Anyone who watched—err, played—the recent “Black Mirror” episode “Bandersnatch” became familiar with its “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style of TV-meets-video game. Participants are able to pick and choose the actions of the main character in the show, with choices affecting the plot’s progression and the characters’ outcomes. Once the show hit Netflix, mainstream media took to it like wildfire. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the episode and their unique outcomes.
After a few days, the Internet quickly mapped out the linear progression of choices, confirming the watchers didn’t have complete freedom, only the illusion of freedom. Such control and intimacy left the audience feeling ownership over the show.
Cory Howard aims to give audiences a similar experience, albeit live and in person. Campfireball is an interactive comedic experience that centers around the audience. Howard’s been touring from Dallas to Richmond, and will land in his former hometown of Wilmington to perform at UNCW’s Lumina Fest. With a special appearance from Dance-a-lorus (stemmed from Wilmington’s Cucalorus Festival) performing new pieces created for the festival, on July 28, Howard and the audience will navigate their way through a symbolic monster attack.
“It takes about 20 minutes for people to understand it’s not a joke and I’m not screwing with them,” Howard says. “Then they get into it and roll with the adventure that is ‘Campfireball.’”
What began in Howard’s backyard as a glorified open-mic has become a nationally touring event hosted by universities, companies and bigger and better backyards. Howard’s journey started at UNCW where he got his degree in film. He went on to create several feature films as the comedy duo Superkiiids! with Jonathan Guggenheim. The last project the duo made together was “Americatown” in 2010. When Howard moved to LA in 2011, he began taking improv classes and getting involved with the comedic scene. It was during this time he thought the performances he saw were too anticipatory and closed-off, which ultimately inspired him to go in the opposite direction.
“I want people to never know what is about to happen—you can only participate not anticipate,” Howard explains. “I want everyone to feel like they’re on equal footing. I don’t want anybody to feel like they are missing out on the experience.”
Taking this idea to heart, Howard found a way to blend intimacy and absurdity, bringing to life an ever-evolving experience completely built upon the audience and improvisation. “I don’t rehearse because I don’t want to over understand the show,” Howard says. “I want to go into the show and be a little bit afraid.”
Although, “Campfireball” is mostly improv, Howard does form a skeleton in his mind of themes and skits that may emerge. Still, the outcome is completely dependent on interaction. “We are either going to be devoured by monsters or survive; it’s up to the audience,” Howard notes.
Howard hopes to unlock a vulnerable experience for participants. Inspired by the 2015 election, a visceral monster attack was the best way for Howard to grapple with his feelings. It’s easier to be vulnerable when it’s seen through the lens of humor. Howard uses it to his advantage.
“I don’t want to be didactic,” he clarifies. “The election was my inception point, but an audience member’s hypothetical monster attack may be a divorce they’re going through or being uncertain about whether or not they are going to get into grad school. Hopefully, the show works on any level you bring to it.”
Howard does not shy away from any ridicule or hyperbole present. Past shows have included having virtual reality conversations with lost Mars’ rovers; audience members calling people in the middle of the show; and pretending everyone is deceased and going through orientation into the afterlife.
During that show, Howard does a comedy bit where he improvises how everyone in the audience has died. “It’s a dark idea, but people get such a big kick out of it, and then they’re willing to participate in a larger discussion about death and loss while sharing real stories,” Howard explains. “You’d think it would break this comedic bubble, but it’s like a big saute that goes well together. We take serious moments and sit in them, and then we move on to ‘training on how to be a ghost!’ It’s part of the same continuum.”
On that same note, Howard makes sure to share as much with the audience as the audience shares with him. Howard has been compared to comedian Chris Gethard, who uses comedy to explore his fears and anxieties. “I get very personal on stage,” Howard adds. “One time I reenacted my relationship with an ex-girlfriend where the audience played my ex, and we went through the whole thing together.”
Howard is inspired by alternative storytelling methods, much like in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” or as seen in art installations by Meow Wolf , a Santa Fe-based art company that transports participants into a fantasy realm. Both Mr. Rogers and Meow Wolf used made-up worlds to tackle serious issues. Mr. Rogers talked about death and assassination on his children’s show using puppets, and Meow Wolf uses art and wonder to deal with family dysfunction and trauma.
“Both Mr. Rogers and Meow Wolf do extraordinary things,” Howard iterates—“alternative approaches into a story. By the end of ‘Campfireball,’ I want the deeper meaning to reveal itself without needing guidelines or step-by-step instructions.”
“Campfireball” continues the collective experience and unique storytelling beyond the stage on social media, @campfireballer. “People can go on our Instagram, look at our thumbnails, comment and participate,” Howard explains.