Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole.

My artistic world was altered forever when I first saw Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" back in 2011.  I fell in love with the show, with the idea of experiential/immersive/gamified theater and have been following the show's online fan community ever since.  And it was through this community that I first heard of Third Rail Project's immersive production "Then She Fell."  Since I currently don't live near NYC, and getting tickets to this show can be difficult due to a limited number of audience members allowed at each performance, I wasn't sure that I would have the opportunity to experience it.

Last week I spent a couple of days in NYC binging on theater, and finally was able to see "Then She Fell."

It's better than "Sleep No More."

I credit this difference largely to the intimacy of "Then She Fell."  With only 15 audience members allowed at each performance, I was greeted personally at the door and led from moment to moment in the piece by different characters.  There were moments in which I was asked questions, and was given the impression that my answers had an effect on the narrative I was experiencing.  I had conversations, alone and under the stairs, with characters.  I left behind painted roses and messages in bottles that seemed to become parts of the set for future audiences to explore.

It's a dizzying experience.  I was afraid that without the freedom to go wherever I wanted it would feel too much like a conventional theater piece, but that thought never once entered into my head beyond the first or second scene.  Right from the start, I was given food and drink - almost all of the drink was alcoholic.  I was given a set of keys with absolutely no explanation for their purpose, but soon found that they unlocked different doors and boxes within the room.  And while I was at first led to watch my first scene (a beautiful encounter between Alice Liddel and Lewis Carrol, in which they danced up and down and through the railing on a set of stairs) with a group of three other people, including the person I had come to see the show with, that group was split up slowly through the first half of the show in a way that was barely noticeable.  I was so swept up in being moved from place to place, in watching the environment around me and wondering what was coming next in this bizarre dream that I failed to notice when my companion just wasn't behind me anymore.  And that moment?  Was kind of huge.  I turned, he was gone, and I was alone.

I spent most of the second half of the show alone, actually.  The only other people I encountered were the performers - I never once saw any of the 14 other people with whom I had begun the evening.  I can only assume that they were each experiencing something similar, and the choreography it must have taken to move 15 people through a relatively small space like that, giving each the sense that she was in her own dream world, by herself, must have been insanely complex.  Each character I encountered paid me special attention, talked to me, fed me, asked me to help them with tasks.  I ended up finishing in the same room in which we started the evening together, with a doctor showing me step by step the moves of a chess game.  She left me alone for a minute, with a cup of tea, and the next thing I knew the other audience members were wandering back in.  The dream was over.

Two aspects of the design of this experience have fascinated me and made me consider other ways they could be used.  The first was the set of keys I was given at the beginning.  I wish I had actually attempted to use these beyond the very first room I was in - I never used one of my keys at all, the fact is that I was too swept up in the rest of what was going on to seek out what they might unlock.  But the idea of giving a set of keys to your audience members and letting them unlock the secrets of the show and their own experiences - I wonder how far this could be carried?  Could the set of keys craft a unique path and experience for each person - you can only go through a door into a room if you can unlock it yourself?

The second was the food and drink, specifically the alcohol.  I doubt it ever really could be done for a public audience, but inducing an altered state in them before or during a show could become part of the experience, especially in something as dreamlike as this.  They never gave us enough alcohol for this to happen, but I could imagine ways in which that first cocktail I was given - the "elixir" - might affect how I perceived the rest of the show.  I've often thought that John Fowles's The Magus might make an excellent immersive theater experience, because it essentially IS that for its main character - however he does undergo some serious mind-altering experiences before and during his story.  To what extent would an audience be willing and able to do this?

I'm also thinking a lot about the responsibility of the audience at "Then She Fell" to discover the narrative for themselves.  Yesterday I read this article about the trend towards immersive theater that "Sleep No More" has created.  The piece annoyed me. The writer says " impressive as Sleep No More is as a piece of installation art, any glimpses of coherent drama (or Macbeth) are few and random."  This assumes that the audience is supposed to be spoon-fed the story in order for it to be "coherent," and what "Sleep No More" and "Then She Fell" do is leave it up to the audience to discover the story.  It's there.  But as an audience member, you're given an amount of responsibility over your own experience.  Within the set of "Then She Fell," you will find letters, articles, stories, photographs that contribute to the narrative.  If I hadn't stopped and examined these, read them carefully, I might not have "gotten" it - that isn't the same as the narrative not being coherent.  It's just as valid a theater-going experience as my viewing of "Waiting for Godot" was two nights later.  And as far as "Sleep No More" goes (I saw it the following evening, my third time, and am still in thrall to Hecate), there is an amazingly complex story going on that simply cannot be taken in on one viewing.  My sense of "Then She Fell" is that I do not need to see it a second time in order to grasp what was going on (I could be very wrong on this and am absolutely willing to go again!).  However, I know from conversations with others who have been to "Sleep No More" that after three viewings I still have not experienced the entire story, and I LOVE this.  I love that there's an ongoing mystery to be uncovered within the space of that piece of art, and that very few people (maybe not even the ones who have been dozens of times) have the full picture. 

I am considering a trip with one of my best friends later this year to London, specifically to see "The Drowned Man."  The only real risk in that is that the show itself is much larger than "Sleep No More," and probably more complex, and also much more difficult to attend more than once (what with it being in a different country).  I will have to be content with whatever I discover within my one experience of the show (and the many, many dreams it will induce afterwards).

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