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Interactive Theater: When Audience Joins Cast

Grandma Sylvia isn't really dead. She's just going on the road.

After more than 2,000 performances in New York and Los Angeles, the popular off-Broadway show "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" closed recently, leaving behind thousands of audience members who joined in the event as "mourners," "cousins," and "friends of the family." Other productions have been staged in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. New productions are being negotiated for Chicago, London, and Buenos Aries. The playscript, due out soon, will guarantee that regional and community theaters will perform it for years to come.

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The successful comedy joins the growing ranks of plays labeled "interactive theater" in which audience members are invited, coaxed, or lulled into exchanges with cast members, who take on the role of their characters while mixing with the audience before, during, and after the "show."

The form was launched by "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," which opened in Greenwich Village in February 1988 and is still running. In this interactive play, guests arrive, are handed "wedding invitations," and witness the ceremony in a church. Then everyone traipses three blocks to a banquet room where the reception, including a baked ziti dinner, takes place. During the evening, actors play out scenes in various parts of the hall, sit at tables, and float around from group to group.

Also running in New York are "Late Night Catechism," in which audience members become religious students hectored by a belligerent Roman Catholic nun, and "Murder by the Mob," a mystery set in a restaurant. In each case, actors mix with audience members, engaging in conversations and involving them in the action.

Glenn Wein, co-creator and star of "Grandma," recalls how he and a few New York actor friends, stranded in Los Angeles, wrote the show "to run three weeks, so we could all get better agents. Our budget was $300." Positive reviews and word of mouth followed, resulting in a stint at New York's SoHo Playhouse.

The proceedings may look improvisational, but are really "carefully scripted," Mr. Wein says.

Joni Pacie, who wrote "Murder by the Mob," says that although her plays are classic whodunits, they differ from conventional Agatha Christie-type mysteries "where you have five or six characters who are the potential villain. We like to hide our killers in the audience, introduce them in a subliminal way, so it comes as a shock when the killer is revealed," she says.

Writer Pacie also acts in the show, playing Antoinette, a chatty hairdresser, one of the many members of rival Mob families gathered at a restaurant where "guests" die at an alarming rate. She shares her concept of each character with her fellow actors, "so we all know how everybody knows everybody else, where they went to school, [are they] married or not, children or not, so all our stories correlate. For the actors, you're right in the midst of the audience.... You live the role."

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Her husband, Ron, who produces and directs, says audience members are often so convinced by the performances that "they don't think, for instance, that it's an actor playing a doctor. They think it's a doctor, who does some acting on the side!" After two years, the show is going strong.

"In interactive theater," Wein says, "we acknowledge that the audience is a character in the play. Sometimes an audience member will interrupt an actor in order to get a piece of information. We encourage them to take on [an] identity as a family member at the funeral."

And what happens to shy "guests," who just want to watch the fun? "Smart interactive actors do not accost audience members who want to be left alone," he says reassuringly.

In Pacie's view, "The audience [for interactive theater] is growing all the time. Most of them have grown up with television, and want to be on television, or in theater, and want that vicarious experience.

"They want to be in the show."

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