Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1990

Another wall has come tumbling down. The long-standing “fourth wall” of the theater, that invisible barrier between actor and audience, has officially crumbled.   Interactive theater is here.

These days, you can go to a show and move from room to room with the action (“Tamara”), dance with the bride (“Tony and Tina’s Wedding”) or have dinner with a killer (Murder Mystery evenings, weekends, cruises). And in Mission Valley , you can be an active participant in a talk show radio comedy.

“The KPUG Show”, now running at the new Valley Playhouse, isn’t just part of an interactive theater trend. It’s the outgrowth of an idea that’s been germinating in the minds of its creators for over 20 years. In the late 1960s, Bill McGaw, Hall Tripp Sprague and Garry Shirts were employees of Western Behavioral Science, a liberal, left-wing La Jolla think tank.   There, they developed and expanded a concept of interactive games that they called “simulations.”    Shirts, a Ph.D. in Psychology, brought simulations to corporations, involving employees in company problem-solving.   Meanwhile, Sprague, a social psychologist (and sometime jazz drummer, father of the talented jazz musicians, Peter and Tripp Sprague) was writing books and screenplays, and McGaw was winning Oscar and Peabody Awards for his documentaries.

Three years ago, they reconvened to re-pollinate simulations.    They became the writer-producers of “The KPUG Talk Radio Murder Mystery”, which had a successful six-week run at the Coronado Playhouse last winter. Well, it was successful with the audience, but the merry triumvirate was not quite satisfied.   There were three director changes in six weeks, and there just wasn’t enough “interaction” between cast and audience. So, they went back to the drawing board. Now in version 20+ (but who’s counting?), they’ve got a new theater, built just for them at the Town and Country Hotel, an indefinite run and the reins in their hands (McGaw is directing). Not to say the script is “set.” That may never happen.   As McGaw so subtly puts it, “We’re continually polishing.”

The humor is based on improvisation and ad-libs, and, according to director McGaw, “We’ve now got the right actors, who understand that there’s no fourth wall there. They talk with audience members all the time.”

Everyone in the audience wears a name tag, but not all the monikers are serious.   One night, a woman called Melon Balls sat a table away from Tiny Tim. “It’s transcendental when the cast picks up on some idea from the audience and runs with that,” says McGaw. According to Shirts, “Some of the best lines come from the audience.”

There’s no question that the audience is now more actively involved.   They vote on who murdered Mr. Pugsley, the owner of KPUG radio, they examine evidence, question the suspects, and act as studio audience for a “broadcast” of a talk radio program.   Recently, an audience member came up to McGaw after the show and said, “This is a really great radio.   They oughta make this into a play.”

The play is a sweet deal for all concerned. There’s no charge for the room, formerly the Abilene Western Bar, now a 170-seat arrangement of small tables and chairs with plush, pine-green carpeting.   The hotel gets a piece of the box office take. The producers get an office suite, a box office and a group sales facility.   The actors get paid. And Channel 8’s Larry Mendte gets his stage debut.

Promotion is handled by the hotel and its affiliated Atlas inns, as well as the Price Club, which is involved with the Atlas group. There are discounts for hotel guests. And when there’s a convention group on hand, there’s more-than-usual hilarity.

Do the producers feel competition from the murder mystery dinner theater shows at the Cafe Noir and the Horton Grand Hotel? Not at all.   “The key difference is one of degree,” says Shirts.   “The audience really is the star in our play.   In the other productions, the audience is just a foil; they play a minor role in the advance of the action.”   “We don’t really have a protagonist,” adds McGaw. “Our mission is to make the audience the protagonist as much as we can.”

Sprague continues. “In “Tamara”, the audience follows the cast around, they’re three feet away, but the wall is never broken. “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” is total involvement; everyone is thrown together.   There’s no fourth wall, but there really isn’t a structured play, either. Ours has a story, a play, and the audience is sought out.” “It’s important,” McGaw concludes, “that the audience decides who the culprit is. You never want to cheat the audience.”

“We’re going out to 1 1/2 million listeners,” the radio show warmup-man, Bob Ferguson (Monty Jordan), tells the “KPUG” audience. “So if you’re here with anybody you shouldn’t be, keep quiet.”   The LAUGH sign flashes, and the audience is on the air.

©1990 Patté Productions Inc.