Action/Adventure’s long trip to Mars

The company's newest episodic "TV theater" comedy takes flight. It's out of the this world.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Today, Action/Adventure Theatre premieres Mars One: The Voyage Begins, the first installment of four-week serial comedy Mars One. But this is far from the first stop on Mars One‘s journey. Creator Nick Fenster, who reportedly spent about two years developing the concept, previewed the show this spring during Action/Adventure’s “Pilot Season,” where it beat three other prospective shows in a bid for further development. ArtsWatch’s own A.L. Adams was one of many gracious losers, acting in rival show Clubland. Much of the following text is re-edited from an earlier account of that experience.


Mars One runs for a few weeks, then it’s over ’til next year. Each week, there’s a new episode that quickly recaps what happened the week before, and then romps along for about an hour, culminating in a cliffhanger “to be continued.” Does this sound like theater…or TV?


“We thought we were doing something so unique,” says Vivien Lyon, remembering Action/Adventure’s first series,  Fall of the House. She helped devise the format, which fused TV-style “episodes” with live theater, back in 2007. “Turns out, theaters all over the country were doing the same thing.” Be that as it may, even several years in, serial theater’s still comparatively rare in Portland—and Action/Adventure seems to have cornered the market. When it’s not running one consistent scripted play for a whole month, A/A routinely puts on serial shows, rolling out a new “episode” each week for four to six weeks and—partly for excitement, partly for expedience—letting actors improvise their dialogue around fixed plot points. Sidekicks, one such four-week superhero comedy, debuted last spring and is currently slated for a second season, and Fall of the Band ended last fall after two popular seasons, six episodes apiece.

Over time, A/A has refined its loosey-goosey exploration of a “new” form into a foolproof routine, adapting the most helpful aspects of serial TV to the live environment. Episodes begin by playing a sitcom-style “intro,” a pre-filmed montage set to cheesy theme music that shows each performer in action and runs corresponding credits. Next, there’s the plot recap, where, lined up in a row, actors blurt out a hyper-condensed version of their prior dialogue, so new viewers can jump in and catch up immediately. Finally, it’s time for a play that, just like a TV show, completes a micro-plot-arc within an hour but cliffhangs some aspect of a macro-plot for next time. A/A has blended the TV and theater media into such a fine frappé, it’s like…”Tee-Vee-ater.”

Action/Adventure's event picture for Pilot Season not-so-subtly suggests that old-fashioned TV is dead.

Action/Adventure’s event picture for Pilot Season not-so-subtly suggests that old-fashioned TV is dead.

Kill your TV; go see theater

This might be an idea that’s found its time and place. The antipathy toward “mainstream” TV runs deep here—just ask newcomers who try to chat up locals about network shows, only to get the Portlandia-satirized blank stare. ‘Round here, we either don’t watch TV, or don’t prefer to admit it. The TV Industrial Complex opposes classic values of free thinking and DIY, hence the battle cry of “Kill your TV” is a pet PDX cliché. Each summer (aka Free-box season) TV carcasses litter corners and walkways, and roll over sideways, sinking into the yard-weeds. There’s disdain and mistrust for the idiot box, and an ongoing search for alternatives—even beyond its heir-apparent, Netflix.

Cross that television angst with a post-peak local music scene, a growing comedy contingent, and the rise of film and video industries right here in town that have begun—and, ahem, if they’re wise, will continue—sourcing more writing and acting talent locally, and you have a perfect climate for TV theater to put down grassroots. Choosing pop theater over TV is the cultural equivalent of shopping at the farmers market instead of the supermarket: you’re rejecting processed, mass-produced fare and giving your money to local artisans who grow their stuff communally and organically.

Pilot Season: Not just for network execs

By its 2013-14 season, A/A’s serials had already seen a lot of success and built a fair bit of momentum, so they knew they want to do a new one in 2015. But what theme should they tackle next? Which of the company’s many available associates and players should be in the show, and what sort of story would appeal to next season’s patrons—er—viewers? To find out, A/A decided to borrow one more trick from television: “Pilot Season.”

For the uninitiated (if there are any) a TV pilot episode is the premiere show for a potential series that otherwise has yet to be made. It’s what aspiring show creators “pitch” to TV networks and producers to show them how good a whole show of the same style would be. It differs from a workshop performance in theater in that, rather than showing the whole show, it establishes the premise and first plot points of a story that is expected to continue. On stage or screen, a good pilot episode introduces series characters (hopefully but not always with the actors who will play them), establishes dramatic tension and/or demonstrates comedic chops, and shows off the best artistic assets the series will offer, from novel camera work to a cool soundtrack. If a pilot wows a studio and wins a bid, it’s on! It’ll be bankrolled and broadcast. But if not…the subsequent series will never see the light of the small screen.

For the month of April, while “airing” Sidekicks, Action/Adventure lent its later-night time slot to four live “pilots,” with the same goal as a TV pilot season: to survey possible shows, and select one for production. And Nick Fenster’s Mars One prevailed, by audience vote, over Devon Wade Granmo’s Do The D.A.N.C.E., Greta Pauley West and Gregory Heaton’s Outlaw’s Embrace, and Vivien Lyon’s Clubland. The competition was exceptionally friendly, since all four devisors were A/A insiders. Actors watched and complimented each others’ shows, and some even hedged their bets by appearing in more than one pilot. But ultimately, the audience chose the possibilities of colonizing Mars to D.A.N.C.E.‘s booty-bumpin’, Outlaw‘s kidnap drama, or Clubland‘s comedy of hipster manners.

A playwright writes, a devisor advises

It seems like there are two main ways to rehearse a devised show. One is using improv as a means to an end, freestyling initially with the intention of eventually solidifying an original script. In the other approach, improvisation never ends, and the dialogue’s quite different every performance. According to Vivien, Fall of the House was very mutable, following the second model—but ever since, despite not writing it out, A/A has locked down more of its dialogue, resulting in faster, smoother, but overall less spontaneous shows. Even when parts have been practiced enough to fall into a rhythm, the lack of script leaves them at least a little modular. Actors may brainstorm a set of great possible lines in the writing phase, then interchange them for a slightly different effect in each show.

Life on Mars

Mars One the play takes its name and premise from Mars One the theoretical real-life space mission, speculating about the challenges Mars’ first six Earthling colonists would face. The following preview demonstrates some initial difficulties: boredom, limited food supply, and difficulty getting along.


A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


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