Director // Computer Scientist
Live Performance Technology

The Norm is Monstrous

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents… And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?… To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.” - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

For many audience members attempting to define what qualifies an experience as theatrical often boils down to Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Broadway productions with multi-million dollar budgets can fail to illicit any emotional response while a one man show at a desk like Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia can enthrall audiences. But how many “theatrical” elements (lighting, costumes, a stage) can be stripped from a production before it loses its essential theatricality?

The Norm is Monstrous explored this question by using smart phones and automated installations to escape traditional theatrical restrictions. There is no curtain, no live performers, no box office, seats or program notes - only an audience member, an Android app and the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

The app guided audience member between 3 installations, each a stage of the piece, using a compass-like interface. This imprecise guide forced audience members to problem solve their way around obstacles and travel to offshoots of campus they might not venture to otherwise. Upon arriving at the installation’s viewing location, the viewer was prompted to start the next stage of the experience. Each stage consisted of an automated lighting installation controlled by a server that was listening for messages from the application; each stage’s lights were designed to synchronize with a monologue that played over the viewer’s smartphone speaker.

Through the use of pre-recorded audio, a smartphone app and server controlled installations The Norm is Monstrous was able to create an experience which maintained many of the experiential differences that separate live performance from movies/television/podcasts while stripping away traditional theatrical artifices.

The norm is monstrous was installed across Carnegie Mellon University’s campus April 25th - March 6th 2016. It was supported in part by the Frank-Ratchye Fund for Art @ the Frontier.