The Evergreen Brick Works recently played host to ByoLogyc: Retreat and if you missed the event, you missed one of the most uniquely engaging entertainment experiences of the year. We did give you the heads up, so you have no one to blame but yourself.
Now that the year-long project has reached its conclusion, we sat down with Zed.TO co-founder Trevor Haldenby, who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at Toronto’s inaugural zombie apocalypse.
(The interview was recorded prior to ByoLogyc: Retreat.)
Dork Shelf: What is Zed.TO, and what are the core themes you’re trying to communicate?
Trevor Haldenby: Zed.TO is a theatre series about the end of the world and this fictional corporation called ByoLogyc. It allows audiences, through live-action events and online social media storytelling, to step inside this corporation as it rises meteorically and falls catastrophically to see what life in the future might be like. (More information from the event preview here.)
DS: How do you describe the event?
TH: If you’re a theatre fan, theatre hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the 21st century. If you’re a gamer, this is a game with a story that you can follow for six to eight months, not one that unfolds over a weekend during the summer. We started on March 20, and the people who were excited to be a part of that first event have become progressively more active and embedded performers in the show.
It’s a story about technology and about how it isn’t some autonomous force. It’s something driven by people with values, cultural context, and visions. That’s what drives technology, not technology.
DS: How much ‘game’ is in ByoLogyc? Do the players have the ability to influence the plot?
TH: The story has a skeleton. We know what we want the skin to look like, but we use different groups to build up the mass and the muscle. Our performers have backgrounds in improvisation. Then there are audience members-turned-performers. These people try to break the system to see how much it’ll stretch before it snaps.
You don’t come to our shows as an audience member. You come to our shows as a member of the Versatile Intern program at ByoLogyc, which gives you a number of opportunities before the show even starts to get to know the characters, what people are hiding, and what people are talking about that they shouldn’t be. We’ve tried to design around that audience group since the beginning.
DS: Do you have any examples where somebody pushed against those boundaries?
TH: We had an installation at Nuit Blanche called ByoLogyc: Patient Zero. ByoLogyc created this magical new product that’s a firmware update for your immune system. This debatably evil online organization called EXE has spiked the punch, and what ByoLogyc wound up releasing turned out to have some unsavoury side effects.
So at this community health clinic ByoLogyc was trying to do damage control and the EXE group outside was trying to be a bunch of anarchist shit-disturbers. We designed for that. We wanted to have something for people in line to do, and created a protest camp to encourage people to make signs and protest ByoLogyc.
About an hour into the protest, it became clear that we were about to lose control. We have a ByoLogyc goon squad called the Sanitation and Containment Division that’s good at managing threat levels and de-escalating people, but a lot of people started protesting for the hell of it. People started screaming, throwing things, and getting physically confrontational. Shortly after that the cops showed up, and shortly after that everybody decided that this protest the cops are trying to shut down is an example of everything wrong with society.
We didn’t fully lose control – and thankfully no one got hurt – but we try to figure out how to manage everything in narrative. We don’t like to have someone come in and say, “This is just a show. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.” So we made it look like the protest group was threatened and that ByoLogyc would lend them an olive branch. We had them move their camp inside the ByoLogyc stanchions in exchange for their safety, which was a dirty compromise that the protesters – in narrative or out of narrative – had no choice but to go along with.
DS: So your actors need that improv background in order to stay within the framework you’ve established?
TH: The story has a few core arcs. Within that, our actors have as much flexibility as they want. They know more about ByoLogyc than I do. They know who had the job they’re in for the previous 25 years, where those people were born, what they did, their dirty secrets. Are they performers? Are they consumers of the story? It’s really hard to tell.
At the Fringe, people liked the hands-on custodial experience. There was a vision for how clean that washroom was going to be, and it got pretty Third Reich-creepy after a while.
We decided to play that up. The head of the Sanitation and Containment Division is now the ex-head of the Custodial Department, Renata Reinger. Everybody suspects her to be a nice, friendly grandmother, and everybody gets a little L. Ron Hubbard and a little Joseph Goebbels. It’s sort of terrifying.
We leave ourselves flexibility to make changes that we feel best suit the expectations of our audience. We’ve done six events in the last eight months, so most of what we’ve designed has taken into account feedback we got in the early stages.
DS: How have your actors responded to Zed.TO?
TH: I think our performers are attracted to the idea of living and performing within a world rather than a script. They’re not playing a character in a room. They’re playing a character that can exist on any platform they choose to support. If they want to tweet as that character, we’ve got a framework for that.
The freedom to explore character through performance is something that a lot of actors don’t get offered in most of the work they do. We’ve created the whole thing as a workshop period, and the flexibility to figure out character on your own terms is I think very exciting for them.
DS: How does that tie into the relationship between theatre and gaming?
TH: Things have gone mainstream in the last 15 years that, 40 years ago, people would have said would be crazy. What’ll people be doing for entertainment? They’ll be sitting in their homes simulating war through a global network of computers. This will not be the job of some guy working for DARPA. This will be what millions of people do for fun, and it will approach Hollywood in terms of revenue. That’s incredible.
But what’s come along with that are values; things should be interactive. It’s fun to not be able to tell when something’s real and when it’s fiction, and the legacy of this tsunami of gaming technology is the expectation of interactivity. I don’t think this is something we’ll come back from. People will demand to play a part rather than just watch.
DS: Does theatre lend itself to that level of interactivity?
TH: Theatre has been a popular channel through which to understand social change. The ancient Greeks used theatre to understand all of the bad things that could happen to Athens. When you’re disconnected from everybody else and you don’t have a telephone, your only way of understanding what could possibly happen in your lifetime is to come together with everybody and get walked through it.
If theatre’s been this tremendously powerful force to help us understand how our world is changing, why don’t we have more theatre about technology? It’s a process of values. People translate their vision using available technologies.
DS: You’ve incorporated that technology into ByoLogyc in some unexpected ways. How do people respond when – for example – you start sending them paranoid text messages during a show?
TH: I think people fall for it. They get something creepier than they expected, a lot of jaws drop and people go, “Am I really OK?”
That extends to other channels, including social media. We sent out care packages to print media that consist of a futuristic ByoLogyc box, a surgical mask, a swab, and promotional material. Some people liked those. Other people thought their office was under attack by bio-terrorists.
We’ve worked hard to nail the production values so it’s credible even though it’s incredible. We’re not asking people to suspend disbelief. We’re more interested getting people to invest as much belief as possible.
TH: When doing an alternate reality game it’s easy to polarize your characters. The rules are going to be complicated and the mechanics of the gameplay are going to shut a lot of people out, so the temptation is there to simplify the characters.
We decided to play with that. ByoLogyc and EXE are fractal characters, each made up of diverse sets of beliefs held by people within that organization. There’s not really a good guy or a bad guy, or a truth to the story – just two perspectives.
DS: How do people react when they first come to one of your shows?
TH: Most people seem timid. We go through a number of processes that warm people up. You get assigned to a friendly department head. You meet that person and they ask you about yourself. You get a nametag that makes you feel like you know other people. It was a space with identity but without background. You could be you, but you were free to divulge as much about you as you wanted.
DS: How did you come up with the name Zed.TO?
TH: We needed a name that allowed us to be up front with the theme of the piece. Zed evokes zombie. It evokes ‘Canadian.’ There’s not a lot of ARG work at this scale and we wanted to reinforce that Toronto can be a hotbed for this kind of stuff. The zombie connection allowed us to talk about the apocalypse in convenient shorthand and dot TO allowed us to localize it.
Our story is the 28 days before 28 Days Later, the origin story of the zombie apocalypse. The origin story was always more interesting to me because that’s where you get real people in real situations making decisions they don’t understand to be potentially amplified. They just understand what they have to do.
DS: Is that why you decided to do an apocalyptic theatre project in the first place?
TH: We were looking at the amazing success at the box office of science fiction, and wondering, “Why isn’t there science fiction theatre? Doesn’t this seem like a no-brainer?” No one was doing that.
I saw a show years ago at Theatre Passe Muraille called Possible Worlds by a mathematician named John Mighton. It’s about a serial killer who’s removing people’s brains because he believes that he’s actually a brain in a jar in a lab somewhere being controlled in an experiment to see what happens when you push people to the limit. At the end it turns out he’s right. He’s running around killing people, but is it of his own volition, or is it something that he’s being programmed to do?
That show left a mark on me. If you want people to think about the future, present it to them in a way that matters.
DS: How much of a challenge is it to make this kind of ARG project monetarily viable?
TH: Truly enormous. We’ve taken an indie approach to producing. We’re not paying ourselves a salary. We ran a crowd-funding campaign in March and raised almost $21,000. That got us through Nuit Blanche. We had 333 contributors, all of them enthusiastic. Margaret Atwood gave us a bunch of money, and was like, “Go! This is the future!”
On the other hand, we haven’t allocated people to business development. It’s complex enough. Throwing Vitamin Water into the mix might help us financially, but it dilutes the experience in a way that wasn’t attractive to us, at least at the start. If we were to do it again, we’d try to design sponsors into the story so that they would be sponsoring ByoLogyc, not sponsoring the event.
Most of the revenue will be ticket sales. Doing it as a subscription would be interesting. And securing a sponsor that would say, “I have a problem. This show helps me solve my problem.” Making something cool is amazingly fun, but it’s expensive.