Interactive theater can be stressful. Is that actor going to speak to me? Will I have to say something back? Please don’t make me stand up.
Mercifully, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” which opens Thursday at Spoleto Festival USA, promises a far more relaxed immersive experience.
“People can have a drink, sit at the table, sit with their friends,” said director Wils Wilson, who created the play with author David Greig for the National Theater of Scotland. “It’s sort of based on this idea of a cèilidh, which in Scotland is a night when songs will be sung, maybe a bit of dancing might happen, and stories might be told.”
“Prudencia Hart” follows its title character to an academic conference in the Scottish Borders. After giving a disastrous speech, she’s caught in a snowstorm that leads to run-ins with her professorial rival and the actual devil.
Inspiration for Greig’s dark yet lively script comes from the Scottish folk tradition, which is based in music and poetry.
“They would usually be told around the fire,” Wilson said of the folk ballads that are referenced in the play. “The atmosphere of ‘Prudencia Hart’ is that kind of convivial night of people sitting around telling dramatic stories or scary stories. Also, getting instruments out and singing and playing folk tunes as well.”
Wilson added that the stories are usually about “life and death, and partly involve the supernatural.” The informality of the event, she said, all but demands that these stories take on a performative element.
This sets a show like “Prudencia Hart” apart from other staged performances. For Wilson and her actors, removing the imagined fourth wall between them and their audience allows for a deeper connection.
“I think you can take people by surprise,” Wilson said. “It has a kind of immediacy, this kind of theater, because you’re all in the same room. You can really see the sweat on the actors’ faces when they’re working hard or you can really hear them, see them breathe, how much breath they need to do a song.”
That connection works the other way as well. For actor Jessica Hardwick, who plays Prudencia, this closeness to the audience is both exciting and scary.
“You can, as an actor, see the whites of peoples’ eyes in the audience,” Hardwick said. “But as the show progresses and we take them on the journey that we go on, watching that affecting people so intimately is quite a beautiful thing to see happen.”
Both Hardwick and Wilson stressed that participation during the show is not required. Audience members might be asked to help create a snowstorm with their napkins, or maybe clear a spot at their table should an actor need to climb on something.
The interactions are actually “quite gentle,” Hardwick said. “It’s more that it happens around the audience. So, if we see that somebody’s a little bit uncomfortable, we don’t need to get in their space.”
Some recalibration is inevitable as the team adapts to new venues, said stage manager Anna Page, who has worked on the show off and on since 2012. But “Prudencia Hart,” which has played in big cities around the world, “just sucks people in.”
Sometimes a little too much.
“We’ve had one woman who took props home with her by accident,” Page said. “There are some keys. She ended up taking them home in her bag.” To the relief of everyone, they got the keys back.
No two peformances of “Prudencia Hart” are the same, Wilson said.
“There’s a character of the audience that makes a big difference to the show,” she said. “If you come with kindness and an open heart, you will have a really good time.”