Things can get weird during performances of Theater Works’ Curiouser and Curiouser Too, the actor Paul Pedersen said the other day. The interactive play, written by Kyle Olson and the company’s producing artistic director, Chris Hamby, brings its audience along in an immersive story based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
“People are pretty much always great,” Pedersen said. “But every once in a while you get someone in there who wants to be the star of your show, and you have to kind of gently control that and also keep on acting.”
Like last week when Pedersen’s family turned up unannounced at a performance. “They live out of state, and suddenly they’re right there in the room with me, and I was trying to stay in character and thinking, ‘What the hell are they doing here?’”
The Pedersens were there, it turned out, because Hamby planned to propose marriage to Pedersen during that night’s performance.
“Which he did,” Pedersen said. “It was the 10th anniversary of our first date, and my whole family knew what Chris planned. He interrupted the performance right in the middle of a scene and asked me to marry him. He had people come in and sing to me, then he led me out to the lobby of the theater and there was an engagement party with 200 people.”
Most nights at work were less surprising, Pedersen admitted. “But no matter what’s going on, there’s always an intimacy with this play. Interactive acting is very unforgiving, and I’m usually no more than six feet away from any audience member. Every little facial expression or mumbled comment I make is right out there.”
Pedersen choreographed this sequel to the troupe’s earlier Alice-themed theater event. Both plays revisited characters from the Lewis Carroll book, and both are immersive, multi-sensory theater events that take audience members into the bowels of the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. A dozen playgoers at a time, accompanied by Carroll’s White Rabbit, troop through 6,500 square feet of hallways, rehearsal rooms, and storage closets that have been tricked up as the realm of a nutty, vindictive Queen of Hearts.
Pedersen plays the March Hare, and the audience plays Carroll’s famously confused little girl. “So regardless of your age or your gender, we address you as Alice,” he explained. “We tell you how the Knave of Hearts needs your help to defeat the Queen, who’s trying to summon the Jabberwock and cause all kinds of trouble.”
Coming up with blocking and choreography was a challenge because Alice-the-audience is literally everywhere.
“Almost in your lap,” is how Pedersen described it. “Chris and I blocked the action so that not everyone is seeing everything at the same time. Different parts of the audience are seeing different things.”
Interactive theater became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic when shuttered theaters provided the necessary real estate for a show that travels from room to room, Pedersen said. Now that the world is returning to normal, he hopes immersive works will continue to be produced.
“People who don’t go to theater are coming to our show,” he said. “They’re like, ‘I don’t love theater, but I love theme park rides and I love escape rooms, and I really enjoyed myself!’ I want those people to come back and maybe then they’ll start to like traditional theater.”
Pedersen called the previous Wonderland production “appropriate for all ages” and compared it to a Pixar movie.
“There were jokes that went over a young person’s head, but nothing where you had to cover your 5-year-old’s ears,” he said. When Hamby (who contributed to the original script alongside playwright Shelby Maticic) polled audiences, they found people wanted something darker and more adult. Both playwrights were happy to oblige.
“There’s cursing in the sequel,” Pedersen said. “The F word turns up. There’s no nudity, but the Queen of Hearts is looking quite sexy. You might not want your 6-year-old to see her in those fishnets and garters. And there are some sound and lighting things that a little kid might find scary. I mean, we were writing for adults, so we weren’t afraid to make the Jabberwock scary. And it is. It’s scary.”
Pedersen said he’d learned a lot about basic human behavior on the Curiouser set.
“Sociologists would love this show,” he said. “Most of the audience follows cues and behaves the way we want them to. But then you’ll get someone who paid to be there, and they won’t make eye contact, they don’t want to be addressed as Alice. Which is fine, as long as I don’t have 12 of those in there at once.”
Pedersen recalled an especially peculiar response from an Alice who visited Curiouser’s earlier production. “I was playing one of the guards, and it was a scene where we would invite the audience to paint the white roses with water that turned them red.”
Rather than a paintbrush, one audience member dipped her long hair into the “paint” and got busy.
“The entire time she was staring me down as if to say, “I’m painting with my hair. What are you gonna do about it?”
Thinking fast, Pedersen turned to his scene partner. “I announced to everyone in the room, ‘Well, it looks like Alice has been munching on the magic mushrooms!’ And then I walked away.”
Curiouser and Curiouser Too continues through July 25 at Theater Works at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 10580 North 83rd Drive, Peoria. Tickets start at $48; discounts are available for purchasing groups of tickets. Call 623-815-7930 or visit curiousertheater.org.