When I saw the acclaimed interactive theater performance Sleep No More, I remember standing in a room with maybe twenty audience members, an actor, and a spotlight trained on a ringing telephone. A woman next to me snatched the phone and put the receiver to her face. We heard a faint voice coming over the lines. The actor stared at her, and slowly took the phone, and pressed his finger to her lips.
She had received some tiny secret, and he had regained control of the room. The actors of Sleep No More occasionally give audience members some secret they’ll giddily share with friends after the show, but the Macbeth/Rebecca story and spooky atmosphere are paramount. The dancers hold control over the audience so that their tale can be properly told.
In The Universe is a Small Hat, the audience members are encouraged to talk, to ask questions of each other, and to challenge the authority of the actors. The story is about 75 colonists leaving Earth in 2115, with dreams of creating a better society on an faraway planet, but deeper down, it’s about our society. What are our ideals? How can we respect them without leaving Earth? Small Hat uses play to trick its audience into collective introspection.
Like Sleep No More, it’s also a show about control, but about sharing it, not using it to dole out tiny treats in hushed moments. The actors of The Universe is a Small Hat play helpful AIs and the separation between cast and audience is tiny—only the AIs can teach the theater-goers how to play their roles.
The AIs that welcomed us all wore shiny silver jumpsuits and bright face paint, and were therefore easy to identify.The “spaceship” was two small rooms, furnished with black lights and neon colors. We were shepherded over to some computers running a personality quiz that would separate us into groups: Healers, Engineers, Culturalists, Theorists, and Witnesses, each with a corresponding neon color and fanny pack of equipment (mostly index cards). I remember answering “Hell is…” with “A dance party” on the job placement test, so I wasn’t too surprised to be labeled a Theorist. I was led off to meet with the Theorist AI (Dartmouth) and the other player-characters in the Theorist camp, who had named themselves things like Moon Cat and Promise. It turns out that in the future, people have cooler names. I called my character “Steven.”
The room upstairs was divided into sections by walls of white plastic IKEA trash baskets held together with zipties and hot glue. With 75 audience members and a handful of actors and musicians in the two small rooms, there ends up being a lot of hand-holding in guiding people from place to place. In the Theorist section, Dartmouth explained that we were tasked with recording the beliefs of the colonists, and she taught me the rites associated with my station: a series of prompts (I am… I believe… People are…), and gestures, like a kind of laying on of hands.
The show is structured around several “events,” which take the form of songs played by the band downstairs. The audience is invited into the main room, and the Culturalists try to get everyone to dance and sing along. Between events, the audience members perform their assigned tasks on the ship. The first event was takeoff, before which, I practiced recording the beliefs of other Theorists, and a few passengers from other groups came to visit. Someone took my photo for Instagram. Someone else produced a flask and asked if I wanted a drink—I politely declined, and then learned she was a Culturalist, and that the offer was part of her role, not some uncomfortable extra-diegetic transaction.
Not long after the takeoff number, Dartmouth let me know that we were about to experience a “Bluelight,” and that while it wasn’t mandatory, I’d probably enjoy going down to the main floor of the ship and participating. It sounded interesting enough, so I put my Theorizing on hold and went down. The Bluelight was a dance party. Immediately afterwards, I visited the bar, figuring that since I had missed out on the offer from the Culturalist earlier, a cocktail was fair game. The bar upstairs was spartan: handles and two-liter soda bottles on a fold out table. I asked for gin and tonic, was offered gin and seltzer, and had a rum and coke instead.
Small Hat has a distinct plot that does not change from game to game, but the audience does, and their interactions and responses to each other’s questions change the tone of the show from night to night, and affect the choice each player makes at the end. The endgame is chaotic: the AI leaders of the different groups receive different pieces of information about something called “mbrane,” a legendary, benevolent, Borg-like collective, and the AIs turn to the colonists for advice. Representatives of the five professions explain what they’ve collected so far, and the group decides to contact mbrane. The AIs suddenly shut off, and the actors lie down. The colonists are left to fend for themselves. The lights go out. Words pop up on a projector screen—mbrane asks if it can use one of the AIs to enter the ship. They accept, and an actor stands up and speaks to the room as an emissary. It asks the colonists to choose to join its consciousness, or continue a noble struggle as humans. At this point the group splits, and the show’s two endings take place simultaneously, each group left feeling that they chose well.
In some respects, Small Hat is very camp—both visually and thematically. The AIs dressed in shiny silver body suits, and there are neon lights everywhere. My questions and gestures felt a lot like theater exercises I might have done in high school, and the ending I chose ended with 40 people in a room holding hands and just vocalizing. My role as a Theorist involved listening to a lot of people spout truisms about the size of the universe, or the inherent goodness of people. A ship full of Earth-deserters turned out to be very optimistic and friendly, and the show encourages this with dance parties, light physical contact, emotional engagement, and the occasional pull from a flask.