Talking Sherlock Holmes with Liz Shipe
Writer/Director/Actress/Producer/Costume Designer Elizabeth Lynn Shipe has been working on a project that clearly means quite a bit to her. Her Reconstructing Grimm project launches its first fully-realized play as it presents Sherlock Holmes and a Most Irregular Tea Party. It's a wholly ambitious work taking place at the Brumder Mansion this month. Michael Traynor stars as the legendary detective in a production that features actors directly interacting with the audience, who all take on the role of members of the Baker Street Irregulars.
I had the opportunity to shoot off a couple of questions to Shipe about the show.She was nice enough to answer me. Here's the Q&A carried out via email.
ME: what is the level of interaction here? How exactly is the audience going to be interfacing with the production?
And what is it like to write a show that has to take into account the fact that the audience will bring with it things you may not have expected?
ELIZABETH LYNN SHIPE: The amount of interaction in the show is probably best likened to a story-based computer game. The audience watches the show and at certain points the actors ask the audience questions related to the case, evidence, or characters. Then the audience has the opportunity to respond "help" Sherlock. The amount of audience participation is directly related to how much the audience wants to be involved. If they have input, wonderful. That's what we're looking for, but if they don't we have fail safes in place to deal with that too.
In terms of writing a show like this, I think it helps that I have done several shows like this. BYE BYE LIVER, Neil Haven's WHO KILLED SANTA, and The Brumder's past shows DEATH SPEAKS OUT and SPEAKEASY OF MURDER, really prepare you for the idea of audience participation. Doing those shows has shown me what works and more importantly what doesn't. I think there are two keys things to make the play run as smoothly as possible. First off is to be specific of what you're asking of the audience and put options in the script trying to account for possible answers and second is to hire extremely talented actors with improv skills and having someone like Michael Traynor at the helm makes the whole process that much easier.
In the end, there is no way that you can prepare for everything so letting the actors know ahead of time that they will have to prepare for anything is vital. Also, everyone is there to have a good time, so if something derails a bit just laugh it off and move on.
ME: What's interesting about this to me is the complex relationship you're going to have with this play. Typically, as a playwright there comes a point at which you have to in a sense abandon the work and hand it over to a director and actors who will have their own interpretations of things. You sit in the audience and watch the play like anyone else in the audience, sometimes surprised by the experience. Here you don't have that distance from the work. You're giving it over to other actors AND the audience, but you're still there for every performance and everyone's standing around wearing costumes you've worked on by hand and speaking words you've written and no matter how much of the production is you, you still have to let go and allow the actors and the audience navigate trough the story on their own.
But you can't just sit back as another audience member because you're in this show, too and you have your role o play, your lines to speak and your marks to hit. Sounds really, really complex for your first feature length piece.
Has any of this hit you while you've been working on the show or have you been too busy relating to the work to think about HOW you're relating to the work?
ELIZABETH LYNN SHIPE: To be honest I think the whole thing boils down to me being really selfish. I could've very easily brought in other people to do the costumes or direct and to certain extent having Tom Marks there as a co-director is going to help a lot. But, really when it comes to a project like this, you get so attached to the idea in your head that you want to see it played out that way and giving it away to someone else almost hurts your brain.
I've heard horror stories from other playwrights on their productions that they've taken too much of a back seat on, and I didn't want that for this show. In hindsight, as I sit for the fourth straight day logging more than ten hours at the sewing machine and in my breaks taking care of PR, and prop approval, while polishing bits of the script, and every other little thing. I probably should've taken more of a backseat, but this kind of project is something I've always wanted to do and to be able to put so much of me in it and give the audience a look at the pictures in my head realized was entirely too amazing an opportunity to pass up. That's the thing with this show, 150% for better or worse this show is handmade and homespun by myself, the creative team, the actors, and the incredibly wonderful owners of the Brumder (Tom and Julie Carr), who for one glorious day had a lapse in judgement and said, "Let's give this 24 year-old actress a shot."
Once I got the green light from them, there was no going back. I was also lucky enough to have Amanda Hull and Tom Marks jump on board and somehow got them to believe that I knew what I was doing, and then like dominoes everything fell into place.
So to answer your very simple question now that I've written a short essay, relating to the work hasn't been difficult so far at all. I welcome the suggestions of the people around me, because I trust that like me, we all want the same result: an excellent show. And I really think that's exactly what people are going to get.
Reconstructing Grimm's Sherlock Holmes and a Most Irregular Tea Party runs September 21st through October 14th at the Brumder Mansion. For ticket reservations, visit the Brumder Mansion online.