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Interaction is the Key: One Theater Company’s Take on Audio Immersion

If consuming live theater was part of your pre-pandemic life, you were probably forced to consider alternative forms of entertainment over the past year. Alternatives weren’t as plentiful, though, for the people who’d ordinarily create such theater. Of those who continued their practice, some put on audio-only shows, while others notably turned to TikTok. But for Dr. Katie Turner, a theater-history lecturer at San Diego State University, there were limits to these adaptations: These options often compromised the back-and-forth energy inherent in live, human art.

“To me, it was so insufficient as a performer and as a viewer,” Turner recalls. “Like watching TV, but not as good.”

When you take in a live performance, its actors and production team are actively contributing to the work. That’s showbiz, baby — it’s not a quiet, passive experience. Early in the pandemic, Turner and San Diego State student J’Arrian Wade, who brought concerns about the current state of theater to Turner’s office hours, wondered what they could do about this, how they could use existing platforms and materials to develop something more in line with the live, engaging art they’d come to love.

They’d work with audio, they decided. Without visual elements, the audience’s imagination could participate in ways that weren’t possible when it was confined to a handful of Zoom squares. What’s more, one thing that would kick the experience up to the next level is the fact that they’d also ask the audience to play along. Cue Turnkey Theatre, the company Turner and Wade created to deliver original audio plays accompanied by tangible scene-specific props, which are shipped to people’s homes and meant to engage audiences as they listen. It joins the ranks of similar efforts that sprang up in the vacuum of person-to-person art, but this one’s here to stay, even as theaters reopen their doors.

Turner had been getting into “immersive theater” before the pandemic, putting on site-specific performances like Fefu and Her Friends, which took place within an era-appropriate house and limited audiences to such a size that they could fit in the rooms alongside the actors. (It brings to mind the production of Sleep No More, the immersive reimagining of Macbeth that has attendees following theatrical action all around a hotel.) Sound design has also historically been a major feature in the shows Turner has produced, since it can conjure up non-visible or entirely imaginary elements of a scene — an especially important tool in the theater world, where budgets and physical sets are often much smaller than those of movies and therefore rely on the imaginary. Put those two things together, and interactive audio theater seemed to Turner and Wade like the perfect approach for pandemic-era engagement.

Audio plays have existed for nearly a century, pioneering (and continuing to champion) evocative and convincing sound design. In the context of forced isolation, though, any experience that you just sit back and enjoy didn’t feel, to Turner and Wade, like it would be enough. This might not have been the case were an audio play to be performed as a live broadcast, as many were in the early 20th century and which made them an inherently communal experience, but, alas, that would not be the case for this small team, so they’d need to up the energy another way: asking the audience to respond and move along with the story.

In order to do this, audience members would need some literal, physical tools. Turnkey’s first work, Homecoming: A Meditation on the Natural World, comes with objects that the characters — who, in this play, embody the four natural elements — walk the listener through using in the context of a ritual, which sits at the center of the story. For $40 (plus shipping), listeners receive the physical box of objects, as well as a card showing how to access the audio online. The play was co-written by Turner and Wade and features voice acting by them both.

The play also features soup-to-nuts sound design by San Diego State graduate Andrew Gutierrez, who’d previously scored exclusively live, in-person shows. “Music and theater are kind of my two big passions, but they’ve always been pretty separate for me,” says Gutierrez, whose brother, a DJ, had casually taught him music production. Theater, though, is what became Gutierrez’s main focus, since he chose it as his undergraduate major and only took music-specific classes occasionally. When he finally combined the two crafts, for a play of Turner’s in the winter of 2020, he says, “it was honestly eye opening.”

Transitioning to designing an audio-only play tickled a part of Gutierrez’s brain he didn’t know could be tickled, since it honored his love of theater while allowing him to have more control over the final product, as he has when composing music.

“It’s hard for me to watch my live shows sometimes when someone else is doing the sound board,” Gutierrez says. “While I create the sounds, after a certain point, I’m just hands off.” Elements might arrive too early, too late, or too loudly. But with something like Homecoming, he says, “I get to place everything exactly as I want; there’s no middlemen. I feel it’s more true to my vision.” And this is good for listeners, too: At home, especially while wearing headphones, the experience is much closer to such a vision than it would be in a physical theater, where acoustics vary by distance. With audio, “everybody has the best seat in the house,” or so he says.

While Gutierrez came with the chops to tackle this kind of work (maybe even more so than he anticipated), working on Homecoming was a catalyst for pursuing audio more exclusively. He’s since produced reels for potential voiceover gigs, has been working on another audio play, this one more traditionally delivered as a podcast, and is even considering pursuing a master’s degree in sound design. “I’m definitely looking forward to exploring,” he says. “There’s so much more to do.”

Gutierrez is just one of several people whom Turnkey serves to support in this way. Not only has the company committed to delivering immersive, active audio stories, but it commissions new artists to write them. By hiring people who’ve never before written an audio play but may have dabbled in podcasting or written short stories, Turnkey is beginning to chip away at confining aspects of the theater world — namely, the whiteness and heteronormativity that continues to define parts of it.

“We prioritize hiring BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ folks,” says Turner, “and we focus on new plays, because there is a tendency for theaters and audiences to produce and attend the same playwrights, the same plays, and the same style.”

The goal, Turner says, is to build “a pool of emerging sound designers and playwrights,” and those two roles have so far been quite fluid, she notes. Turnkey’s most recent work, Passion: A Ketuvim Play, was written by Eliana Payne, another San Diego State graduate. “This is her first play ever — she was a performance major,” says Turner. (So was Gutierrez, interestingly.) And a forthcoming play, set for release in August, was written by Kay :De (“KD”), who not only designed the logo for Homecoming but who, Turner says, is also “a budding sound designer.”

There is, of course, a logistical benefit to such double dipping: It makes for a more manageable team size and perhaps a less expensive production flow. But it may also prove to nurture more skills than would ordinarily be possible, allowing folks who are new to the audio or theater scenes (or the audio-theater scene specifically) to try on multiple hats and discover if there’s something they’re particularly good at or interested in improving. And this could, hypothetically, better prepare underrepresented folks to compete down the line.

Turner, for one, is all about lowering barriers to theater from every angle. A version of Homecoming without the accompanying props is available for $10, supplemented instead with instructions for how to find comparable objects around one’s own home. What’s more, she says, with a Turnkey Theatre production, “it doesn’t close or become unavailable.”

And even though, unlike the flashy, exclusive-feeling original run of Hamilton, a Turnkey play will sit there, unchanging, waiting, it will always retain some level of newness. What you bring to it determines what it becomes. Perhaps this makes a podcast-like play, particularly one produced by Turnkey, even more like theater than the theater it sought to revive.