By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Alone and fretful? Weighed down by the unsolvable mysteries of the world?
The show that opens tonight online gives you the fun of wrapping your frayed wits around a mystery that actually can be solved. If you’re on the ball. When their house’s most valuable artifact disappears, the sisters of Gamma Gamma Gamma, a venerable sorority on the University of Edmonton campus, have called in investigators from S.I.S.T.E.R. (Squadron for the Investigation of Sorority Transgressions, Evildoing, and Rapscallionism).
Enter, the audience. In groups of five, you sift through evidence, interrogate suspects on Zoom, ponder clues. S.I.S.T.E.R. even gives you back your friends (and relatives, if you think that’s a good idea) to work with you, no matter where they are in the world, so you can deduce together as a team. Or you can team up with like-minded strangers from here, there, and everywhere.
S.I.S.T.E.R. is the bright idea of The Fox Den Collective, an ingenious Edmonton-based indie theatre collective — Jessy Ardern, Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor — specializing in original, interactive, site-specific work. If you caught their Sterling Award-winning Fringe show Queen Lear Is Dead that took audiences to a church to attend the funeral of King Lear’s wife, you’ll have seen an intriguing example of their work.
“Think of S.I.S.T.E.R. as an interactive theatre piece,” says Ardern, TFDC’s resident playwright. “A cross between a theatrical show and a board game.”
“We email you links to physical evidence — a photo of vandalism that happened the week before the crime, a Gamma Gamma Gamma poster…” Then groups of five, from an audience of 25 per performance, repair to Zoom breakout rooms to interview suspects that come to you and your pod there. “All the characters were at the sorority house when the artifact went missing,” says Ardern of the mystery that she, Feutl and Osahor created in collaboration. “To uncover the right solution, you have to ask the right questions,” says Ardern. “You have to be alert!”
Originally S.I.S.T.E.R. was going to happen live, with a live audience, at the John Walter Museum. COVID changed the plan. And the new online configuration has certain advantages, as Ardern points out. You can participate with people you long to see but can’t, in person. “One audience member has teamed up with his fiancée in England,” she reports. “So, it’s a matinee for her, and an evening performance for him. Three of our shows have already been bought out, all 25 tickets, by big extended families and big groups.” If you don’t have four available friends, TFDC will find you some amenable fellow-detectives at the outset.
The group of five — five interrogators, who question each of five suspects — is an ideal configuration for participation, TFDC has discovered. “Five means that everyone gets to participate.” They experimented with another interactive mystery, Off’d On Whyte, which sold out at the 2018 Found Festival. It gave audiences maps, and took them in limited groups into a variety of unexpected Strathcona locales — bar basements, hotel rooms, etc. — to find clues and make deductions. “Five was the sweet spot,” says Ardern. Audiences had a 70 to 75 per cent success rate at figuring out the mystery at the end, she reports.
Balancing the clue to red herring ratio, knowing what to reveal, and when … artful mysteries are tricky to create, onstage or online. “We had no idea how complicated it could be,” says Ardern. “Solvability” is a nuanced goal: “we want to make it manageable, but not easy.”
Because “we have no idea what questions the audience will ask … there’s a a script but not in a traditional sense.” Instead, “each actor had pages about their characters and alibis. They know their characters inside and out. We’ve tried to prepare them for every possibility, a really shy audience, an aggressive audience…. And then it’s improv time!”
“In our dry run last week there wasn’t a single audience that couldn’t come up with questions…. Actually people get a bit competitive. Pride and prestige are at stake!”
Theatre: The Fox Den Collective
Created by: Jessy Ardern, Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor
Starring: Jessy Ardern, Michelle Diaz, Chariz Faulmino, Sarah Feutl, Marina Mair-Sanchez, Kristen Padayas
Running: tonight through Oct. 10
Tickets: Eventbrite (singles, pairings and groups can be accommodated)