Playing God – Literally

A smartphone's all you need to let loose your inner Zeus and control the action in Deus Ex Machina

Robin Grace Thompson as Cassandra in <i>Deus Ex Machina</i>
Robin Grace Thompson as Cassandra in Deus Ex Machina (Courtesy of Will Hollis Snider)

The Greek gods – what a crowd of a-holes and d-bags, right?

"Hey, Cassandra, since you won't sleep with me, I'm gonna curse you so that you can see the future, but nobody will believe a word you say about it." (Thanks, Apollo.)

"Hey, Agamemnon, for killing that deer, I've stopped the wind, and your fleet won't get to the Trojan War unless you make it right by killing your own daughter." (Classy, Artemis.)

They were always pulling that kind of spiteful crap – mostly on mortals but also on one another – acting so petty and vindictive, they hardly seemed like gods. We would make better deities, don't you think?

Well, we're getting a chance to find out. In Deus Ex Machina, a new riff on ancient Greek drama that opens Jan. 3 at the Long Center, Zeus opts to take a break from lording it over us mortals and cedes Olympus' power to the audience, which will then determine the fates of some puny humans by a series of group votes. Said humans are the seriously effed-up tragic figures from the House of Atreus – Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes, Cassandra, Aegisthus – but they won't have to follow the narratives laid out by Aeschylus if these new "gods" vote to change them up. The play has enough intervention points built into it to foster a dozen storylines, say the masterminds at Whirligig Productions, creating a choose-your-own-adventure structure that they swear contains more than 12,000 different ways the drama could play out.

The play grew out of a discussion between Whirligig co-founders Liz Fisher and Robert Matney – who are married to each other – about how to give an audience agency over a play's narrative. "Our goal was to discover how to let the audience really control what happens," says Matney, "in a way more sophisticated than simply 'moving the camera' of their perception through an immersive world." Improv is one way to make immediate narrative changes in performance, but they preferred a scripted structure and decided to present the audience with a limited set of options for the play's direction and have it select one using a digital voting system.

That format meant the play needed two things: a narrative that could incorporate an outside force imposing its will on the play – a "deus ex machina" literary device – and a world of the play rich and complex enough to support several narrative timelines. Matney says, "Liz then had a eureka moment," realizing the Greek tragedies called the Oresteia contain a "deus ex machina" device, with characters consulting oracles to decide what they should do. And since there are different versions of the plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the Oresteia offers a world of slightly divergent options. "This seemed so perfect, it was selected as the source material, and Liz set to work reading various translations of the source plays in prep to write our play. The title, Deus Ex Machina, was an obvious selection, made more sweet by the fact that a literal translation means 'God from the machine,' which lined up with the digital component of the work."

This isn't Matney's first time coaxing God from the machine in the theatre. He's integrated technology into scripted live performance with the intercontinental romance You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas/You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London, which had actors and audiences in distant cities interacting over Skype; and the time travel mystery The Girl With Time in Her Eyes, workshopped at SXSW Interactive 2013, in which audience members scanned QR codes linked to texts, websites, and email addresses to find clues to the story's puzzle. The two Hidden Room Theatre productions were hugely informative and influential for Matney.

But having the audience drive the narrative bus in Deus creates new technological challenges for the theatrical futurist. He's had to develop a software system that can collect the votes, analyze the data, display results in real time to both audience and actors (who need to know what scene they're performing next), and send the results to the video and audio systems to cue the right images and sounds. Says Matney, "We initially incorporated a package of software called Votr to prototype the voting analysis and display, and since then have built out a more sophisticated and aesthetic analysis and display system, which includes a user interface to build out a multilinear, branching video and sound cue system that responds automatically to voting inputs and which drives two different video feeds displayed on three surfaces."

If all that verbiage was, pardon the pun, Greek to you, then be comforted in the knowledge that when you show up for Deus, helpful "priestesses" will be in the lobby to train you on how "the gods spoke to the oracles," i.e., what phone number you need programmed into your smartphone to be able to vote. And the play will open with another character leading some simple interactive exercises, so you'll have ample opportunity to master being a digital deity before the audience takes over the play.

Matney acknowledges that "the risk is very, very high here. Theoretically, this is a beta test, a workshop to prototype and prove a set of possibilities. We are going for broke on the production values to ensure a great experience, but those who attend will be making theatre history, and none of this is a sure thing."

Well, who said playing God would be easy?

Deus Ex Festivus

Party like a god on New Year's Eve with Shrewd Productions' Greek myth-inspired bash benefiting Deus Ex Machina, which it's co-producing with Whirligig Productions and Fusebox Festival. The evening includes a Bacchanalian Buffet, specialty cocktails like Zeus's Thunderbolt and Aphrodite's Delight, a midnight Champagne toast, dancing, special performances, and a silent auction. Tickets: $22 online, $25 door. Wednesday, Dec. 31, 8pm. Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.

Deus Ex Machina runs Jan. 3-18, Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 5pm; and Monday, Jan. 12, 8pm, at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 512/474-5664 or visit

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Robert Matney, Liz Fisher, Whirligig Productions, Deus Ex Machina, Shrewd Productions, Fusebox Festival, Hidden Room Theatre

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