Here For The Party? A Response to Second Unit
Second Unit is the live What We Do In The Shadows spinoff that takes audiences into a chaotic, vampiric film shoot. Binge Culture’s Ralph Upton sinks his teeth in. Warning: contains some itty bitty spoilers.
I was an extra once. My memories of that day are happy ones: huddling in our trench as enemy shells exploded nearby, clambering ‘over the top’ with my bayonet fixed, lying dead in the mud. I got permission to make believe in a grown-up context, and enjoyed being in the thick of things as the pros made everything happen around me. It’s fun to be a dwarf or a soldier for the day without the stress of trying to be a proper actor.
Second Unit is fun too, in the same way. It’s an immersive experience themed as a film set run by vampires. We, the pre-deceased, are invited in as extras for the evening’s shoot. Before and after our big scene, we’re free to wander around set, meet members of the undead community, join crowd scenes, or just explore, drinks in hand.
The show fills the whole of Circa Theatre, on Wellington’s waterfront: auditorium spaces, backstage, front of house, some of the area outside. The corridors and stairways are crowded, mostly with people in their 20s, some in homemade costumes. Performers – and there seem to be dozens of them – move among the throng, each with a job to do. Video screens display real-time feeds of spaces we haven’t seen yet, making the environment feel large, live, and connected. As we arrive at the central stage, the crew are dealing with a minor issue – zombie bite, apparently. It’s not enough to disrupt the crowd scene happening in front of the green screen.
Gifting us with the role of extras is the first, crucial thing that Second Unit does right. It’s a simple ask that doesn’t require a lot of imaginative effort on our part. It establishes a crystal-clear relationship between us and the performers. Like the flatting dynamic in What We Do in the Shadows, it’s a familiar frame for the weird and supernatural.
As an extra, it feels only right to be plunged into strange and novel situations without preamble (there’s that protest scene, and something with bats, and a short-lived but exhilarating situation involving parked cars and a shipping container). Being a supernumerary is a job, not an identity, so there’s almost none of that awkward meta-anxiety you can sometimes feel in immersive shows, as actors try to convince you that you are someone and somewhere you’re not. We’re just here to help with the gig; we don’t have to believe entirely to participate fully. That’s a great engine for a show. All around me I see people embracing their task and giving it all their energy.
Also, extras don’t have to know the full story they’re participating in. They jump in and out as needed. I’m pretty hazy about what’s going on in the film we’re making – and with my phone in a sealed bag, there’s no googling the Shadows plot for clues.
It’s challenging to tell a story in this format, where the audience comes and goes throughout the night, and can wander at will. Our briefing focuses on how to behave in the space, rather than introducing the narrative. From what I gather over the next hour, we’re re-enacting events that had happened after Shadows, under the creative control of a character who felt maligned by their portrayal in the original ‘documentary’.
If Second Unit were a traditional theatre show, I might want more clarity about what’s going on from moment to moment. But I’m not sure it matters. What we’re all really here for is not the story but the story world. We want to delve into and feel part of this weird, offbeat place where the mundane meets the magical and werewolves are called Nathan.
It’s a playful mish-mash of realities: in one room, production drawings for the set of Shadows sit alongside posters for the film we’re making; then there is a whiteboard with what looks like Second Unit’s production to-do list; down the hall, a looping video shows the Shadows characters years before the movie. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be found in picking through these details, whether or not their being here strictly makes sense. The show doesn’t take the idea of its own immersiveness too seriously, and that’s part of what makes it feel so accessible.
It’s a universally acknowledged truth that people hate audience interaction, but what’s going on here is more in the style of a theme park than an improv show.
Indeed, at every stage of the journey – from bag check to bar orders – Second Unit succeeds in making us feel comfortable in the space. It’s a universally acknowledged truth that people hate audience interaction, but what’s going on here is more in the style of a theme park than an improv show.
We engage on our own terms, we’re never singled out, and we’re always pretty much anonymous. There’s a ‘leave me alone’ gesture that I don’t need to use, but appreciate knowing. Plus, a drink in the hand (alcoholic or otherwise) is a surefire way to trigger my ‘this is a party, we’re not just milling around’ behavioural mode. It’s a little social shield in a strange environment.
The promise of a fully explorable world is a big one to live up to, and I do run into a couple of bumps early on. In the wardrobe department, I get some mixed messages about whether costumes are actually on offer (they aren’t). Outside the audition room, forms are not available to be filled out right now, and it isn’t clear to me if the auditions will actually happen. Small dead-ends like this make me a little hesitant to ask any more questions.
At the bathroom, a poster illustrates that ‘all identities are welcome’: male, female and vampire. Outside the auditions, a decaying man bemoans the fact that zombie roles are still, in 2019, going to the living. I’m unsure if these moments are meant as straightforward analogies for the diversity of Wellington in 2019 (apparently the undead have been ‘outed’ since Shadows), or if I’m being prompted to explore a deeper message. During the core crowd scenes there’s generalised talk of unity and inclusiveness, but the semi-improvised text isn’t easy to follow. If these themes are intended as being core to the show, they never become personal to me; despite my agency in the show, I don’t feel involved in them.
Whereas Shadows nailed the dynamics of flatting in New Zealand, there aren’t many moments where Second Unit really feels like a film set. One moment of specificity that does ring very true for me happens early in my visit. I’m in the wardrobe room chatting with the costume lady. She sees someone leaving to go to set behind me, and calls to them reprovingly: “Your shirt’s hanging out the back, dear.” I recognise that character from theatre wardrobe departments; that’s just how she’d talk to chorus members who don’t know how to dress themselves. I also appreciate the way that performer feels present and responsive to the audience in that moment.
I get a similar vibe from the bubbly but time-pressured make-up artist, one of the few performers who takes a chance on being a little bit mean to me. “Get out of my sight!” he says laughingly when he’s done doing my foundation.
There are lots of stories about vampires and werewolves, but it’s the characters – kind-hearted immortal deadbeats who can’t quite get it together – that set the Shadows universe apart from the rest. With so much sound and music throughout the building in Second Unit, though, there isn’t a lot of space for this kind of deadpan character-based humour. In some cases, non-amplified performers are difficult to hear as they deliver instructions in full voice.
But in many ways, this is a party first and a piece of theatre second. In the mainstage area, the stream of instructions from the AD sounds more like a hype-man’s revving of a crowd than an industry professional managing a crew. This high-energy approach may be a reliable way of keeping the crowd onside, especially while the show is finding its feet, but I do find myself wishing for more of the specific communication styles and rhythms you find on a film set – a sense that these undead slackers are really trying to make a movie, even amongst all the chaos. Perhaps that’s the cost of Second Unit’s party – part of what makes this world unique is drowned out by the noise.
But it’s a fine party. Now that the filming has wrapped, the audience is dancing. It’s an experience we’ll remember, even without our phones to take pictures of it. Strangers have built a whole world, and invited us in to play. And I recommend the raspberry vodka slushy. It tastes of red.
Second Unit is on Thursday 13 June – Sunday 30 June at Circa Theatre.
Photos: Jeff McEwan at Capture Studios