Red commands audience engagement (literally)

Zulu Alpha Kilo and Canadian Stage use digital to cast potential audience members in a starring role.
RED-Website

ExperienceRed.ca is being literal: the folks at Zulu Alpha Kilo and theatre company Canadian Stage actually want audience members to experience the play Red – as in take on a role of one of the main characters.

The play is about temperamental painter Mark Rothko in a fictionalized account of his biggest-ever commission in the ’50s. Red, which has only two characters – Rothko and Ken, his fictional assistant – ran from November to December in Toronto, and is now on tour across Canada.

ExperienceRed.ca’s main purpose was to drive ticket sales (Canadian Stage saw its largest-ever presale numbers for an opening night), attract a younger demographic (specifically youth who’d never seen a stage play), and promote a play in a way that had never been done before. So Zulu designed a website that puts the potential audience members in the role of Ken, and lets would-be thespians dust off their acting chops.

All promotion, including paintbrushes dipped in red paint that were distributed across the city, plus unique accordion posters that offered different perspectives depending on which angle it was viewed from, drove traffic back to the website.

“I think we achieved our goal of promoting the play in a way that had never been done before,” says Zak Mroueh, president and creative director at Zulu.

The website uses webcams, computer mics and motion-sensing technology to facilitate the interaction, while the storyline is non-linear, changing as the “actor” follows or disobeys Rothko’s authority. Step out of line, and the user gets sworn at. Follow instructions meticulously and Rothko offers to take the participant out for a drink.
Each user is meant to experience the show differently and come away with an opinion of Rothko as either a tortured artist or egomaniac, says Mroueh.

“The inspiration came from the nuance of the theatre experience, where there are twists and turns [to a play]. I think we wanted to create the twists and turns in a complementary experience. But we also wanted people to be able to engage with it more than once. So rather than it being a lean-back mirror of the theatre experience, we wanted something that people might be surprised the first time [they go] through, but then try to correct their path,” says Sean Gannan, creative director, Zulu Alpha Kilo. “It’s a really intimate and intense experience.”
Small subtleties have been built into the experience, says Gannan. As people lean closer, the camera angle gets closer to Rothko, giving the appearance of both parties leaning in. Shift left or right and Rothko shifts in the other direction. “It all makes it feel more real and like you’re having a genuine interaction,” says Gannan.

The website was also designed in a way to reach people without webcams (a scolding Rothko yells at the viewer for not having the right equipment), Gannan explains.

“We didn’t want to leave people with a disappointing experience.”

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