If the Children’s Theatre’s latest production is generating a lot of buzz as theater professionals fly into the Twin Cities to see it, it’s not necessarily because of the title of the show, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

It’s because director Ryan Underbakke’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s science-fiction classic is a 45-minute jolt of nonstop, interactive adrenaline.

The production that premieres Friday in Minneapolis is a fully immersive work that throws the audience into the equivalent of a game console. Patrons, who are advised to wear comfortable running shoes, dash around the various offices and workspaces under the stage and in the theater’s basement that have been converted into playing spaces.

Caught in the middle of the story, theatergoers also duck for cover to escape attacks from the henchmen of Captain Nemo, who commands the sea-monster hunting submarine, the Nautilus. Patrons also help break into spaces and disable the vessel’s power supply. And, perhaps most important, audiences decide the ending of the story through a vote in which they choose between their stated principles and self-preservation. It’s all very active and very heady stuff, especially for a work pitched to preteens.

“When I was young, shows for kids always talked down to them, as if they couldn’t get it,” said Underbakke, an Ivey Award-winning creative wunderkind who grew up in southern Minnesota. “I didn’t want that for this show. Young people have brilliant minds and can comprehend nearly anything you throw at them.”

Pushing beyond boundaries

In the ever-expanding world of immersive and promenade-style theater, in which audiences move about as they follow the action, this production has the possibility of being a game-changer. Most immersive and promenade style shows are passive affairs, with audience members getting exercise as they move along with the action but still remaining spectators. “20,000 Leagues” is the opposite of that. The show is predicated on direct audience engagement.

The audience, in 25-member pods, is small for each performance of “20,000 Leagues.” They are enlisted in the production as low-ranked ensigns who are actively guided. The theater also is keen to make sure that patrons are comfortable and safe, even as they get a rush from the confined spaces where the show takes place.

For Underbakke and the Children’s Theatre, the show is the result of a collaboration that began five years ago, when theater officials first became smitten with the director’s work. Artistic director Peter Brosius saw Underbakke’s “The Happy Show,” a collection of whimsical, carefree vignettes staged for Live Action Set at Bedlam Theatre. A year later, Elissa Adams, the theater’s director of new play development, saw “7-Shot Symphony,” an inventive western directed and co-written by Underbakke, also for Live Action Set.

“When I first saw ‘The Happy Show,’ I was just arrested by his creativity and invention,” said Brosius. “Here was an imagination without limits.”

Adams had a similar reaction to “7-Shot,” which she found “extraordinary in terms of the theatricality, his writing skills and the precision of the performances in this world that he created from scratch. I got excited about him being a great director and a great writer.”

Theater officials invited Underbakke in for a meeting with a question that set him dreaming. What would you like to do?

“I said I want to make an action movie and a video game in the theater,” he said. “How do I get the audience to participate in the story, not be spectators? How do I set it up so every scene is like a shot in a film? Since the audience gets to look in any direction they want, what’s behind me? Ahead of me? How can I make it all be interesting simultaneously?”

Underbakke appreciates the rarity of the opportunity to create a show like “20,000 Leagues.”

“I’ve never been paid to do this work before,” he said. “I mean, to create it. It’s an unimaginable freedom and it’s a little scary, too.”

In the four years he has worked on the adaptation of the Verne classic, he cut the story down to its essence. As he’s led workshops with actors, including from the University of Minnesota, he’s made many discoveries along the way, especially about how to make this a guided, engaged experience.

“I call back to my youth, and the video games and action movies that kept my attention,” he said.

 

Loves a challenge

A self-described country boy, Underbakke grew up on Spruce Pine Farms just outside of Rochester (“We must be the only people down there not associated with the Mayo Clinic,” he said). He is the first member of his family to go to college, and even that was a stretch. Everyone expected him to tend to trees, but he was always different, a freethinker who questions authority. He found his place in theater, and, on the advice of a high school teacher, applied to and got accepted to the University of Minnesota, where he studied to be an actor.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, he went to Los Angeles to study and gain film stardom. That was not to be, so again on the advice of a teacher, he went to the London International School of Performing Arts, where he earned a master’s degree (and where his schoolmates included Isabel Nelson, also in “20,000 Leagues”).

“What I learned from all this schooling, from all these brilliant people, is that it’s up to you to figure out your play problems and your life problems,” he said.

“Give Ryan a problem and tell him that it can’t be solved and he’ll find a way,” said actor and theater educator Jane Froiland, Ryan’s University of Minnesota college mate who is cast as Nemo in the production. “The more difficult the challenge, the more excited he gets. And this show, when he first started telling people about it, some thought it was impossible to pull off. But Ryan loves to be told that he can’t do something.”

Underbakke, who devised the work with his cast, sees the story in complex terms. Nemo, both he and Froiland agree, has done terrible things. She is responsible for sinking other ships, and their passengers.

“She’s a killer, no doubt,” said Froiland.

But Nemo also is responsible for keeping the scary sea monster at bay. She protects the sleep of people. In that way, Nemo is like a horrible dictator like, say, Saddam Hussein, who does terrible things in order to keep worse things at bay.

“This is an incredibly timely and resonant story, with issues that are so of the moment,” said Underbakke. “And it’s generating a lot of really interesting discussions in families as they come to the show. Everyone makes up their own minds for themselves, and questions the various versions of events that they get. If that’s the only takeaway from this, I couldn’t be happier.”