CINCINNATI—Some of this generation’s most-watched television programs—”Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “True Blood”—share this important trait: Episodes only make sense if you’ve watched those that came before.
Andrew Hungerford, the new artistic director at Cincinnati’s Know Theatre, in Over-The-Rhine, believes the same can work on stage. He’s testing his theory this summer with “Serials.”
Six new plays, all by Cincinnati playwrights, will roll out simultaneously over six mini-episodes, beginning Monday, June 23, at Know Theatre. Every evening—all of them are Mondays—each story sees roughly 15 minutes of stage time, culminating in series finales for each series on Monday, Sept. 8.
“People fall so much in love with these TV shows, these serialized dramas, and they become this big topic of conversation in ways theater isn’t,” Hungerford said. “Audiences get to spend time with characters week after week, whereas in traditional theater you don’t get that. At the same time, we’ve got so many great local writers and theater artists who are searching for other outlets for original work.”
Five of the six “Serials” shows are authored by men and are, to varying degrees, comedies. The sixth is an improvised comedy:
- “Flesh Descending,” by Chris Wesselman, is based on people in a small Kentucky town who, in 1876, swore that meat rained from the sky. Wesselman is drawing on “Twin Peaks” and “True Detective” in a show hoping to inject with psychological thrills.
- With “Fetus and The God,” playwright Ben Dudley hypothesizes that every fetus, before birth, is allowed to meet God and ask five questions. This series focuses on one rogue fetus.
- Playwright Try Tatum drew “Mars vs. the Atom” from an actual oddity, in January 1961, when a B-52 bomber broke apart over North Carolina and dropped two bombs. The series promises the mystery and vibe of “The X-Files.”
- Inspired by song lyrics, playwright Jon Kovach has set “The Funeral” entirely in the bedroom of a young man hiding away from his grandmother’s funeral happening downstairs.
- “The Listener,” by Mike Hall, focuses on one “listener” for the National Security Agency in the style of “crime procedurals and noir cinema with a twist of ‘Police Squad,’” Hungerford said.
- OTRimprov is producing a series styled after high school dramas.
Hungerford set a few playwrighting parameters: Among them, the casting can’t change during the season, each episode after the opening pilot must include a short prequel to catch people up on what they might have missed the previous week and there needs to be a mid-season cliffhanger, of sorts, to inspire audiences to return after the month-long break until the fourth episode. Also, storylines and character arcs must be flexible enough to respond to audience feedback.
“It made it more like a Sudoku puzzle than this uber-creative thing,” said Trey Tatum, whose wife, Bridget Leak, directs “Mars vs. The Atom ” and most of Tatum’s other works. (Click here to watch a video trailer for "Mars vs. The Atom) .
“Having a new set of rules to work by has made it a lot easier to work in this format,” he said. “The smaller the box is, the easier it is to be creative within the box.”
“There’s two arcs that need to be hit in a serials format—telling a complete story in 15 minutes but an even bigger story in 90 minutes, and they’re equally important,” said Jon Kovach, the playwright of “The Funeral.”
“One of the reasons the show ‘Arrested Development’ failed on TV, at first, is because it was premised on an audience that saw previous episodes, and that’s why it worked on Netflix,” he said. “Hopefully people will see that build-up with Luke (the central character of ‘The Funeral’), that he’s grown from episode one to six.”
“Fetus and the God” grew out of a daily comic Ben Dudley first produced online four years ago, and it’s only his second stab at writing a play, coming on the heels of his well-received “Where Edward Went” at the 2014 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.
On paper, some might wonder how Dudley can hold an audience’s interest over six episodes that focus almost entirely on a conversation between God and one fetus. But Dudley sees the format of “Serials” as ideal both for him, as the playwright, and the audience.
“I feel like we’re able to take more risks with this format, as opposed to (people) sitting and stewing in their seats for 90 minutes over a play they don’t like,” he said. “Here, it’s just 15 minutes, and we’re just one of six plays. It’s kinda' like Fringe—if you don’t like this one, you’ll probably like the next one.”
Hungerford drew the concept for “Serials” from the only two American theaters he knows of regularly staging serialized works. One of them, Sacred Fools, in Los Angeles, has
grown its series into an elimination competition based upon audience votes. The other theater is The Flea, in New York City.
“One of the things we’re really interested in is being a playground for local artists and audiences, and it’s one of our missions to give people the chance to do things they can’t do elsewhere,” Hungerford said. “One thing I’m hopeful will result is, after the sixth episode, we’ll have six full-length plays that are pretty cool that, with a little tweaking, can have lives in other places.”
The greatest unknown is whether audiences—which can’t simply click a remote whenever they wish to watch—will remain loyal enough to trek to Know Theatre for six Mondays and see the series through to the end. Also, despite the series’ experimental nature, tickets aren’t exactly cheap—$70 for the entire series or $15 per night. Producers will collectively split half the proceeds, and audiences can further boost artists by dropping money into tip jars for each show.
Following in the trend of the most devoted fans of assorted television programs, WCPO.com will tweet and post weekly updates of each series.
Hungerford is hoping for enough success to inspire women playwrights to propose projects for a return of “Serials” in the summer of 2015. No women submitted applications for the current run, Hungerford said.
“Having been around the Fringe for a number of years now, it’s clear there’s a vibrant community that wants to create things,” he said. “There’s so much great talent in Cincinnati, and I love having an opportunity to showcase that year round, not just in Fringe.”
IF YOU GO ...
What: "Serials"—six plays unfolding over six episodes.
Where: Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Cincinnati
When: 8 p.m. Mondays: June 23, July 7, July 21, Aug. 11, Aug. 25 and Sept. 8
Cost: $15 per night or $70 for the series.
Info: knowtheatre.com or (513) 300-5669.