Exit, Stage Left

Author's Note

This is a work of fiction. All the standard disclaimers apply: there is no nice-and-neat correlation between characters in Exit, Stage Left and real live (or real dead) people.

Exit, Stage Left is an attempt to create a play in hypertext. Originally, I thought of the format as a collection of scenes linked together into a web, but this didn't give the sense of progression needed by a time-based medium like theatre; ultimately, I decided that the play would not be performable on a conventional stage anyway, since the scene could change at any moment, and actors would not easily be informed of which links were selected. I settled on a format for which any individual actor's part is perfectly linear (for now, anyway; I may implement branching plots later), but the flow of the narrative is determined by the reader--he or she can opt to follow any character around (true to the spirit of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, every exit is an entrance someplace else), or wait in a particular room until something interesting happens. Additionally, one can look at the characters and their relationships to each other, in a style that is a blatant rip-off of Kroop and McConville's Cybersuds. I took most of my inspiration from the interactive fiction, or "text adventures" of Infocom, particularly their mysteries Moonmist and Deadline.

This multilinear--as opposed to non-linear--structure is in part a response to hypertext fictions like Afternoon which I found disorienting. The idea behind my structure is that the reader always knows where he or she is, who's who, and what's going on at the moment. No single reading of this will reveal everything that goes on, since the reader can't be in the study at the same time as he or she in the dining room (although one can cheat by using a browser with a "back" button).

I don't know that this play would work very well on stage, since 1) one would need a large house in which to perform it and 2) following a link would involve physically following a character around. This might get tiring after a while. I can see, however, an interface in which each scene is a film clip, and one selects in real-time which character to follow.

At the moment, only the first few scenes of the actual play have been written, though all of the supporting structure (character descriptions, room descriptions) are in place. The full plot, in short:

Act One: The guests arrive, mingle, and are invited in by James to dinner. As dinner begins, James explains the idea behind Exit, Stage Left: it's a murder mystery, but it's more performance art than theatre: every room in the house has been wired for sound pickup and will record the dialogue within it. Later, an audience will then move throughout the house listening in on the conversations of the old group, and will themselves be recorded. After explaining the "play" and putting up with the protests of his guests, dinner begins. Almost immediately, the lights go out, and a scream is heard, followed by quick footsteps. When the lights come back on, James is face down, moving, in his soup.

Act Two: James's "corpse" turns out to be a dummy with a note pinned to its back with a knife. The note informs the guests that James is all right, but to try and solve the "murder". James has a check for $1,000 for whoever can "apprehend" the killer; if the killer isn't found by sunrise, then he or she gets the check instead. The note also states that James has locked all of the guests in, and has the key in his possession. The guests engage in light-hearted interrogation and sleuthing, and eventually figure out the "killer". A little more sleuthing, however, unearths James's hideout. He's there, but not alive, and the check and--more importantly to the guests--the key are gone.

Act Three: The guests know that one of them has to be James's killer, and the mystery begins anew, but with the threat of being the next victim (or of being accused) hanging over their heads. Not much else can be said without revealing the solution.

Needless to say, this is going to be a lot of writing, and probably something I'll be working on over the next couple semesters or so. I hope to complete Act One over break, though; I've got FTP access from home, and can upload additional scenes as they're written.

Happy holidays,
Jeff Pack

December 18, 1996