Leave Earth Behind: “The Universe is a Small Hat”

César Alvarez brings his fully participatory electronic musical to NYC's Babycastles to examine the eternal problem of designing an ideal society


It’s not extraordinarily uncommon to dream of packing your belongings, jumping on a spaceship and leaving Earth far, far behind. Motives may differ, from a hope to escape a planet polluted by unpleasantries, to an insatiable desire for adventure, but they all have one thing in common: whatever this planet has is just not enough. So what if the option were actually available? What if, with all the research being conducted by Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Lunar X Prize, there was a viable system for leaving earth behind forever?

It’s within this realm that lyricist, composer and performer César Alvarez situates his new musical “The Universe is a Small Hat,” an immersive performance piece that imagines a group of colonists who have left a tumultuous world behind to start afresh on a distant planet. Currently housed in DIY-venue Babycastles in NYC, the piece has been workshopping (or “play testing”) for the last two years, working through the opportunities and challenges presented by creating a play that’s designed for total audience participation. Each audience member, now a space colonist, is assigned an occupation to act out during a collective mission to create a new, more rational civilization. Performers, musicians, visualizations and props are used to drive the plot forward through periods during which the audience can openly engage with each other and the world of the play.

The objective is no small feat, but neither is the idea of starting a new society. “Sometimes when I try to explain to a traditional theater what we are doing, you can sort of see their brain melt,” Alvarez tells CH. “We really couldn’t tell if it would ever turn into a functional experience,” he continues. “Can you create a game for 75 people that tells a story, is a musical, and where the players’ choices have a meaningful impact on their individual outcomes?”

Defying initial doubts, “The Universe is a Small Hat” has come alive, with a well-equipped crew of collaborators and a versatility that has allowed it to change shape and expand every time it is performed. Though Alvarez wrote both the music and dialogue for the piece, he notes that the multi-sensory elements that make the performance so unique come from a “large and ever-evolving group” of technologists and artists who have joined Alvarez’s mission. Beyond this, Alvarez notes that the audience truly takes an equal role in the play’s existence. “You can’t rehearse a game without players,” says Alvarez. “The beauty of the play’s test audience is that they are the pioneers of the piece. Player actions and new contingencies are incorporated in the piece after every show.”


It’s become a play that cannot be imagined without its audience, but this wasn’t always the case. “Originally ‘The Universe is a Small Hat’ was a regular book musical about two astronauts who are bored to the point of insanity,” Alvarez confesses. But the piece took a turn when Alvarez considered the difficulties of staging something that was ultimately science-fiction, thinking that “the future as a framed presentation is usually hokey.” Alvarez thought that by inviting the audience to play a part, the story could transcend the limitations of the theater and draw a total investment from the audience into the story.


Ultimately the idea exceeded expectation and has become a sort of philosophy for Alvarez as he continues to develop the show. “I think it’s a really important kind of theater to develop. It meets so many cultural needs right now. Most of us spend all day at computers, it is liberating to go to a show and use your body, step outside of yourself, and flex your imagination and social intelligence,” Alvarez explains. “I feel like we are making theater for a different kind of brain.”

He hopes that “The Universe is a Small Hat” audience will experience more than just an interesting piece of performance art, and take home some of the lessons they learn while collaborating on the idea of creating a new civilization. Quoting from the training manual he wrote for his performers, Alvarez says “Games allow us to express, physicalize, emote and interact in ways that our fears and the norms of society forbid. This piece is an opportunity to experiment with ourselves and the roles we play in relation to others. This piece is an opportunity to play with the building blocks of civilization and examine the eternal problem of designing an ideal society.”

The Universe is a Small Hat” will launch its next play test at Babycastles (137 W 14th Street, NYC) on 10 Nov 2014, with limited engagements through 9 January 2015. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Images courtesy of Joe Perez for Babycastles and Nora Merecicky for Berkeley Rep