Five Questions With Pittsburgh CLO’s Mark Fleischer

The CLO Cabaret reopens with The Twenty-Sided Tavern, a theatrical experience that is both web-based and in-person 

By Sharon Eberson

“Come to the cabaret” takes on a new meaning for both the CLO Cabaret and its audiences in a world-premiere adventure. 

As theaters began to reopen last year, CLO presented the Kara Spotlight Series at the Greer in November and December, showcasing individual Pittsburgh-based musical theater artists. The Twenty-Sided Tavern marks CLO’s first full production in the Cultural District since The Book of Merman closed on March 8, 2020. 

Tavern invites the audience to participate in an interactive experience at the intersection of gaming, technology, improv, and theater.

Alex Abney, David Andrew Greener Laws and Sarah Davis Reynolds, in “The Twenty-Sided Tavern,” premiering April 15 at CLO Cabaret. (Pittsburgh CLO)

“We’re in an audience at the cabaret, then we are in a tavern, and from the tavern, we are transported to the world of the show, which is so cool,” said CLO Executive Producer Mark Fleischer. A gamemaster (a la Dungeons & Dragons) and a cast of improvisational actors take your cues. “You choose the characters, the paths they take, and the journey’s outcome, all from the comfort of your seat.” 

“We are all in on it together as we react. We also are working with Culinaire, the Trust caterer, to make sure there are drinks and food [dragon bites] that align with the experience.”

Pittsburgh CLO could have played it safe for a comeback, reopening with a musical that fits snuggly into the Greer Cabaret at Theater Square. But anything goes once you’ve played the biggest venue in Pittsburgh – mounting two shows in Heinz Field last summer.

“I’ve always loved, when the Cabaret is at its best, it’s a complete experience, where the whole experience is that room. It’s not just having the lights turned out on you for 2 ½ hours,” Fleischer said.

He mentions shows First Date and Xanadu, where the configuration of tables and sets moved the action into the audience. Many CLO shows have included audience participation, but The Twenty-Sided Tavern is the next level. Fleischer is co-producer with David Carpenter, an off-Broadway, and Broadway producer, with experience in multiplatform content development. Carpenter hopes that the current cast and tech are bound for other destinations after Pittsburgh. Carpenter also is the executive producer of Puffs, which is coming to the CLO Cabaret from June 10-July 31.

Here’s more with Mark Fleischer about what to expect at the tavern …

Question 1: How did you decide to go all-in on such an adventurous show?

Fleischer: When they were doing the workshop in New York, I sent Billy Mason [actor, singer, and CLO production liaison] to experience it. He doesn’t know anything about D&D, and he came back and said it was a great time. 

Question 2: Now you are reopening with a world premiere based on the technology working. Have you had tryouts? I mean, what could go wrong?

Fleischer: We did a workshop in a grocery store basement in New York, which was literally with a laptop and people playing it. There was no tech, no production values. So this is the first full production. … You know, it’s web-based, and we worked with the Cultural Trust and our IT department to make sure the WiFi is there, and we have charging stations in the lobby, so if someone needs to make sure their phone is boosted, it’s there. … I’m excited to have it in this town. It’s a town of technology; it’s a town of culture. Now we’re going to combine those.

Question 3: How is the experience different for every audience member and for the whole audience at each performance?

Fleischer: What makes it unique is that it’s not just about the whole audience following the same journey. Everyone picks different characters. So there could be three people at your table, all following a different character. You don’t all vote at the same time, and there are even moments where they ask one person to make a decision for the whole group. It’s not just surveys, contests, and trivia. We’ve added this huge video component with projection all around you, so if, for example, the audience votes, “Go to a mountaintop,” the mountaintop shows up. And if they vote, “It’s noon,” so now it turns to daylight”… The audience is really controlling it, and every performance will be completely different.

Question 4: How much control do the gamemaster and the actors have? They have to be directing it toward some sort of ending within a certain time frame.

Fleischer: There is a gamemaster watching the answers, but there is still a lot of chance. It is in some ways like those role-playing games are, moving to a conclusion. The cast is improv artists based as opposed to straight-ahead actors. The gamemaster is driving the story and saying, “Now we are going to do this.” So they are responding to whatever the dice roll is or whatever the audience votes for. They know the basic characters, although the audience helps pick the characters for them. Then they react, which is what actors do anyway. So it’s comedy, improv, role-playing … It’s; let’s put as many things in the pot as we can and stir it up.

Pittsburgh CLO Executive Producer Mark Flesicher, far right, leads a panel at the 2018 Spark Festival of new musicals. (photo by Sharon Eberson)

Question 5: Speaking of audience interaction, whatever happened to the crowd-sourced Google Doc musical that became “Jagoff: The Musical?”

Fleischer: You can access it online, but we’ve never done anything with it. I’m really trying to get our new musical festival, Spark, back next spring. That would be a fun thing to put into Spark. New works are the last thing we thought we’d be bringing back. Although here we are, doing a world premiere. But Spark is definitely on my mind for a ’23 comeback.

The Twenty-Side Tavern is at the Greer Cabaret, Downtown, April 15-30. For tickets and info, visit pittsburghclo.org or call 412-456-6666.

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