A Plague o’Both Your Houses

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General Premise

For this challenge, I designed an immersive play surrounding the plot of Romeo and Juliet and following Randy Weiner’s trajectory through Shakespeare’s oeuvre. While saying that this play has been over done is quite an understatement, I found its themes to be particularly relevant to our society today. The Montagues and Capulets hate each other, but it’s only their group membership which they hate. This is exemplified by Romeo and Juliet’s connection. In disguise, they are able to form a bond which would have been impossible had their names preceded them. I believe this is the case with some of the tensions and hate experienced in our society today, where labels and stereotypes obscure humanity and individuality and thus the opportunity for connection.

Plot

The immersive play takes place inside a single empty room, providing all viewers with same baseline experience. The center of the room is illuminated from above using target spotlights which leave the periphery of the room in shadows, obscuring the room’s size and creating an infinite space. The viewers enter and are given a stack of cards to wear around their necks featuring labels that they filled out prior (as part of the ticket purchasing process). The labels range from stereotypes, to personal interests, and finally, names. The purpose of the labels is to externalize what people often do internally, label others without knowing anything about them. As the labels shift to a more personal tone, the experience of the play becomes more intimate. The viewers are also given a mask and told not to speak. This mask serves to anonymize the viewers from one another, letting them be defined by their labels.

The viewers are actually a part of the play, acting as the set and props and thus dissolving the fourth wall. Throughout the immersive experience, the viewers are ushered around by the stage crew into various formations, acting as bystanders, aggressors, and peacemakers in the play. My design caters to the dual desire for exclusion and inclusion, with the labels and the viewer formations excluding some people and including others and later being excluded by the actors themselves. The point of the show is to make patterns of labeling and exclusion that might be difficult to spot in day to day life explicit, taking the viewers through an experience of polarization and unification, influencing them to think twice about their labels.

Major Plot Points:

  • Tension is established through lighting, music, and a haphazard organization of the viewers across the floor. No labels are revealed yet. The viewers, masked and anonymous, witness the meeting of Romeo and Juliet.
  • When conflict is reignited, the stage crew reveal the first labels worn by the viewers. The room fills with polarization and the viewers are arranged in exclusive formations which seem to threaten one another. The actors in the play push this theme forward, materializing the conflict against the backdrop of the viewers’ labels.
  • When Romeo and Juliet begin to meet in secret, the next label is revealed, a personal statement indicating personal interest and a step toward humanization. As this part of the play unfolds, the viewers are arranged in more inclusive formations which protect Romeo and Juliet from the hate, now symbolized by the actors. The viewers become “us” and the actors become “them”
  • When the play nears its end, the conflict infiltrates the formation of viewers and causes Romeo and Juliet to end their lives. When the actors find Romeo and Juliet, the conflict ends but the tension remains. Each actors hands a viewer a puzzle piece and walks to the periphery of the room while the stage crew unveil the final label, the viewer’s names and take away their masks.  
  • When the viewers finish making the puzzle, a light is turned on revealing a doorway which leads to an adjacent room with food, drink, and music, where the viewers can socialize, no longer acting as props but as protagonists.

Strategies

Aside from the allegorical nature of Romeo and Juliet, my central strategy for increasing feelings of respect and connection among viewers was exposure. The anonymity of “the other” is one of the main ways in which people dehumanize other’s opinions and beliefs. The arc of the labels take the viewers through this experience. At first the labels act as a reinforcement of “othering” but with the shift to the personal label, everyone in the room is suddenly humanized, despite the anonymizing masks. This also acts to counter the group homogeneity effect, where members of a group assume there is more diversity in their own group than in other groups.

Another strategy I used to design this experience was building a connection among the viewers through a shared experience. The viewers transition through the play together, following the arc of the plot as well as the shifting of their labels and generating a sense of connection through the joint experience in a single room. I also designed an opportunity for a shared challenge that needs to be solved through group work — the puzzle. At the conclusion of the play, the viewers can decide to what degree they want to unite  to solve the problem (whose solution is positively reinforced by their discovery of food).

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