Q&A: Undercover

Rebecca Northan on mystery, improv and inviting audience members to play the detective in her latest show

Co-Produced by Vertigo Theatre and Tarragon Theatre
Written by Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak
Directed by Rebecca Northan

Audience member and Rebecca Northan. Photo: Little Blue Lemon Inc.

Dora Award-winning theatremaker Rebecca Northan (Blind Date) returns to Tarragon Theatre this season with a her new show Undercover, a unique improvised production where one audience member is chosen to solve a murder mystery at each performance.

The Undercover cast mingles in the lobby before the house opens to get an idea of who might be interested in participating. They are very clear that there is NO obligation to participate. Yet, how fun will it be if YOU are selected to play the rookie sleuth?

Here, Northan shares her behind-the-scenes perspective on what makes this spontaneous show tick.

Theatromania: Tell us about Undercover. What inspired the piece?

RN: Undercover invites one audience member to go undercover as a rookie detective and solve a murder. On one level, this is a clear and simple task. The bigger mystery is HOW will they do it? We found very early on in workshopping the piece that people really do understand the 'game' of playing detective, and in fact take great delight in 'leaving their armchair' to participate fully in this genre. We facilitate them by having them play their "real life self" as their cover. This means, the accountant who joins us on stage to become our rookie detective, assumes the alias of "an accountant' so that they don't have to make anything up. It works oddly well.

I have always been a HUGE fan of the mystery genre. I honestly don't know why more theatre companies don't produce them. It's one of the few genres that cuts across all demographics. Who doesn't love a great mystery? The notion of creating a new Spontaneous Theatre piece that invites an audience member to step into a pair of 'gumshoes' was too delicious not to try.

Theatromania: How would you describe the audience experience?

RN: For the audience at large, who remain in their seats, the experience is surprisingly engaging. The audience member who ends up on stage becomes their avatar in a deeply connected, palpable way. You can feel them leaning in, truly rooting for that person on stage...because, it could have been anyone of them chosen that night. They really care about the outcome. For the audience member who joins us on stageso far, every volunteer we've had has gushed about how much fun it is to play detective.

Theatromania: What are some of the challenges you've faced staging a spontaneous production?

RN: We never know what the audience volunteer is going to say, or do. This makes rehearsing a challenge. For the first part of the process, we make our best guesses. Then, once the show feels like is has a solid enough structure, we start bringing 'civilian volunteers' into rehearsal. That's usually when all the clever things we've come up with fall apartand our beta testers show us all the holes in the piece. Then we start over. The surprise for us in creating Undercover has been Act Twowe've never done it the same way twice, because the audience member has so much sway over how the investigation unfolds. So, the other big mystery for us each night is, "How will we get through Act Two?!" It's a good thing we're improvisers!

It should be said that the mystery does have ONE correct answer - but we've also been surprised to discover that it really doesn't matter if the audience member solves it, or not. Simply watching them play their part and attempt to solve it is where the fun lies.

Theatromania: What excites you most about working on the show?

RN: Three things:

1. The thrill and the mystery of discovering the person who joins us on stage each night.
2. Watching our Guest really get in to the genre and start playing with us.
3. Having the opportunity to play with an ensemble of people that I have known for 30 yearsit adds a real depth to the work.

Theatromania: What's next for you?

RN: It's a crazy year! Undercover travels to Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, and the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. My other show, Blind Date, will play The Grand, in London, ON, and I'm continuing to develop An Undiscovered Shakespeare (a show where we turn an audience member's real life love story into a Shakespeare play, in iambic pentameter, on the spot) with the Stratford Festival. Bruce Horak and I are also writing a Christmas Panto, with our colleague Christian Goutsis, for Alberta Theatre Projects. Ohand I'm going to teach improv in Dubai for 10 days.

Catch Rebecca Northan's Undercover until October 29, 2017 at Tarragon Theatre. Visit tarragontheatre.com for more information to to buy tickets.


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