Uncanny Theatre

It’s midnight on a Friday.  You’re just stumbling home from an evening of pubbing or (if you’re me) away from your computer after a long day of research.  You realize that you have an e-mail in your inbox, it’s a rendezvous time for the next day.  You sigh, remembering suddenly that you had booked something and just couldn’t recall what…  the e-mail includes a link to a google map and tells you to meet there at two the following day.

Flash forward to Saturday afternoon.  You’ve managed to make the rendezvous with your travel companions.  A man in a long cape and a white beard meets you there to tell you a

the man with the beard

story; it’s a story about you, a story about something you’ve done in the past, a story about time traveling.

He weaves his tale and you realize that this story is about to pick up right now.  There’s a test, he says, being administered as we speak.  It’s on the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury….

And off you go.  You rush to make it to the test, you meet a man in a suit waiting there for you, of course someone passing by you “accidentally” dropped an answer key so you are certain to pass this thing…

…and your time-venture has begun.  “Choose your own Time-Venture” is just the most recent event put on by The Banditos Misteriosos.  This quixotic organization bills itself as “Boston’s Mysterious Playmate”.  Three or four times a year, the Banditos organize free, fun events which use Boston as a playground.  They don’t advertise (other than by word of mouth) and they aim to put forward experiences which I would term “geektastically fun”.  Past events have included a celebration of Boston day which revolved around a “historically accurate” water gun fight between the Back Bay Swamp Creatures and the Revere Horsemen, a pillow fight flash mob, and a giant Boston-themed scavenger hunt.

“Time-Venture” was particularly interesting to me due to its performative implications.  How can we classify this event?  There were definitely actors playing roles (just about every street corner had someone playing something whether it was a time machine mechanic, an agent with the time-traveling organization, or a crime boss from whom you needed to receive a pivotal piece of the time machine).  The actors were costumed and followed a

time-machine mechanic fulfilling his destiny to be a can-can dancer... really, folks, you can't make this stuff up.

“structure” rather than a specific “script” and your encounters with them were arranged to form a cohesive story.  However, what cannot be ignored is the element of choice.  This was, essentially, a live-action choose-your-own-adventure novel.  Each waypoint had at least two options to choose from and tasks which had to be fulfilled in order to enact those options.  At one waypoint, we were required to take pictures of ourselves fulfilling our destinies in order to convince our liaison that we believed in fate.  At another, we had to solve a letter-replacement cipher in order to decode a message.  At a third, we had to use the time-traveling tools which we had acquired to bend the encounter to an outcome which favored us.

Scholar Glynne Wickham recognizes five basic elements which, at the most fundamental level, create a theatrical event.  These are: 1) the existence of a theatre (a stage and auditorium), 2) the imitation of actions in sequence (story-line), 3) the means of identifying person and place (costumes and setting), 4) actors, 5) audience.  If we go by these parameters, then “Time-Venture” could easily be termed a theatrical event.  The only quality which would be up for true debate here is the existence of a theatre.  The Banditos’ mission statement (“Boston is a playground. Banditos Misteriosos is the city’s mysterious playmate. We are an organization dedicated to bringing Boston alive with a slew of activities that are free, open to everybody and most importantly, just a little bit out of the ordinary..”) makes extraordinarily clear that their intended venue of performance is the city itself.  Can we term a city a theatre?  “May we cram within this wooden ‘O’ the very casks that did afright the air at Agincourt?”.

Well, okay, let’s get more specific here.  Yes, the entire event unfolded over the course of a section of Boston.  However.  Each specific encounter was scripted for a specific street

a mediaeval pageant wagon

corner (or park, or sidewalk).  So, in a way, we could equate “Time-venture” with mediaeval pageant wagons.  For those who aren’t up on their theatre history, in medieval England during important religious feasts and festivals, the working-class would stage cycles of plays on what were called “pageant wagons”.  Each wagon was assigned a portion of the story to tell, and the wagons were paraded throughout the town, stopping at pre-arranged stopping points and commencing their bit of the story.  If you stood in one place long enough, you saw an entire play.

For “Time-venture”, rather than the audience standing in place and the play coming to us, we walked to the play.  Perhaps there were no raised scaffolds involved, but there were certainly performance spaces.  Each performer held his own “area” and, as in normal conversation, we as a group remained at arm’s length to fulfill our interaction.

Perhaps an argument could be made about the interactive nature of the text.  A play, after all, is something written by a playwright to show a certain story.  In the case of “Time-venture”, the story was in our hands.  Our group wound up first attempting to fix the broken time machine, but then becoming double agents to subvert the evil organization which was trying to go back in time and re-cast Star Wars.  We gathered the elements of the time machine from old friends, drug lords, and secret rendezvous, and used them to destroy the time machine and save the past.  Other groups, I am told, had very different experiences based upon their choices.  But does that make either of these stories less cohesive?  There remained a beginning, middle, and end.  There remained obstacles to overcome.  There remained choices.

Simply because we were placed in the middle of the action rather than passive observers of said action did not make the action any less dramatic.  We were the volunteers from an audience during an improv show.  We were the heroes of our own story.  Like it or not, we had become actors.

I highly recommend checking out the Banditos and attending any event they run.  They were a pleasure to interact with, made us feel welcome in this ridiculous adventure, and completely enfolded us in an uncanny world of strange goings-on.  What an afternoon of entertainment!