In the past few months, digital storytelling has evolved with creators finding novel and innovative ways and mediums in which to tell their stories. While Pixel Playhouse was formed in 2018, their work is leading the way in terms of creating some of the best and most interesting digital work out there. In their latest project, Definitely Not Clue, audiences take to Twitch to engage with seven actors in a hundred-minute, free, musical experience. But it’s not just a whodunit with songs; audiences can expect puzzles, twists, and even an add-on cocktail experience from Spirit Guides.
Immersed brings you this wonderful Pixel Playhouse interview with creators Graham Wetterhahn and Vijay Nazareth. They tell us more about Definitely Not Clue and even share some authentic and applicable lessons they have learned from creating digital works.
In your own words, what is Definitely Not Clue? Is the show the same night to night or can the audience return for a different experience?
Definitely Not Clue is an original interactive musical mystery comedy completely designed for live streaming on Twitch. It’s (mostly) family friendly and completely socially distanced. The show is produced live by 12 remote studios working simultaneously and consists of appx. 80-85% live performance and 15-20% pre-recorded segments. No two performances will be identical and it’s completely free to watch! In typical murder mystery-style the show’s ending (and clues along the way) change from performance to performance. And for or each “killer” there are multiple endings whether the audience solves the puzzles or not.
Can you speak to the talented team behind Pixel Playhouse? Can you speak to the company, its genesis, and what it aims to accomplish through its work?
Pixel Playhouse started streaming in October 2019 and was in the works since 2018 – well before Covid. My co-founder, Vijay Nazareth, had a very successful YouTube channel called AVByte that focused on family-friendly short form musical theater-style videos and he was looking for a way to create a digital cabaret space. I was looking to create a more sustainable financial model for my theatrical productions than the 99-seat theater model and was also looking for a way to expose more audiences (particularly younger and underserved audiences) to live performance, so it was a perfect fit! Our current focus is on becoming a 360 brand for musicals and musical theater across the internet and beyond. Twitch has been our starting point. And full-length interactive narrative is one element of that.
Given the ambitious cross-pollination of genres coupled with a unique framework for interaction, what inspired your team to create this experience? How have you evolved the classic immersive, musical, and murder-mystery genres in order to create an integrated experience?
Essentially it was designed to help the production team attempt and overcome certain challenges we hadn’t tackled in previous streams/projects. Our writer Sara, designed the script around the production goals and then added her own flair to the proceedings to create something fun and engaging for the audience. We also just love musicals, murder-mysteries, and interactive/immersive theater in general. However, we have never used the word “immersive” to describe this show.
Other than Clue, are there any specific films, novels, musicals, games, or other experiences that influenced the creation, design, writing, or songs included here?
I would have to ask our writer Sara Beil for a list of all of her influences. However there are very clear Jumanji parallels. And there are TONS of musical theater references – Chicago, Wicked, Hamilton, Cats, various Disney shows, to name a few.
With Clue fitting within the dark-comedy realm, will this show be lighter in tone or still maintain a murderous and killer time? What themes should guests expect when experiencing this performance?
Our natural demographic for Pixel Playhouse includes a lot of younger audiences, so we aim to be a (mostly) family-friendly channel. Definitely Not Clue follows that brand and has a lighthearted, earnest, comedic tone. We had a lot of talks about finding the appropriate line and were careful to avoid becoming too dark or “edgy” (where a lot of us prefer to be in our live theatrical work). There is no actual violence and no one is actually “murdered.” This is a very fun, escapist work. If we did a live immersive Clue-inspired show it would be a VERY different production, with a VERY different tone and approach.
Will audiences be able to interact or participate in any scenes or is it more of a spectator performance? Will they have the agency to influence the narrative through group decisions or choices?
Most of our team has produced a number of immersive, interactive, and non-traditional works so we do understand the distinction. However, the collective audience absolutely has a degree of agency on the outcome! We are unable to put a limit on our maximum audience on Twitch so we had to create a show that would work for virtually any audience size. There will be moments where audiences can directly chat with characters on screen, as well as characters in chat. There will be visual puzzles and artifacts for the audience to interact with. And the show has a branching narrative, so audience polls make a big difference on the outcome. The characters are definitely aware they are being watched on Twitch and that plays into the plot.
Why did you pick Twitch as the remote platform to use for Definitely Not Clue? Do you find any special benefits/features that you can accomplish using Twitch that you might not be able to accomplish with Zoom or other remote platforms? Do you feel like there are features you would not have been able to accomplish in person that this remote medium allows you to create?
It’s probably the other way around. We already had the Twitch platform and were looking for projects that would maximize its functionality. Clue was designed to further our experiments with production tools for remote, digital storytelling on Twitch. We wanted to see if we could execute a remote full-length musical, we wanted to use green screens, we wanted to push the limits of audience engagement a bit more (without limiting their ability to focus on the show) by throwing in things like puzzles, we wanted to explore branching narratives, and we wanted to create a show that had value watching multiple times live instead of simply watching a VOD replay.
Our first full-length remote digital show (a staging of The Importance of Being Earnest back in April) incorporated things like audience polls, in-chat characters, and clickable artifacts, however those mostly served as punchlines and world-building as opposed to actively affecting the story. This show was specifically written and designed for the Twitch medium as opposed to adapting an existing work written for stage.
I do believe Twitch is the best platform for live digital performing arts in most cases. The actors actually are on Zoom, however, and we then pull their individual feeds into a program called OBS (where we’ve built about 400 cues) which we then broadcast to Twitch. In the broadest sense, think of Zoom as the stage and Twitch as the theater. In my opinion, producers really shouldn’t be using Zoom as a medium for digital theater unless they want small, direct face-to-face interaction with their audience.
Without spoiling anything about the show, there are very obviously things that would be impossible to do onstage with the actors or on other digital platforms with the same interactivity. The show was designed specifically for Twitch, not adapted from an existing stage work or designed for digital streaming in general.
Given the choice to perform in a remote, chat-based format, how does this experience uniquely provide intimacy, personalization, and connection to the audience? How do you plan to engage audience members and make your experience approachable and memorable?
We’ll do things like featuring audience comments for the actors to respond to, give audiences documents they can explore on their own, and create scenarios for audiences to work together to collectively affect the outcome. We also have a lot of our production team and our moderators from around the globe who chat with the audience (in character or otherwise) throughout the show. But it’s very hard to individually engage hundreds of audience members in 100 minutes with just 7 actors. I think one of the coolest elements of Twitch is the connection audiences are able to create with each other.
One of the biggest benefits of Twitch (and live streaming in general) is that your live audience is global and there is no cost of admission besides owning a computer. It brings live theatrical arts to people all over the world that would never have a way to experience/discover live performing arts otherwise due to geographical and financial restrictions.
During our Earnest stream, for example, one of our audience members was a teenager from rural New Zealand who had never seen a straight play before and was actively in conversation with audience members from Singapore, the Netherlands, and Michigan in chat, and all four were discussing how the show was relevant from their unique cultural perspectives. It was an absolutely incredible and powerful thing to experience as a producer! And honestly, that cultural exchange happens pretty regularly even during our regular cabaret programming.
I’ve called out a number of more traditional theatrical producers who complain that you can’t build the same kind of vibrant community and connection online as in person. I would argue that in many ways you create a much more diverse and vibrant community with digital performing arts.
With a strong cast – such as StarKid veteran Jaime Lyn Beatty (Wood Boy Dog Fish), Harrison Meloeny and Trent Mills (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Matthew Scott Montgomery, and so many more – will the actors be in the same place or will they be all remote interacting over Twitch? What other opportunities and limitations were presented to the actors via remote storytelling and needing to work in the small space in front of their camera?
The entire show is presented remotely and physically distanced. Every performer and technician is working from their own living room or studio. The show is run from 12 remote studios (7 actors, stage manager, sound engineer, stream engineer, live piano underscoring, and chat engineer). We provided every performer with studio equipment, all necessary props and costumes, and even upgraded some of their internet speeds. The rehearsal process was done over about 3.5 weeks entirely on Zoom. The team is phenomenal from top to bottom, and everyone has thrown all of their energy and patience into making this great.
The commute time is obviously pretty solid. But there are a lot of challenges to producing remotely. Here are a few:
LATENCY. We’re a musical theater channel. You can’t do musical theater when everyone is a quarter second off of each other on Zoom. Next time you’re on a Zoom call try singing Happy Birthday with everyone-it sounds very, very bad! We’ve figured out how to do live solos with a single vocalist and a single musician, but group numbers are still impossible and/or restrictively difficult and expensive. For Clue’s group numbers we recorded video of each actor’s performance individually with a click track playing on their headphones and our editors layered the video with vocals on top of each other and added the final instrumental track in post. Live underscoring and sound effects work great though.
Remote-style theater is exhausting on the actors and crew. I kind of call the remote-style of performance the worst of theater and film from the actor’s perspective. Because you have to work five times as hard to get the same energy exchange from your fellow performers during scenes and you don’t have the advantage of taking breaks between takes and getting your energy back up and knowing that the final product is going to look incredible 6 months from now like in film. On top of that, actors have to be actively involved in the tech process as the on-site technician.
Our lighting, camera, sound designers, stage managers, and directors are absolutely incredible but they have to individually check and adjust 8 different studios and computers remotely and troubleshoot them before and during every show. Here’s a short list of just SOME of the things we have to do before every show: sound check every performer, test no fewer than four different programs necessary for streaming on every actor’s computer, check every studio’s computer settings to make sure nothing was accidentally changed between performances, color correct 7 cameras for the current lighting, adjust the latency for each individual internet connection (to avoid audio and video being out of sync), check props/costumes (we’ve had a few pets “borrow” some props so we now have the actors take a picture of their props table/costume rack and send to the stage manager before each performance to make sure nothing’s missing, haha). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This community is filled with astute people always looking for a puzzle, especially one designed by Stashhouse’s Tommy Honton; can you speak more to the puzzles the audience will experience during the show and what occurs if the puzzle is or is not solved? How complex are the puzzles?
The main considerations for designing the puzzles for the show is that they had to be variable depending on who the “killer” is each night and we didn’t want the puzzles to pull the audience’s focus from the show for too much time. And we really wanted to make sure each puzzle had a narrative/world-building element. I think we all agreed to be conservative with our degree of difficulty and the collective chat has been able to solve the puzzles relatively easily each night. It will be fun to design a show around pushing the audience’s puzzling limits in the future, but that’s not the focus of this show – it’s on the performances.
While the show is free, there is an optional add-on of a cocktail kit to create two cocktails to enhance the show. What inspired your partnership with Spirit Guides and how does it enhance the show?
Spirit Guides has been working with our sister company After Hours Theatre Company for several years and the owners are close friends. We inspired them to start creating Twitch streams of cocktail classes over quarantine and they’ve since been hired by several companies (such as Fever) to develop their own streams around the conceit. One of the owners has always wanted to build a show around Clue and so I knew he would be excited by the opportunity to help us out with this project. It’s a great way to build out the universe and bring some of the show into your home, and it also allows us to bring in a small amount of income on an otherwise free-to-watch show.
What advice do you have for creators who are looking to diversify their creative mediums or tap into the remote platform of digital theater? What was the biggest lesson learned from this project?
1. Digital theater and remote digital theater can be a lot more than a single layout of Zoom squares. There are really incredible tools available to you!
2. Approach digital production with the same time, energy, and intensity that you would a live show. It drives me crazy when people judge Zoom readings with 0-2 rehearsals against their former fully produced live shows. Of course a Zoom reading that had no rehearsal, no production, and no money is not as satisfying as a show you spent 12 months on in pre-production, 6 weeks on in rehearsal, and cost $150,000. But if you put thought, time, and money into digital theater, I guarantee you’ll have a much more satisfying experience!
3. Theater and digital performing arts are different (as are different streaming platforms)! Make sure to consider the medium you are creating for and how the audience can interact with it! Audiences watch digital content in a very different way than live shows and you have distinctly different tools available to you. I’d strongly advise figuring out how to regularly engage directly with your audience in a way native to the platform (in a manner that doesn’t break the world/flow of the show, of course).
4. I know a lot of theater creators are overwhelmed by digital theater and are not sure how to begin approaching it. A lot of companies have chosen to simply stop doing work and justified it as a choice stemming from “artistic integrity.” I think that’s bullsh*t! The truth is that this virus will likely continue to affect the industry in some form for years. And while theater as an art form will undoubtedly survive, I think we as producers have a responsibility to our community to keep our writers/directors/designers/performers/crew employed as best as we can. If we lose all of our best young theater artists to other industries because they can’t support themselves financially, what kind of community will we come back to? And how can we ask these people to come back to work for us when we didn’t help them? So force yourself out of your comfort zone and maybe you’ll create something new and awesome!
What do you want people to walk away from your experience with? What do you want them to feel or learn?
First and foremost, we want to give people a fun way to spend two hours and we want them to have a shared experience with a large audience that they probably haven’t had for a few months. We also want creators to feel inspired that remote content can be more than just a glorified Zoom reading or cheap knockoff of live performance if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.