The George Town Festival (GTF) cannot be accused of ignoring the millennial demographic. There has been a fair amount of interesting and diverse theatre shows at GTF, but the upcoming American production Next Level might just be the show to get social media talking.
Next Level, a venture into experimental and immersive theatre by Chicago-based theatre company Voyeur Theatre Collective (VTC), will play in George Town, Penang in September.
The Penang audience has probably never seen something as innovative as a show presented as a party, which in turn depicts a video game. It follows its five players through various stages – or, as the collective puts it, “levels” – of enhanced interpersonal interactions in a social setting. Like any other game, achievements can be unlocked and there are other “non-playable characters” (NPCs) to battle.
Except that in this game, the players must face adulthood and the challenges, doubts and questions that come with it.
The VTC group, mostly in their 20s, has travelled to Malaysia for the very first time to showcase the performance at GTF. What truly brought VTC to George Town, though, is actress and co-founder Natascha Skye Buschmann – a New York native of Chinese-Malay descent.
As a child, she spent her summers in KL and winters in Germany, benefiting from the dual-heritage of her German father and Chinese-Malay mother. It was in 2014 that her family paid a visit to Penang and introduced her to the George Town Festival.
“It was my first time in Penang and I completely fell in love with it,” shares Buschmann in a recent interview.
“I had never been to a city that seemed to celebrate art in every corner. The work presented came in all forms, from more traditional plays and art exhibitions to experimental productions,” she adds.
Towards the end of the Buschmanns’ stay, they met with Joe Sidek, festival director of GTF. He encouraged the aspiring actress to dream big and apply to the festival with the right project.
“It has always been a dream of mine to share my heritage, particularly my South-East Asian roots, with my American friends from home,” says Buschmann.
“Everything came together when I joined the VTC. The multimedia millennial perspective we represent is something I find to be truly unique and universally applicable to our generation, and immediately I thought of how it could contribute and bring something very new and different to audiences in Penang.”
Fellow performers in Penang would definitely find some inspiration in Buschmann’s story. Through years of immense hard work and dedication, the team behind VTC managed to create a story that would be representative and appealing to non-theatre people.
The idea for immersive theatre, she says, stemmed from the fact that not many young people seem interested in theatre, despite performances being largely accessible these days.
“We are designing an experience for an audience. The word ‘voyeur’ is a really good entry point into the kind of theatre we make. We try to tell stories that are unfiltered, which is a general philosophy that translates into a lot of different kinds of performances,” says Savannah Birnbaum, writer and co-founder of VTC.
In the Next Level, Birnbaum reveals, the idea is to question the common notion of “growing up”.
“Next Level challenges the idea that there is any kind of clear resolution to the quest of finding ‘who you are’,” she says.
“‘Growing up’ is something that popular culture has sold to us as an object – or a ‘level’ – that we can mark and pass, but real life is more complicated and messy than that. We’re all individuals with our own journeys.”
With its use of live musical performances, video projections, dance and choreographed movements, and an original score, the show features a mode of storytelling that stimulates the overstimulation of everyday life.
Wesley Mann, producer and co-founder of VTC, admits that the idea of theatre can be expanded.
“We quickly scroll through Instagram, flip over to Snapchat, get bored and check out Facebook, then back to Instagram, over to Whatsapp and around again. Next Level embraces this media overstimulation. Each scene is accompanied by a unique video, original sound, and an engaging live performance. If an audience member gets bored of one medium, they can feel free to stimulate their attention in any number of other ways,” says Mann.
The performance, during its US stagings, has left many viewers in a contemplative state.
“Our shows are always purposefully lyrical and open-ended,” concludes Birnbaum. “We hope that all audience members leave with a new experience, and that there is a continued dialogue after they leave the performance space. That’s what our aim is – to make theatre an individualised experience that helps audiences make meaning themselves, rather than forcing meaning into things.”
Next Level will be playing at the Multipurpose Hall, Bangunan UAB, Gat Lebuh China, George Town in Penang from Sept 1-2. Showtime is 8pm. More information: www.georgetownfestival.com.