Yale Seniors break boundaries of theater with original immersive play ‘Pandemonium’
As a joint theater studies thesis project, three Yale seniors introduce an interactive play for a small audience, inspired by childhood classic ‘Peter Pan.’
This weekend, three Yale seniors will present an original interactive play titled “Pandemonium” as their joint theater studies project.
Inspired by J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” “Pandemonium” takes a modern twist on the childhood classic, seeking to “decolonize” Neverland and explore the topics of joy, wonder, anti-racism, bravery and healing — specifically tackling the experience of returning to childhood as a means of coping with trauma. Students Noelle Mercer ’22, Ale Campillo ’22 and Cassandra Hsiao ’22 produced the play for their theater studies thesis. The performances will run on Oct. 14 at 5 p.m. and Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box.
“We sought to bring a new form of the production to the original,” Hsiao said. “We are all aware of the racial imagery and the depiction of the native tribes in the book, so one aim of our show was to decolonize Neverland. But on a larger scale, it is also a play about Peter Pan in relation to the current times and us being in college during them.”
The creators originally proposed to write a production thesis, which is an opportunity for seniors majoring in theater and performance studies to write and stage a theatrical piece in lieu of year-long research. They began the project in Jan. 2020 and planned to stage it during the fall of 2020, but the pandemic forced their plans to change. Mercer and Campillo took a gap year and Hsiao took a gap semester, during which they worked on the play’s draft over Zoom with the hope that upon returning to campus, they would be able to produce it in-person without COVID-19 restrictions.
Over the summer, however, the team made a decision to rethink its show not only logistically — to abide by University health regulations for the fall — but also thematically, grappling with an “existential” question of theater’s importance in the current “world in crisis,” according to Mercer.
“By the time July came around, we felt that our original script just didn’t answer that question of ‘why theater, why our play and why now?’” Mercer said. “I don’t think that we could put up a piece of theater without acknowledging what’s happening right now and trying to find ways to self-soothe ourselves within that reality. The world feels like there’s just absolute pandemonium going on: it doesn’t feel real.”
With a new script, the team aimed to blur the line between performance, performer and spectator, which resulted in an interactive, metatheatrical play. The play’s name – “Pandemonium” – remained unchanged, as it was inspired by “Peter Pan” from the very beginning. Yet the pandemic added an additional layer of allusion to the world’s current crises.
While all three seniors have different theater-related backgrounds and interests, they collaborated on virtually all aspects of theater-making and all stages of production, including writing, acting and directing and set, sound and light design. According to Campillo, having only three actors on stage — all of whom are also the play’s writers and directors — promoted a “strong collaborative environment” and made it easier to follow the health guidelines while stirring up their creativity.
For example, the team decided to thematically incorporate mandatory masking into its plotline and add an immersive experience component to its play. Because movement and audience interactions are important parts of the production, the audience is limited to 18 people.
“We’re interested in breaking away from the traditional type of production where action only happens on stage,” Hsiao said. “After such a long time of being in isolation, people long for connection, and connecting with the audience members is especially important to us.”
As a result of this creative collaboration, Mercer, Campillo and Hsiao staged an immersive meta-play for a small audience.
“This show is camp,” Campillo said. “This show is a gag. This show is an absolute mess, but then again, that’s what life is, and we’re just trying to capture all the joyous and hectic things that make life life.”
The Theater and Performance Studies Black Box is located at 53 Wall St. Tickets for the play must be reserved online via Eventbrite.