Nick Kepley conceived the idea for his theatre company Motion Picture Show through, of all people, a chef. He was watching Netflix’s docu-series “Chef’s Table,” which profiles celebrated chefs around the world. One chef’s approach to creating his restaurant sparked inspiration: Chef Grant Achatz of now-defunct Alinea’s in Chicago applied one simple question to his process: “Why?” Everything was scrutinized, from the moment the customer walked in the door, to when they left satisfied. The question caused Kepley to examine rules and conventions of his professions. He has worked in theatre and dance for more than a decade and performed with many productions, such as “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, Ballet Austin and Kansas City Ballet.
“Particularly in the dance world, all of us always are questioning how we can make dance feel more relevant to people that tend to feel removed from it,” Kepley says. “[It] made me think about ways to make dance and theatre feel more immediately impactful.”
The solution Kepley found was to get people out of their seats and into the story. Motion Picture Show—which will perform “Real Life Test” in Wilmington this week—immerses audiences in a world of freedom and mystery. The only guide through the show is each individual’s curiosity and instinct, to make each audience member’s experience unique.
For “Real Life Test,” Kepley (director/choreographer) and his creative team—associate director/choreographer Melanie J. Comeau and scenic designer Elisabeth Svenningsen—used George Orwell’s “1984” as the backbone—an apt parallel to current social issues.
“We started working on the show almost a year ago,” Kepley says, “and it initially started with the idea of gender roles—questioning why we feel the need to define male and female, and how we raise our children to delineate the difference between male and female.”
As a native North Carolinian—born and raised in Asheville when it was still a “sleepy Southern town”—Kepley also was motivated by NC’s House Bill 2. The bill incensed many statewide and nationwide for its restrictions on bathroom usage by transgender people (among other threats to LGBTQIA rights). While ruminating on gender roles and workshopping with his team, Kepley happened to be playing ‘80s music, and realized the association between “1984” and modern social problems.
“I felt like the idea of a government that removes gender and changes relationships [we] have to gender could be really interesting,” he says. “At the time, the primaries were happening, and the election was coming up, but I didn’t realize how incredibly poignant it would become.”
Less than one week after President Trump’s inauguration, “1984” sold out on Amazon. The surge in sales was instigated by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” regarding the size of the inauguration’s crowd. Many drew parallels between Conway’s term and “doublethink,” a tactic used by the government in “1984” to twist the truth and control the masses.
“Real Life Test” does not strictly tell the story of “1984,” though. Taking inspiration from the book and the US social climate, “Real Life Test” offers a complex, experimental narrative told entirely through music, scenic design and physical movement. Beyond the story, the show seeks to fully envelop and engage its audience. “It’s very atmospheric,” Kepley says. “We really try to fully transport people, so it feels like [they’re] in a totally different world.”
The designs of the 25-plus rooms take influence from science-fiction movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s—decades which produced some of the most iconic sci-fi films in US history, “Blade Runner,” “Tron,” “Alien,” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy included. The soundtrack, which Kepley notes has consistently been an audience favorite, changes depending on the room or area in which it plays. It helps set the mood for different parts of the performance.
The specifics on what exactly lies in store for visitors, though, remain shrouded in secrecy. “I really try to keep as much excitement and mystery as I can because I think it’s more fun for people,” Kepley says. “The more you go in with an open mind, the better your experience is going to be.”
“Real Life Test” encourages the audience to experience the show in their own way—whether they follow certain performers, wander from room to room, or soak in the atmosphere of particular sections. The way the narrative is constructed, it’s almost impossible to absorb everything that happens, so there’s plenty to absorb.
The show also aims to initiate social commentary on moral and philosophical topics. Kepley wants to raise questions. How do we maintain a sense of humanity moving forward? Can we ever truly police our government and control its actions? Do our preconceived ideas of truth hold up under inspection?
“I’m just trying to get people thinking,” Kepley says. “We’re not shying away from [social issues]. It’s in the DNA of the show.”
“Real Life Test” will run March 1 through 5 at (true to the show’s immersive form) “Victory Mansions” (717 Market Street), a fictional apartment building that appears in “1984.” Tickets can be purchased at motionpictureshownyc.com. Advance tickets are encouraged; limited tickets available for each show.