Solving the Mystery of Virtual Immersive Theater with CtrlAlt_Repeat
“I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had solving a mystery,” Kingdom of Pavement editorial assistant Lex Schultz tells me after their experience in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot, an incredible immersive mystery from the UK-based theater company CtrlAlt_Repeat.
I echoed her sentiments as well — I had also been to the virtual show, and it rivaled some of the best in-person immersive shows I've attended here in the US.
This Sherlock mystery begins as you “attend” a virtual webinar gone wrong, with Watson desperately trying to figure out where Sherlock has gone. It turns out, he’s forgotten all about the webinar and is in search of a cat. So, Watson improvises — let’s find a case and that will be the webinar! What unfolds is a delightful mystery put on by the incredibly talented cast of CtrlAlt_Repeat, directed by David Alwyn and a story by Sid Phoenix.
I had a fun conversation with actor/director David Alwyn and actor/writer Sid Phoenix, two of the masterminds behind this immersive Sherlock experience, and and also founding members of the quarantine theatre company CtrlAlt_Repeat, of which Sid is Artistic Director.
Here’s our chat — while reading, I encourage you to solve the mystery of why you haven’t been to one of their clever shows yet.
Zooming for Clues
CtrlAlt_Repeat has put on a variety of shows, including Midsummer Night’s Stream and The Importance of BCC’ing Earnest. The Symmetric Mailshot, however, marks their first foray into virtual immersive theater.
As with every CtrlAlt_Repeat production, each actor in the company takes turns directing a show, and almost every production marks an actor’s directorial debut.
David Alwyn’s directorial debut just happened to also be in the company’s first immersive show — and he’d have to construct a show that could be done over Zoom.
He wasn’t daunted, though: “This medium has inherent intimacy,” David told me. “You’re seeing people through screens where they’re sitting three feet away. In person, being that close would be uncomfortable. But over Zoom, you get to see what they’re doing at all times.”
David went to Sid for help with the framework of the show, and Sid built out a two-hour mystery. The initial script started a lot darker than the show ended up being.
“I was lying in bed thinking that’s not why people watch our shows,” Sid said of the decision to lighten up the script and make the mystery more fun. “David was like it’s a webinar that goes off the rails. I thought — what if he’s chasing a cat. From there, David assigned the different roles.”
Sid used the structure of tabletop role playing games to inform how he built out the world and what information was given to the different actors -- and what was left up to each cast member to improvise.
"We basically bashed out the lumps from the rough iron,” David said of the process of building the show from scratch. “Rehearsals were about talking through what we were going to do. We didn’t see what the show would be until is was run for the first time.”
While seeing people in their homes over Zoom was intimate, there was also a barrier to overcome: getting people to participate. But as they started the show, they crafted ways to encourage audiences to start to turn on their cameras.
“We eased people in, giving them permission to interact,” David said about the design of the show.
But while Zoom provides features like break-out rooms to throw audiences in other scenes with other characters, there’s also challenges to using this video conferencing software to tell a story.
“The limitations of Zoom have made some of our theatrical choices necessary,” David said. “Because we use breakout rooms that have to end at the same time, every scene is timed.”
“The fact that it all works is all in David’s direction,” Sid added.
David’s quick to praise his team: “The cast we have is a gift, they’re so empathic. Even the people who have never done immersive before, taken to it like ducks to water.”
The cast’s comfort with the improvisational format of immersive theater is key to the success of the show. Sid elaborated: “People know how to walk the line of enough banter to keep people on their toes — and come up with witty comebacks — without the audience ever feeling ashamed or embarrassed. If you take the approach of a comedian to a heckler and make fun of someone too harshly, you’ve killed the game for that audience member. David knows how to direct our cast along those lines.”
It’s true — even as I made my way through the different breakout rooms and engaged with the cast, I was impressed by their ability to be simultaneously welcoming and on their toes.
At one point during the show, my cat jumped on my lap, and James Dillon who played Watson saw (despite having 30-40 screens of audience members to monitor) and called out — “the cat! Is that the missing cat?” I laughed and replied, no — it was just my cat who was very eager to be a part of the mystery.
Tackling Immersive Theater in Quarantine
While the show feels completely cohesive as a viewer, there’s a massive amount of coordination and choreography that goes on behind-the-scenes to give the audience a seamless experience.
Because of the nature of immersive theater, the improvisational challenge adds a new dimension — especially as the audience needs to discover the clues on their own.
“Whenever there’s a hole in narrative, we’re on WhatsApp group, asking certain actors — can you instead give this info instead?” David said.
“We have a WhatsApp group that’s essentially the back of house paneling system,” Sid explained. “In one show, we had to move a clue in another scene, and the actor had to find a new way to deliver it. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.”
The clue-finding adds an extra challenge — especially when audience members discover things that weren’t necessarily meant to be clues, and the team have to roll with it. For example, in one of the shows an audience member found a fake email address for the MP, and ended up sending an email to it — and getting other audience members to do the same.
Sid had to scramble and not only run tech, but also find a way to respond to all the incoming emails in-character.
“It's the idea of granularity,” Sid said. “Nothing is more guaranteed to break an experience of world than if the audience tries something that they think should have an impact on the world around them and doesn’t. That would immediately break the experience.”
So, not only do David and Sid and their team have to choreograph a massive combination of choices — the audience can explore up to 64 possible permutations in Symmetric Mailshot — but they also put immense care in how every single audience member experiences every aspect of their world, from interactions with the characters to hidden email addresses.
The result of that? A beautiful, lighthearted mystery with a talented team of creatives who give their audience a unique experience night after night.
What’s Next for CtrlAlt_Repeat
As quarantine continues, creatives like David and Sid and their company CtrlAlt_Repeat continue to find new ways to adapt. They’re continuing to expand their virtual season of performances, both immersive and more “traditional" theater reimagined for our screens.
You still have time to catch the last runs of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot, so grab your tickets before they’re gone!
If you go to one of their shows and like what you see, vote with your dollar and sign-up for their Patreon as well here. Talented performers and creatives need our support more than ever, so do your part if you’re able.
To stay in the loop about upcoming shows, be sure to follow @CtrlAlt_Repeat on all social channels.