#FostFest: Ferguson-Inspired “Riot,” “Famous Deaths” of Whitney Houston and JFK, and Other Theater of the Future



Get out of my face, the cop in riot gear screams in my face.
He then pummels me to the ground. Actually, it’s my avatar that gets hits. I get a message: Because I was angry, I failed to mollify the officer, and so the game is over for me.
Was I angry? I hadn’t even realized. But the camera knew.
This is “Riot,” which its creators call an immersive video installation. It is one of several cutting edge exhibitions and installations this weekend at #FostFest, aka the Future of Storytelling Festival. Billed as “the world’s first immersive storytelling festival,” the shows  suggest what the future of theater might look like.

I was standing in front of a screen beneath a webcam that assessed my mood using facial recognition technology. If the webcam detected I was angry or fearful or agitated or anything but calm, I’d get pummeled out of the scenario.
“I was inspired by the Ferguson Riots” said Karen Palmer, the director.
“Riot” is being developed by the National Theater in the UK, in its recently launched Immersive Storytelling Studio. “This is very much new technology,’ said Mark Atkin, the producer of “Riot,” and a director at Crossover Labs. “We don’t know where it’s going.”
I stepped back in front of the screen, and tried to remain calm through one screen after another or provocation, making it through the three levels.


In “Famous Deaths,” the Dutch-based theater company Polymorf allows you to experience the deaths of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Whitney Houston — through sounds and smells alone. The creators stick you in a metal tank (crypt?) for four minutes, which is dark, but full of (in JFK’s case) the sounds of a crowd, or announcers….of gunshots. The smells are less easy to distinguish; they include gas, Joy (Jackie Kennedy’s eau de cologne), popcorn, cotton candy, coffee, sausage, a car.

Polymorf’s Marcel van Brakel acknowledges that sounds are easier than smells to identify, but smells “are connected to the oldest part of the brain. Smells work on an unconscious level.”



holocaust-survivorI ask Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter one question after another — where and when he was born; when did he first realize Jews were in trouble? Does he have any happy memories of the concentration camp? Gutter — or, more accurately, his image — answered each one as if I were speaking directly to him.
“We asked him around 2,000 questions,” explains Anne Marie Stein of the USC Shoah Foundation, which spearheads the project, entitled New Dimensions in Testimony, in coordination with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. They have created an algorithm that recognizes a spoken question and then quickly sorts through Gutter’s answers to find the most appropriate one. “Soon,” says Stein, “we’ll be able to display the survivor in three dimensions, to provide an experience that feels like a face-to-face encounter.”

It would be a stretch to label as “live theater” almost any of the exhibitions and installations on display in the “FOST playground” (actually a cavernous building) at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Even Break A Leg,” presented by Emilie Joly (who is the daughter of an actor) and her colleagues, about an illusionist performing in front of a demanding audience, is in fact a Virtual Reality installation, in which you become the illusionist by donning goggles that create the stage and your audience. Most of the “shows” at the Future of Storytelling Festival are tech-heavy, involving screens.

futureofstorytellingcharlesmelcherDoes this mean that in the future, live theater will disappear?

“I don’t think it will disappear,” says Charles Melcher, the founder of FOSTFest. “I think there will be a mix of live theater and digital theater.

“In the past, all mass media was in one direction. Now it’s two ways. Now people want agency. Now people have a desire and expectation to be part of the story.”



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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