Friday, June 17, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles Part 3 - "The Day Shall Declare It"

On Friday of my Los Angeles trip, I went to see Wilderness's immersive theatre production "The Day Shall Declare It." I'd heard many, many, many positive reviews and recommendations of this show and my expectations were fairly high. I'd also bought the "Tennessee" ticket, which was billed as only for the adventurous (whatever that means - to go see any immersive theatre you have to be a LITTLE adventurous). Because I'd heard my friend Mike's podcast reviewing the show before I got on a plane (he co-hosts My Haunt Life with Russell Eaton) I knew that I'd basically "bought" a one-on-one. I'm perfectly fine with that.

My first thought upon entering the space was - do all immersive shows have to take place in the same time period? Are we just able to source props/sets/costumes quickly and easily, and create those environments more readily than others? Maybe I'm being unfair, I just felt like I'd walked straight into "Sleep No More: Depression Era." The space where this show is performed is REALLY small, and you walk right through it when you first enter - and walk all the way to the bar at the back, where you can spend time mingling and drinking, and, if you bought the Tennessee, eventually being approached by a guy saying that you're the one he's been looking for. Five years since I saw my first immersive theatre and I still get ridiculously anxious and panicky at this, and I think I just turned to my friends and said "oh crap, gotta go." The man came over, put his arm around me, took my drink and set it down, and led me back to the front of the building.
"The Day Shall Declare It" - photo: Maurice Moore
I won't go into details of what happened then, but I did have a private scene with one of the actors in which I was given a token. I will say that mine took place inside a bathtub, and I was wearing heels, so I hope I didn't grip the actor's hands and wrists too tightly when he helped me step in and out. I was absolutely convinced I was going to fall. Also, don't wear heels to immersive theatre.

Once the play itself begins, the audience is moved along from location to location, and actors perform scenes or pieces of scenes from different plays. The first one I recognized, because it was one of the first plays I designed in San Francisco back in 2002 - "Moony's Kid Don't Cry." Personally, what I had been expecting in this show was that instead of watching the heat, desperation, sensuality, violence, passion of a Tennessee Williams play from 20-30' back from the proscenium, I would be in the room with them, and that's exactly what I got. The "interaction" with the audience was pretty much made up of them occasionally addressing lines to us, occasionally touching or caressing, and occasionally moving us out of the way. This is not a play to see for the interaction or the one-on-one attention - see it in order to experience the intensity of Tennessee Williams, six inches from your face.

The first scene and last scene were stunning - I wish the ones in the middle had been as compelling. I wish I had understood why one scene in particular was there at all. It wasn't until after the play that I saw the program notes about the play exploring issues of labor and work. Did it? I'm not sure. I was seeing other things.

For a tiny, tiny space, they used it INCREDIBLY well. The audience was contained in different quarters of it at any given moment, and others were masked off with pieces of scenery, sheets, or fabric, allowing scene changes to occur behind them. Set design was beautiful, intricate - lighting was so simple and I actually spent some time just looking at the lights themselves to see what they were using.

The physical contact and intimacy though, had me thinking. It was gentle and non-intrusive, and I thought very cleverly used to move people from place to place while still making them feel as though an intimate connection had been made. In some areas of life we have developed a sort of culture where touching another person isn't ok, and I understand to an extent. We've also named a whole host of things that might make a person uncomfortable or upset as things that can't be done. Yet, immersive theatre constantly asks us to do them anyway. At my second "Sleep No More" performance, I remember Hecate turning around and grabbing me by the throat (whether she actually DID this or not, I have no idea - that is how I remembered it at the time, but it's an intense situation, and I fully admit I might be adding more drama to it than there was). I remember having the thought "this is ok for me, but for some it's not...I wonder if she is aware when it's not?" Physical contact from strangers always makes me a bit uncomfortable, but it's part of the package with these experiences. That's not to say that everyone who is deeply upset by someone grabbing their throat should rethink that, but I wonder what we would see if we really interrogated the things we think "trigger" us on that level. We would probably see that we're able to handle much more than we think.

I push through this every time I'm faced with any kind of immersive or interactive theatre or experience. At Day Shall Declare, I was horribly uncomfortable, having this private interaction that was pretty damn intimate. If someone is going to be that close to me, or speak into my ear like that, they'd better be filling specific roles in my life or they are more likely to get punched. But I push through that because I can, because I'm stronger than that, because I don't want my own fears and anxieties to prevent me from experiencing art.

And art - a lot of really, really good art - asks us to risk. Since I spent time with Josh Meyer this weekend I was also thinking about "Biography of Physical Sensations," which, my god, I think would have to come with ALL the "trigger warnings" in the entire universe if we did it today. Anytime I hear about a piece of theatre or experience that gets intimate or "extreme," I wonder how it compares to the weirdness of THAT. Certain smells still take me right back to it, and suddenly Matt Hislope is setting my foot on fire all over again. I don't know how many people the show upset but what I do remember is the unexpected sense of community that formed because every audience was going through this experience TOGETHER. It wasn't something endured alone. Sure, not everyone had the same level of intensity of experience, but just watching each other go through them really created a bond within each audience that was remarkable.

For me, the first time that I really pushed through the absolute terror of "audience interaction" was at my first "Sleep No More" visit, and the experience was transcendent.

Obviously, sometimes we risk too much for too little. Sometimes it isn't worth it. Sometimes, people are assholes, or exploitative. Sometimes the art is real bad. But we don't get to know ahead of time which experiences are the awful ones and which are the transcendent. And most of them won't be either - most of them will probably be "just ok." I want to be in a place where the chance of the transcendent experience is worth the possibility of the worst - or the likelihood of the mundane.

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