In the 22 months since Minnesota had its first shutdown, Walking Shadow Theatre Company has learned a lot about innovation. It was one of the first companies to perform live, streaming performances when Co-Artistic Director John Heimbuch presented a one-person version of “Beowulf” from his living room. They’ve also streamed previously recorded films, shown work outdoors, and now have a play/escape room hybrid piece called “Reboot” they are remounting this week, after debuting the project last fall.
“We’ve all heard too many stories about productions being canceled before they even open these days,” Heimbuch says. “It just is a bigger risk than we can justify taking as a rental company. I think places that own their own space, or have control over their own space, have a better ability to weather that, to just put them put the brakes on for three weeks and come back.” As a smaller company without its own venue, Walking Shadow doesn’t have that luxury.
Walking Shadow has gotten a few small supporting grants to help ride the COVID wave, and reduced their costs significantly by not putting on full productions, since renting space is such a huge chunk of their annual budget. Their biggest cost is renting space in a building called 2010 Artblok (built out of a former General Mills research facility). It’s located in Northeast Minneapolis where Walking Shadow ran a long-running in-person puzzle/theater experience before the pandemic called “Cabal.” (See Pamela Espeland’s review of the show here.) Now, the company has used that space to film an online play, “Reboot,” as they wait to bring “Cabal” back in action.
Cabal was the company’s third “escape room” style piece, where actors playing character roles interact with the audience. The audience, meanwhile is set up to do large-scale solvable puzzles to move the story forward. “It’s sort of a combination of immersive theater and escape room,” Heimbuch says. In this particular form of theater, the audience is treated as a large group trying to achieve a goal, as opposed to individual characters. So, in “Saboteur,” in 2011, they were activated sleeper cell spies, and in “1926 Pleasant,” they were spirits of deceased birds. 2019’s “Cabal” audiences were initiates to a magical secret society. Now, in “Reboot,” the audience is a team of elite computer hackers.
Walking Shadow first got into puzzle-style performance because its executive director, David Pisa, happened to have been doing puzzle designs for years, and Heimbuch himself had been doing puzzle/treasure hunts. “I was always fascinated with puzzle design and the nature of how groups of people solve puzzles and how that’s different from individual people solving puzzles,” he says. “And when I say puzzles, I really mean not like, you know, jigsaw puzzles, but more like problem boxes, or conundrums or interlocking sets of solvable, interactive, tangible elements.”
Heimbuch and co-director Amy Rummenie were also interested in immersive theater. “I really like the idea of exploring and building spaces and having audiences move through those and make discoveries,” Heimbuch says. “That sort of process is really delightful. And then having something that they can actually interact with, and make changes to feels a little kind of special.”
Over the years, Heimbuch says the company has learned about how to move the audience through space, and figuring out ways the audience pays attention to moments of reveal or discovery.
Part of that growth has been extending how much of the experience is scripted. When they were working on “Cabal,” they realized they could explore deeper themes, something they’ve gone even further with in “Reboot,” working with playwright Derek “Duck” Washington.
“The thing about these shows is that they just take a long time to build because they’re very iterative,” Heimbuch says. After the puzzle gets built, they figure out how can we integrate that puzzle, build a script around it, and then try the puzzle in performance. Sometimes, something won’t work right, so they make changes to the puzzle and have to adjust the script.
In “Reboot,” directed by Heimbuch, the audience has been “hired” by a mysterious figure named Agent Halo, played Jamila Joiner, and her digital assistant, Bernice, who is an animated character voiced by Suzie Juul and designed by Chris Rodriguez. The role of the audience is to help Agent Halo get into a secret facility and uncover what projects they’ve been working on before, before enemy assets can figure out what’s going on in there.
Audience members then use their computer hacking skills as they assist in the investigation, and make discoveries along the way. Traditional theater? Perhaps not, but it’s something to challenge your problem solving skills, an immersive performance that offers an artistic respite during this latest round of closures.
“Reboot,” runs January 14-February 27 at various times. ($30-60). More information here.