As a friend and I waited in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle for Vinny DePonto’s solo Mindplay to begin, we swapped stories of our anxieties about audience participation — a skittishness occasioned by foreknowledge that the acclaimed mentalist enlists audience members in his act. It would not have taken a mind reader to pick up on our unease.
Pleasantly, the performance turned out to be a mystifying and moving experience, a stupefying exhibition of mental feats and magic alongside a touchingly relatable motif about the precarity of memory. (See DC Theater Arts’ review.) The teaser “How’d he do that?” kept looping in one’s brain. So too the question “Will I one day lose my mind?”
As chance would have it, two DC Theater Arts contributors were picked to play a part that night in Mindplay: reviewer Rebecca Calkin and TikTok correspondent Em @dctheatregoer. Post-show I ran into them both in the Arena lobby, and as we chatted it dawned on me that they had a fascinating first-person story to tell about what had just happened. I asked them if they’d be willing to talk for publication about their experiences, feelings, and perspectives, and to my delight they agreed. (This ensuing conversation on Zoom has been edited for length and clarity.)
John: Let’s go back to that exciting night after Mindplay. What was your experience being an audience participant?
Em: The idea of audience participation can be very intimidating if you don’t know exactly what the structure of it is going to be. In [Mindplay], the whole thing is kept under wraps, but not knowing the outcome can be anxiety-inducing. So when I first realized, Oh, I’m going to have to go up on stage, I was not prepared to make my Arena Stage debut! But it happened and it was a wonderful experience. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be.
Rebecca: I agree. When I’m faced with shows with audience participation, I often am thinking, Don’t let it be me. Don’t let it be me. But as this show progressed, there was something interesting and exciting about the way [Vinny DePonto] engaged people, so I thought, I don’t want it to be me, but if it’s me, it’s OK.
You could tell this by his interactions with previous audience participants?
Rebecca: Yeah. I felt like he was taking care of people, and when I was called up, I felt that as well. I appreciated that he mentioned early in the show that he wasn’t out to make anyone look stupid or embarrassed. He wanted it to be a good experience, and I very much felt that being on stage with him. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be, being up there, because he did a good job at making people feel at ease and comfortable.
Em: Rebecca articulated it very well. I was one of the earlier people to go up, and the first person really showed the care that Vinny had making adjustments on the fly — like, Oh, you are more comfortable keeping your hat on instead of taking it off in this moment. Do whatever is best for you. It was emphasized to me that it was not meant to be embarrassing at all, and that was definitely the case.
You called him Vinny, like you’re on a first-name basis.
Em: Yeah, I said, I’m Em. He said, Vinny. We shook hands. There was a whole introduction moment.
What do you tell your friends about what happened in the show?
Rebecca: As soon as I got home, I relayed the entire thing to my husband, blow by blow, because I was still grappling with “How did he do it?” The experience was nice and calm, but I was racking my brain. I was also just accepting it was cool. If I don’t figure it out, it’s fine. I had a good time. And I’ve told other people how fun of an experience it is, and if they’re worried about audience participation, it is not a worrisome audience participation. It fits with the show in a way that feels like you’re cared for.
Em: I have told folks that audience participation is the magic of the show. There’s some great storytelling that happens throughout, and it is a creative piece, but it is those interactions with audience members where something is revealed and it’s like, wow. And it’s not a scary experience. The Kogod only seats 200 max, and there’s maybe 15 or so people that go up. So your percentage chance is not tiny, but it’s not super high.
There’s a lot of magic in the show, but there’s a theme that runs through it about the mind and memory, and I’m curious to know if the show changed how you think about your own mind and memory.
Rebecca: I was familiar with some of the concepts that he brings up in the show — and that rang very true to me, the way memories are distorted. We often think we have a much clearer picture of things than what actually happened. The interplay of the way that the audience memories and moments were brought up in relation to that thread in the story was really interesting and something I have been thinking about.
Em: While I was sitting in the theater, I was thinking a lot about the whole mental health aspect of it, because that’s something that I and a lot of my friends struggle with. The ways that anxiety can control our minds is something that stuck out to me — in addition to everything related to dementia and the way things change over time and the way our memories hold and adjust, and we see them differently as time moves on. Something can be really scary in one moment but when we look back, maybe it isn’t as scary as we thought it was, or it’s even scarier. I didn’t ever feel he approached it in a way that was scary. The mind can be a scary place. That’s not what the focus was. It’s a beautiful place and it’s a playground that we have, so let’s explore it.
Rebecca Calkin (she/her) is the Director of Marketing for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC, overseeing the Marketing, Communications/PR, and Audience Services arms of the Tony Award-winning theater. She previously served as Assistant Director of Communications for “America’s finest orchestra,” The Cleveland Orchestra. Prior to the Orchestra, Rebecca held marketing and communications roles with YWCA Greater Cleveland and ArtsWave, and administrative and production roles with Shawnee Summer Theatre, Wayside Theatre, and Playhouse on the Square. She obtained a Master of Public Administration degree from Kent State University in Ohio and a BA in Theatre from Wake Forest University in her home state of North Carolina. Outside of work, Rebecca serves as a mentor for fellow first-generation college students through College Now, is an avid video and tabletop gamer, attends and writes about theater across the DMV, and enjoys spending time with her family and two cats.
Em @dctheatregoer (she/her) is an avid theatergoer who fell into the world of theatertok by just trying to share more about what theaters in the DC area were producing, eventually finding her way to working with DC Theater Arts. She is not a reviewer; her work instead focuses on bringing the audience along for the journey of attending a show in the DC region and highlighting specific aspects of productions through visual content. When not taking you along to shows, Em works in theater education in the DC and Baltimore regions where she uses her actor’s tool of imagination to pretend social media doesn’t exist. Make sure you check out her work on the DC Theater Arts TikTok!
Mindplay plays through March 3, 2024, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.).
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.
The program for Mindplay is online here.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.
Arena Stage reveals ‘Mindplay,’ a surprise addition to 2023/24 season (news story, November 19, 2023)