Most shows start after the audience is seated and the curtain drawn. Not The Machine Starts, a performance put together by arts and architecture students as part of the Production, Installment, and Performance design studio led by Associate Professor of Architecture Michael Oatman and Associate Professor of Arts Shawn Lawson. Immediately upon arriving to one of the middle levels of Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, the audience was greeted by AIRSHIP attendants wearing white and teal and instructed to go over to the kiosk to have a photo taken. Before finally being allowed to take their seats, audience members watched as members of Ilium Parkour cartwheeled down from upper walkways and staircases of EMPAC. The whole show, the audience had been informed, was based on “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, a science fiction short story from the early 1900s.
AIRSHIP attendants guided the audience to their seats, welcoming them to the airship. Everyone sat down as instructed. This entry was staged almost like the beginning of a flight, complete with School of Architecture Dean Evan Douglas giving instructions on-screen about what to do in case of emergency or complaints. The video screen showed several other humorous but relevant clips. A woman (played by Science and Technology Studies graduate student Ellen Foster) talked about the Great Rebellion with much running and panting through what appeared to be some sort of hall or lit underground tunnel before being caught and taken away. Next, a fuzzy and static-filled lecture on Drosophila Melanogaster was given by Dr. Tim Lebetsky of Williams College Biology Department. The video techniques only added to the show.
It was soon quite clear that The Machine Starts was going to be even more interactive than one might have first thought. The AIRSHIP attendants, who were actually members of RPI’s The Rusty Pipes, sang some a capella about this future dystopian world the airship-goers were supposedly part of. Then, it was time to get up and move into a corridor next to the EMPAC theater.
Weirdly lit by red light, the corridor was a strange place. Besides other performers, a woman with a long braid and fur cap (played by Arts graduate student Helen Bullard) was screaming about the Machine. A video describing the Machine and someone’s attempt to destroy it was played. Because the outer surface of the Earth was too polluted, humans had to live underground in chambers. They would press buttons and the Machine would give them what they needed. Some people wanted to be free of the Machine, though.
The audience was guided out to the middle level of EMPAC and back into a room. In the center of the room, the Steward of the Machine (Joseph Daniele ’15) was lying on a bed of sorts. The bed was brightly lit, while the rest of the room was extremely dark. Audience members walked around, curious, as the walls began to light up.
The Steward of the Machine got up and loudly talked about the Machine, which appeared to be a bunch of metal bars—seemingly harmless, but apparently far from it. Faces from the photographs taken at the kiosk before the show rotated around the walls in 3D images. Then, members of Ilium Parkour began dancing around the Machine, attempting to destroy it. The Steward lay back down on his bed as alarms sounded, and a voice warned that the machine was impossible to destroy. The audience was told to flee the area and exit. This was the end of the show.
Sadly, if you missed the show, there are no more showings; all six performances took place last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Overall, though, it was a wonderful performance combining art, architecture, acting, parkour, lighting, sound, and interaction with the audience. It was all designed with a great deal of thought to keep the audience involved and make the experience very real and otherworldly.