s a show that uses your smartphone to augment the experience of standing in and walking around your apartment. The set is your bedroom and your kitchen, and the central performer is you.
Do you think working in this form will change the way you work in the future?
ASA: The development of this storytelling medium was as important to us as the story that was told through it. From the beginning we endeavored to merge the existing static forms of audio narrative — radio plays, audiobooks, podcasts — with the dynamic, ever-changing nature of location-based augmented reality (AR). Additionally, the flexible, web-based nature of the content delivery allows for exciting new possibilities in terms of show structure. It’s not immediately apparent to the KlaxAlterian Sequester audience member, but there are multiple portions of the show that are randomized, so that different people will see and hear different things throughout the show. Variability of structure is just one of the powerful possibilities of responsive new media, and it already features heavily in the next work we are developing on the platform, which presents a choice of three parallel timelines to the audience.
BEN: We’re developing a historical walking tour in White River Junction, VT right now that draws on what we learned in Sequester. There are journeys you can take in 1920, 1970, and 2020 as you walk from the train station, across town, over a bridge, to a park at the conjunction of the White and Connecticut Rivers. And even though there’s no science fiction in that piece, it’s very much come out of KlaxAlterian Sequester and what we’ve learned. And it’s got the same central theme: perspective.
KlaxAlterian Sequester is available until 30 August on Assembly Showcatcher as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/klaxalterian-sequester
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