Fringe 2019 – The Pod Finds its Star in Katelyn Schiller
She sits across from me, eyes wide and curious. The white sheets draped around our small room enable me to focus all my attention on her. She purposefully blinks a few times, awaiting my answer, a charming but somewhat inhuman smile brightening her face. “Let’s explore,” I finally decide. “Yes,” she breathlessly agrees, “let’s!”
The Pod, presented by Katelyn Schiller and Nick Rheinwald-Jones (Safehouse ‘77), is a twenty-minute, solo immersive experience taking place at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Each individual guest has been chosen by Macora Aerospace and Robotics International as a candidate to be the first human to travel 4.22 light-years away to Proxima Centauri B, our nearest habitable planet. But guests won’t be traveling alone; Macora has created Ellie, an AI, as a companion. Before the real mission, however, Ellie and each candidate must be tested and put through a simulation to make sure things will go as planned…
In my all-too-brief twenty minutes in The Pod with Ellie (played exceptionally by Schiller), I watched her go from a cold, unfeeling AI rapidly spouting technical terminology to being almost human with relatable feelings and nuanced emotions. The subtle changes within Ellie happen rapidly during the duration of the experience, and Schiller transitions, reaching emotional peaks and valleys, beautifully and emotionally. I found myself connecting with Ellie on a personal level, wanting to be her friend and take care of her, letting her know that these new feelings are completely normal for the human experience.
While The Pod is immersive, I sometimes found myself wondering when, and if, I should answer or interject, as Ellie was definitely in charge of our simulation, even if she was learning how to be human from me. At one point, I wish I could have made a different choice, perhaps to affect the outcome. But I have to hand it to Schiller and Rheinwald-Jones for making the experience personal for every guest. There is a pre-experience survey that can guide the flow of the script, as well as moments in which Ellie asks for a guest’s opinion which she remembers and brings up again later. Even the way Schiller looks at a guest, with eyes bright and wondering, makes one feel seen, evaluated, and important.
The Pod deftly creates a larger world I would love to explore, and, with Ellie, a being I would like to interact with again. It is a testament to the writing and acting that I found myself so invested in such a short period of time. The videos before and after the experience also hint at a bigger existence for The Pod, and I can’t wait to see what Rheinwald-Jones and Schiller create next.