An interview with Ben Benjamins, show creator, animator, and host of "Buzz'd Out! Live!", an immersive one-hour game show at the Studio/Stage for the Hollywood Fringe Festival and at Pasadena Media, with extended shows this weekend at the Studio/Stage Friday, July 6, 2018, at 9 p.m. and Sunday, July 8, 2018, at 7 p.m.
Inspired by multiple game shows, "Buzz'd Out! Live!" premiered for the Hollywood Fringe Festival at Studio/Stage and nominated for Best Immersive.
Unbound Productions, creator of the immersive Wicked Lit and History Lit events, will be world-premiering their first Mystery Lit show, HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE at the Santa Anita Train Depot beginning June 2, 2017. Continuing with Unbound's mission of producing immersive, theatrical experiences of classic stories; co-founder Jonathan Josephson has adapted three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories from the vast canon of the ever-cunning detective Sherlock Holmes into this under-two-hour crime solver.
I jumped at the chance to discover some clues into HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE and Unbound from co-founder, and director of this show, Paul Millet.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Paul!
You, Jonathan Josephson and Jeff G. Rack founded Unbound Productions in 2008. Were you the first to produce immersive theatre in non-theatre venues on a regular basis in Los Angeles?
I can't say that we were the first. There had been individual productions like TAMARA that preceded us. And in terms of producing on a regular basis, Chalk Rep began about the same time we launched Unbound and, like us, they produce exclusively as a site-specific company. In addition, Theatre 40 has been producing THE MANOR at Greystone Mansion since about 2002.
Did you have any examples or models to follow or emulate?
THE MANOR at Greystone helped to inform how we would stage the very first Wicked Lit in 2009; but outside of that, there were no models that we tried to emulate. We have spent many an hour sitting in a diner drinking coffee and talking through how each venue would inform the storytelling and how we would move our audience through the space.
In regards to the various venues you've used (the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the Pasadena Museum of History, Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood), do you settle on a show and then find the appropriate venue? Or does an opportune locale avail itself and you devise a show around it?
This is perhaps the most common question we hear. And there is no set way. Oftentimes, a story will resonate with one of us and we will tackle an adaptation knowing that we will find a venue for it at some point in the future. And we have also walked into a location and been so inspired about some architectural detail, that it's led one of us to search for a story that would adapt well for it.
That said, since we've been at Mountain View for nearly a decade, we know that property very well; so naturally the more recent Wicked Lit plays have been written with specific areas of the property in mind.
You produced your first Wicked Lit in 2009, and later in 2011, History Lit. Did History Lit evolve from or come about as an addendum to Wicked Lit?
Yes, absolutely. But there was one more piece to it. The Pasadena Museum of History had led us to Mountain View as a potential Wicked Lit venue in 2010. So naturally once we established a relationship with Mountain View, we turned back to the museum and basically asked “Why don't we do something together?” They had the beautiful Fenyes Mansion and surrounding gardens on their campus, so it seemed like it would be a good fit. And since they are a history museum, the focus of that project was to examine history in creative ways and thus the name History Lit.
Unbound has put on 40 plays (including 30 world premieres). Do the three of you spend many an hour sitting in a diner drinking coffee, tossing possible show ideas against the wall until one sticks; or a light bulb goes on for all three of you? How do you choose your productions?
We toss about large ideas, like what would make a good new Lit. Individually, we read stories by a wide variety of authors seeking inspiration with the Lits in mind. For Wicked Lit, we also have a submission period each year. We reach out to playwrights we know and/or admire, conduct an orientation with them at Mountain View to share how Wicked Lit works, and then give them a deadline to submit a first draft. We generally leave it up to the writers to find a story that excites them. Once we have all the submissions, we read everything, including what we may be working on internally, and then choose the Wicked Lit lineup that will offer the most dynamic and balanced evening of theatre.
But, while Wicked Lit garners the most attention, we're also cultivating other ideas as well. In July, we will present our first ever First Stab: Mystery Lit festival of new works. For this project, we reached out to 12 playwrights (six men and six women) and gave each of them a specific 19th Century mystery story to adapt. We paired each writer up with a director (again, six men and six women) to help dramaturg the new plays. Of the 12 plays, we plan to choose six and present staged readings of these six at the Pasadena Central Library in July. We're excited for this project because it engages 24 theatre artists from the community and will ideally create new works for future Mystery Lit projects.
In addition, I have written a new adaption of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Jonathan has adapted three shorter pieces by Charles Dickens that he has complied into a show he calls CHARLES DICKENS' CHRISTMAS TREE. We do not have a venue lined up for any of these Holiday Lit plays, but we want to produce them at some point in the future.
What criteria would constitute a perfect Unbound show?
A great play adapted from a great story, and presented in an immersive environment that is an organic home to the play. If the play appears to naturally “belong” in a specific space, then we've hit it.
How did your current mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches turn into HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE?
Why did you choose these three specific stories out of Sir Doyle's 56 short stories and four novels?
This was all Jonathan. He received an individual artist grant from the City of Pasadena to create the play. He read most (maybe all) the stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle looking for a new way to present Sherlock Holmes. He landed on these three because of the central story point of photography in Bohemia and Red-Headed and the darkroom featured in Copper Beeches. From there, it became an exercise in tying the three unrelated stories together with a single narrative.
Do you have a core group of Unbound actors you frequently use over and over?
Oh, yes. We do not have a traditional actor membership as our company is not structured that way, but we do have an informal “Unbound family” of actors, designers and stage managers. Each show generally features a lot of returning actors, along with new folks who then become folded into the family. And HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE is no exception. So it's always growing!
As a director, do you have to majorly change gears when directing in a traditional theatre stage, now that you've utilized so many non-traditional performance spaces?
Use of space and directing in space is the big difference. Understanding shifting sightlines and blocking the audience is the big change in site-specific venues. The rest, how I talk to and give notes to actors, designers and stage managers is basically the same.
Which hat do you prefer, your directing or writing chapeau?
Directing. No contest.
What show have you already directed that you would love to do over again with a post-show flash "I should have done that!" coming after it was mounted?
I can honestly say I don't have one. I'm very pleased with all my past work, both with Unbound and elsewhere.
Can you tell us what Unbounded has planned for the rest of 2017?
Sure. The First Stab: Mystery Lit new play festival I mentioned before is coming up in July. We will also present staged readings of some of our Wicked Lit plays at both the Midsummer Scream and ScareLa conventions over the summer and, of course, Wicked Lit 2017 will open at the end of September.
What are Unbounded longer-termed goals?
Basically we want to continue to develop new Lits and expand our existing ones. Our first anthology of Wicked Lit plays was published earlier this year by Steele Springs Stage Rights and can be purchased on Amazon. These plays can be licensed for production all over the world through Steele Springs.
Unbound offers free, comprehensive, interactive playwriting workshops for Pasadena public high school students. Obviously, Unbound feels arts are an important educational subject and wealth of knowledge for growing youths. Can you give us some success stories Unbound have seen from its arts education?
Sure. We were conducting our workshop at John Muir High School this past school year for the second time. Again working with 9th graders. After the first couple of sessions, we noticed there was this one particular student sitting in the back who was constantly raising his hand and offering ideas. We obviously thought he was one of the class' most outspoken “star” students. That was until the teacher pulled us aside after one of the sessions and proceeded to tell us that until we began the workshops, that particular student had offered nothing constructive during classroom discussions. We were shocked. And pleased, since it was obvious the workshop was inspiring him to participate and think creatively.
What show or literary piece would you love to tackle?
Both Jeff (G. Rack, third co-founder of Unbound) and I have been toying with adapting Bram Stoker's Dracula as an immersive play for some time. The first full-length Wicked Lit play. One of these days we will get to it!
What should your audiences be prepared for in attending HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE at the Santa Anita Train Depot?
Summers in June should be comfortable and generally, we do not get rain. But while this show features less audience movement than Wicked Lit, there will be more standing for longer stretches of time. So bring comfortable shoes! We always send an email to all patrons each night with pertinent details and weather info.
Will the audience get their own chances to solve the cases before the Sherlocks actually do (i.e.; like the last television commercial break before the guilty's reveal)?
People should follow along and see if they can figure out what is going on! But there is no option to solve to case for the audience. That's why we have HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE.
Thank you again, Paul! I look forward to the experience of sleuthing alongside your Sherlocks!