We tend to think of stories as coming from a singular source. Homer—not generations of Greek storytellers—wrote the Odyssey. But sometimes things are more complicated than that, as highlighted by two new plays opening in Las Vegas this week.
She Kills Monsters, by Qui Nguyen, is directed by Sarah O’Connell for Off-Strip Productions. The show at the Onyx shares the story of Agnes, who’s dealing with the loss of her sister—by playing through a Dungeons & Dragons “module” the sister wrote. As Agnes learns how to play the game, the audience also learns, letting the play occupy the space between epic fantasy and traditional theater. “What’s great about the play is that the protagonist has the point of view of the audience,” O’Connell says. “It’s got a heart, but it’s also got swords and swashbuckling and dragon slaying.”
A Summons From the Tinker to Assemble the Membership in Secret at the Usual Place, presented by A Public Fit and written by APF co-founder Joe Kucan, takes place in a new space uniquely converted for this show in Fremont Center (on the corner of Fremont and Maryland). The play takes its inspiration from Fritz Lang’s classic 1931 film M, and asks the audience to examine its own choices while creating its narrative. “We transform the audience into a collective group that serves a purpose more than just being a watchful observer,” Kucan says. “Part of the mystery of the show is the audience realizing who they are in this world, who they are meant to be in this world and what the expectation is upon them.”
As different as they might be, both pieces place an unusual emphasis on the act of communal storytelling, the idea of many people coming together to create a narrative. I sat down with O’Connell and Kucan in the unfinished space for Summons to talk about stories and tellers.
What are some of the rules around creating one story with multiple tellers? O’Connell: There might be a lot of people throwing up their ideas, but at the end of the day you’re fooling yourself if someone isn’t making decisions, calling the shots. Someone has to make a choice. Otherwise there’s no progress to a final piece that you can really offer that isn’t confusing or fraught with challenges that the audience doesn’t need; they’re not going to enjoy it. For me, the thing I’ve learned is that everyone has to agree to the rules of the game that are in play. Like D&D, it’s both open-ended and there are rules.
Kucan: If we all start to play football—and some of my friends we were playing American football and my other friends were playing soccer, European football—there would be no game. It would be cacophony. It would be crazy. So you absolutely have to establish the rules. We have to know right away what the game is.
O’Connell: You need something to calibrate your choices against to go back and check, okay, are we meeting or serving our intention in doing this in the first place? Or have we deviated? And if we’ve deviated, is that okay? Is it time to reset? Have we learned that the deviation is more interesting than our original intent?
Kucan: Even Bertolt Brecht realized he had to be entertaining.
How do you make the audience a participant in the storytelling, too? O’Connell: There are ways to make the audience know that they’re important, that will engage them and engage them in the story. Sometimes that involves audience participation in directions we’re used to, like calling out a suggestion in an improv game. And other times it has to do with choosing things that audiences will recognize is something in their own life.
Kucan: I try really hard these days, to really think about one person, where that one audience member’s experience may deviate and what information I can leave out, so I can have 100 different experiences, just in one moment. Because I think it’s kind of important. Part of communal storytelling is that we all share a thing—that is the plot and the story—but we all have individual reactions ... I try to really remember and look for those places where we can find those single-person moments that are separated from the stuff that you’re doing. I think that’s part of creating a community. A community is a group of individuals. And we may share any number of things, but once you lose track of the individual within that, then who are we talking about?
O’Connell: Everyone has their point of view, and the playwright has a POV, and the director has a POV, so you’ve got all these points of view exchanging in this activity, so no one’s experience is going to look 100 percent the same. But if you have that shared journey, they don’t necessarily have to. It’s not something that you get in the beginning or in the middle or in the end—it’s the whole experience, that collective memory that is now shared. It’s unique to everyone who’s in the room in that moment and no other time. I think that audiences have to go on that journey. Even if it’s a 30-second play, or a three-hour, or a three-day thing—they’re going to go on that journey, and have shared the experience, and it’s the actual experience that’s the same. But not their idea of what the story is, if that makes sense. And just the fact that even though it looks different, whatever that one thing is may be different from person to person, the fact is that we’re all collectively changed at the same moment in the same room and in the same space.
She Kills Monsters October 16-31; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.; $20. Onyx Theatre, 702-732-7225.
A Summons From the Tinker ... Through November 1; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; $25. Fremont Center, 100 S. Maryland Parkway, apublicfit.org.