Theater Feature: “temping” — A Stage for Virtual Reality

temping is a strange and experimental beast, and I look forward to seeing where this type of interactive experience goes next.

The promotion picture for "temping."

The promotion picture for Wolf 359’s “temping.”

temping, produced by Wolf 359 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA, March 7 through 19.

By Kamela Dolinova

On a Sunday afternoon near 4 p.m. Oberon – the ART’s second stage – is shuttered. One of the building’s windows displays a simple computer-printed sign: “If you are here for temping, please go to the office at 2 Arrow Street.” Underneath, an unironic arrow points right, toward the building next door.

2 Arrow Street is a narrow, gracious, townhouse-style office building of the type Harvard University is lousy with. The brass-trimmed double doors are locked. Another unobtrusive sign advises me to enter a number into the intercom.

“Hi,” an overly pleasant female voice chrips, “are you here to temp?”

I grin uneasily, wondering if anyone can see it. “Yes,” I say.

“Someone will be right with you. Enjoy your day at work!”

The door clicks, and I step inside to find nothing but a building directory and a folding chair with a clipboard on it. A perky woman – presumably the one behind the voice – pokes her head around a corner. “Oh hi,” she says, brightly. It is as if she wasn’t quite expecting me to be there, but wasn’t unpleasantly surprised. “Have a seat and they’ll be right with you,” she says, disappearing before I can say anything else.

I sit down and flip through the contents of the clipboard. The Harold, Adams, McNutt & Joy, LLP Welcome Packet stares back at me, along with some disquieting corporate headshots of four middle-aged white men beneath an equally unflattering photo of a squat gray-and-brick office building in the Brutalist mode. On the next page, an “Important Notice” advises me that my time in the space will be recorded and monitored. The text closes with an incongruous “God Bless America.” The “Universal Leave Policy” on the next page outlines a confusing and — if were one able to makes heads or tails of it — massively unfair set of rules pertaining to vacation and sick time. Then it lays this paragraph on me before the signature lines:

By signing below, you indicate that you have read the foregoing, and, even if you disagree with it, accept it grudgingly in the hopes that it may not mean what it says. You are not here, and this is not happening, except to the extent it may be necessary to bind you to the foregoing unconditionally and without reservation.

Just as I’m simultaneously laughing, and considering whether it’s really a good idea to sign my name to this, a tall, ginger-bearded man arrives. We shake hands, introduce ourselves, and he asks me if I need anything. A bathroom, I reply, and he directs me to one, then waits politely in the hallway while I use it. I cannot help but wonder whether my activities in the bathroom, or the amount of time I spend in there, are being recorded for “future artistic and/or promotional purposes.” I find myself making sure I dry my hands thoroughly, and fix my hair in the mirror.

This performance of Wolf 359’s temping has already begun.

Like many who have followed the winding career path set up by a liberal arts degree, I spent a portion of my 20s doing temp work. The beginning of this piece was incredibly effective in ticking off the boxes: the arrival in a strange corporate environment, the oddly robotic workers, the arcane, often Kafkaesque office rules, and the meaninglessness of work severed from a satisfying context. When the bearded man – Michael Rau, the director and one of the founding company members – escorted me into the main performance space, the cramped 6×6 cubicle completed my immersion. For the next 45 minutes, I was inside the ordinary-bizarre world of Sarah Jane Tully, a 53-year-old actuary who has gone on an overdue vacation. I followed instructions, tried to do my work well, and participated in a funny and emotional ride that raises questions of meaning and human empathy in an increasingly corporatized world.

The themes Wolf 359 explores in this show are not new. The dehumanizing effects of corporate life, the reduction of people to  numbers and probabilities, the replacement of valuable work with disconnected paper- or button-pushing: all of this has been explored through television (The Office), film (Office Space) and literature dating back to Charles Dickens. This technological format, though, invites a fresh look. This is an unusual species of theater: there’s no live performers, unless you count the people who welcome you into the space and then run its cues from an adjacent room. temping owes more to interactive art installations than it does to traditional live stage productions. In truth, it owes even more to an art form that is just beginning to come into its adulthood: video games.

Once the piece began in earnest, I couldn’t help thinking of 2013’s marvelous The Stanley Parable, a first person game in which you walk around an unsettling and abandoned office space while an increasingly disgruntled voice tries to direct your actions. The more you deviate from the narrator’s bossy comments (“Then, Stanley walked through the door on the left … I said, the door on the left. Where are you going? … Stanley was rather bad at following simple instructions”) the more offended the narrator becomes. It’s a groundbreaking thought-exercise, dramatizing the ways that games tend to lead the player by the nose, demanding that he or she fulfill the demands of the prescribed narrative, and the natural tendency of some players to rebel from taking the suggested path.

I asked Rau about that tension, and he agrees. With tongue only slightly in cheek he calls temping a “first-person spreadsheeter.” Once the door to that tiny office closes, the single audience member interacts only with the objects in the room.  And yes, the interaction is guided, but each patron can choose any number of alternative actions – or levels of cooperation. Live theater, in its traditional forms, demands conventional behavior and responses from its audiences: sit quietly,  aside from laughing and clapping at appropriate moments, don’t yell at the actors, and if the actors break the fourth wall, don’t break it back too much. You may dance with the go-go boys at The Donkey Show; you may follow the actors through the hallways at Sleep No More. Ultimately, though, your actions won’t change the course of the show – only your experience of the proceedings.

In temping, that dynamic is shifted in the video-game direction. Following my own ‘experience,’ I was invited to sit in when the next participant came in. I watched from behind the scenes as an older woman navigated her way through the demands of the play. “Come on…you can do it,” muttered production designer Asa Wember as he waited for her to find a spreadsheet or read an email. “She’s doing really well,” he then commented. Wember, who runs the show by way of a backstage computer, camera setup, and old-school networked phone of his own design, responds to the audience member’s actions, setting participants down slightly different paths toward the resolution of the main plot, a conclusion that depends on what the particular patron shows the most interest in. The woman I watched was what they called a “good temp”: someone who followed directions, bought into the situation, and tried to complete the instructions in good faith. I was a good temp too: a combination of my ingrained audience-member conventions and my real life temping experiences encouraged me to want to do well and not cause any trouble.

But the plot, and what game designers call mechanics of the show, open up possibilities for audience members who are willing to test the boundaries of the space and the form. Emails appear that ask you to complete certain tasks, like make changes in spreadsheets, or send files to other personnel. The phone beeps, alerting you to the arrival of voice messages. But there is freedom: you can email anyone you want within the system. You can look through the drawers and bookcases (there are Easter eggs for those who search, Rau told me). You can open up a web browser and do whatever you want on the Internet.

I asked Michael and Asa whether anyone had ever walked out of temping. Strangely, no, they said, even after close to a hundred performances in Cambridge and many more in other cities. Though they have seen some fascinating reactions. Some people found the experience hilarious; others, deeply affected by the show’s surreality, wept. One patron tried to mediate the relationship between two characters, James and Diego, whose creepy exchanges become part of your story because of a printer on the fritz. One, fearing what seemed like suicidal tendencies in the main character, tried to contact Sarah Jane’s friends in the office and get her help. Some people messaged their friends or live-tweeted their experience of taking part in the show. A few patrons were so freaked out by some of the weirder developments that they locked the office door. Rau had to knock once the show was over. One twentysomething wrote the show’s creators and told them she’d quit her job in real life, inspired after what had happened to her in temping.

For my part, I was taken in by the game-like experience. I was moved by little details, like the sweater and neatly placed sneakers Sarah Jane left in the office, the xkcd comic and other personal touches that were attached to the gray cubicle walls, the stapler labeled “Sarah Jane’s Stapler” on a handwritten, taped down strip of paper. I was startled each time the printer randomly printed out something, especially because it frequently turned out to be misplaced messages in large type, things like “I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT U.” I started to dread the paranoid voicemails, announced with a loud beep, and cracked up at the passive-aggressive email exchanges between HR and the grumpy office manager. And it wasn’t all that long before I, like Sarah Jane, felt the urge to escape from this haunted office and walk out into the wild, even if it meant the end of the comfortable, the familiar, and the safe.

Theater without actors, virtual reality without a headset, an indirect, intricate conversation between a single audience member and a man sitting at a booth in the next room: temping is a strange and experimental beast, and I look forward to seeing where this type of interactive experience goes next.

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.

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