Immersive works that explore the mind, mental health and relationships are highlighted. Using different formats to deal with psychological themes, these participatory works put viewers at the center of intimate issues.
Adelman: I think people are excited
about immersive theater right now
because they want to be part of these stories.
I love documentary theater being immersive.
You're using the words that were actually said,
and so because I think it's so important to tell history
and find a way to connect people with history,
I think those two worlds just go really well together.
Petre: Immersive theater feels, in a way,
as, like, a civic activity
where, like, you are a part of a group,
and it's really a unique, special thing
that hopefully, you can take something away from that
and bring that into your real life.
Schechter: You really are a part of this story.
There was one particular audience that got so invested,
one of them screamed, "This is a setup!"
And they were looking for evidence
just as a reporter would.
Chlapecka: A quality of an immersive show is the ability
to look into the magic circle,
poke the web, play in the world,
exit the magic circle,
and sort of reflect on those things that you experience.
It's exciting to sort of see
how that could not only exist,
but be transformative.
[ Eerie music plays ]
[ Woman screaming ]
Szekely: "Nellie and the Women of Blackwell"
is an immersive guided experience,
and it's actually a documentary theater play.
So it's actual documents, in this case,
"10 Days in a Madhouse,"
which was penned by Nellie Bly in 1887,
and we take the audience in there
and let them experience what she did, from what she ate,
how she slept, the patients that she met,
and eventually, how she got out.
Adelman: Nellie Bly is trying to make her mark
in the journalism world,
and she had the idea that she wanted to report
about what was happening at Blackwell's lunatic asylum.
And so she went to her editor and said, "I want to do a story.
I'm going to go undercover,
and I'm going to legally get myself admitted.
And I'm going to see what's actually happening there."
And he said, "Great. I don't know how I'm gonna get you out,"
because there's no way to send any message at all,
"so good luck to you, and I hope you find things."
Let's see -- reasons for admission,
1864 to 1887.
Immoral life, imprisonment, jealousy and religion, laziness,
marriage of son, masturbation and syphilis.
Adelman: And then she ends up in the lunatic asylum,
where she says, "I'm going to act sane.
I'm going to see what they do,"
and it's about her journey seeing the other women there,
because about 80% of the women who were there were sane.
And as she went there, she found that out,
but in those conditions, the women gradually start
to lose their mind or they get sick.
Wake up, lazy bones!
Schechter: Investigative journalism,
the kind that Nellie was doing,
this reporter work, was going in and living it,
not just viewing it as a spectator,
so it makes perfect sense to me
that this story could only be told
by having an audience go immerse in the experience
and understand it as Nellie did
because she wasn't a spectator, and neither are you.
The audience starts off with Nellie
as she enters into the editor's room
and what it's like for a woman,
because women were not allowed in the editor's room ever,
to kind of go and confront that and pitch her story
and kind of be negated from the beginning.
And then once you're in the asylum,
the nurses take over, and then Nellie loses control
and the audience is really at the mercy of their whims.
And sometimes, that doesn't make any sense,
and sometimes, it's unfair.
I said be gen-- What did you say?
What are you looking at?
Perhaps you want to join her.
[ Coughs ]
That's what I thought.
That tough skin of yours made nearly impossible to clean.
Schechter: The audience is treated
as patients in the lunatic asylum,
and it's designed in such a way that the audience
can really appreciate what it takes to do that
and really empathize with the women in this asylum
who didn't belong there and, you know, kind of get
that sense of advocacy that Nellie had.
And, you know, it's a question of how will they react
and what will you do if you were in that situation?
Come on over. Uh...
Hello? Is -- Is someone in there?
Schechter: We happened to end up
with a cast of of all women,
and then that also became just the more decisive choice
because we're telling the story of the women
in Blackwell's lunatic asylum,
and the men were really ancillary to that experience.
And yet they have so much power,
even though their physical presence isn't here
and the women whoare here, flesh and blood,
feel so powerless, even though they're right there.
[ Pounding on door ]
[ Breathing heavily ]
I heard about these women.
These women are considered to be
the most violent on the island.
Szekely: So I started off just what she did in her life
over the course of her life
because even if you write something as a journalist
of how you're feeling, and I read
"10 Days in a Madhouse" multiple times,
it's a composed thing.
So I really looked at what her actions were in her life
so I kind of got a better understanding
of what her character was, and then with every audience,
it's different because I'm talking to people,
different people every single night.
And their reactions inspire new reactions
and new discoveries in me, as well.
You make the bed.
On the scale!
Schechter: The best part about doing this kind of work
is seeing the reactions of your audience
and then preparing the actors for the variety of responses
that can happen with various audience members.
You know, there are just so many factors that you don't think of
when you're in a traditional proscenium-style theater,
so it was definitely a great challenge.
But I was really excited about the possibility
of having that audience be another character in the play
and figure out a way
to make the movement seamless into this space
and be embedded in the storytelling
so it's not like, "Okay, this scene is over,
and now we're moving to another scene."
We built it to be a platform
so that you can plug in as many different cartridges,
and every time you play the cartridge,
you can get a totally different experience.
That's sort of how we explain to people
why our space exists and what capacity exists to.
This is my first immersive piece that I wrote,
and I came in thinking about the space.
And I've done a lot of environmental theater,
and so I did come in thinking,
"Okay, how can -- you know, how can I use all the spaces?"
One of the reasons why we gravitated very specifically
to "Women of Blackwell"
was most immersive pieces out there are fictional.
For a while, we've been thinking of the medium.
How can we expand that medium
to tell a broader story or a story about people
that have no voice in the atmosphere?
All of the changes we proposed were to be made.
And the article, well...
[ Newspaper rustles ]
See for yourself.
"Inside the Madhouse.
How the city's unfortunate wards are fed and treated."
Schechter: I think it's one of the first
immersive theater experiences on a true event.
A lot of them are fictionalized, and that comes with great power
and a great responsibility to tell the story authentically
and not just have this be like a haunted house
or just have cool effects for the sake of it.
And it reflects on real experiences
that are happening today.
You know, this story might have happened
in the late 1800s,
but the way we treat mental health
and the way we treat outsiders has not changed enough.
And there's still a long way to go.
One of the things I really struggle with
is how do you get someone to understand a story
that they've never experienced?
How you do that is you have them walk in that person's shoes,
and if you immerse them in the world,
it's a great way, hopefully, for them to get at least
a little bit of an understanding of a story
that did not happen to them.
This way, they come in
and they actually are put into the situation
so they can say, "You know what?
That reminds me of something I went through
in this period of my life."
As a result of my visit to the asylum,
the city of New York has appropriated
a million dollars more for the care of the insane.
Schechter: At the end, you know, there's this advocacy piece,
which is, "What did you see?
You know, what do you do and how do you fight for what you saw?
How do you speak up for those who can't speak for themselves?"
Adelman: We're living in a time
where there's a lot more activism happening,
and I think when there is more activism,
people want their voices a part of it, as well.
So they don't want to just sit back and see it
and then say, "Thank you very much."
They want to go through it themselves
and they want to be able to have some agency throughout it,
and I think that's what immersive theater does.
It gives you a chance to bring your own voice,
your own wants and needs to it,
and I think that's kind of the time we're living in right now.
Chlapecka: In Linked Dance Theatre,
we specialize in site-specific
and immersive dance-theater work.
The focus around is sort of every day,
I think that we like to call our work impressionalistic
and a little bit less film noir
than a lot of the other dance-theater work you see.
Slack: We were doing proscenium work,
mainly telling stories through dance.
Our first two pieces
were completely proscenium dance pieces,
but then it was around 2015 where we started
to really sort of delve into the more site-specific
and then eventually, the fully immersive.
"Remembrance" is a project that sort of came about
as we were looking at applying for a space
on Governors Island.
They have these beautiful homes
that they open up for artist residences,
and we wanted to tackle a different issue.
And Alzheimer's is something that's super personal.
My grandmother has Alzheimer's, and struggling sort of
with the realities that are going to come to pass
in the very near future with Alzheimer's
and struggling with the sort of relationship
that I was sort of losing with my grandmother,
her being in Arkansas and me being in New York.
It sort of came about as a topic
that we really wanted to tackle,
and it's also personal for Kendra, as well.
Yeah, my grandfather struggled with dementia
later on in his life,
and many of our company members, as well,
had family members with dementia and Alzheimer's.
So it was something
that we all had sort of personal experience with
and felt it was important to communicate.
I think the immersive form specifically,
it has a unique opportunity
in the way that it really puts people inside a story.
I think it helps people to understand topics
on a more visceral level,
so that's really what we were wanting to do,
was not only to sort of put people
inside the mind of this woman, Margaret,
but also to be able to interact with her
to really try and understand her life
on multiple levels.
I have to do this.
I think you're being unreasonable.
Slack: The ultimate concept ended up being
that this house, Margaret's house,
that you came to
to help celebrate her 60th birthday,
it ultimately ended up representing her mind and --
And all of the rooms
and sort of nooks and crannies inside of her mind.
And you actually got to walk around in her mind,
and opening different doors
would lead you into different parts of her memory.
We were trying to give people a sense of this woman
as a whole person,
not just as a person with Alzheimer's,
but also to ask that question of what happens
when you can no longer remember your memories.
Are you still you?
When you're crafting an immersive piece,
I think there are some big questions
you always have to ask yourself.
The first one is, like,
why is this meant to be immersive in the first place?
But for us, another really important thing,
because we are so committed
to using movement in our storytelling
is what purpose does the dance serve?
Are we just putting dance in there
because we're dancers and we like dance?
Or is it actually contributing something to the story?
We want to make sure that
that movement has weight to it,
so in this show, in particular, movement --
any time she was, like, dancing or moving,
she was actually forgetting.
Yeah, it was the process of the memory degrading,
is what we wanted to express through the movement.
Because you were in Margaret's mind,
part of the entrance and exit
was the reality that Margaret would eventually forget you,
so when you were let out of the experience,
you were told, "We're sorry, Margaret has forgotten you.
We hope you won't forget her."
So you sort of came to the realization
that you were in her mind
and now she no longer knows who you are.
And that, to me, I think really hit home is that, like,
there's a time in which every sort of person
who has Alzheimer's forgets a face or a name
and can't remember you, and that, I think,
is like a weight that you sort of realize
and sort of carry after the show.
I think immersive have something a little bit more
in how it can be transformative for someone
because they were actually able to be in it
and to experience it themselves
in an embodied way where you really can't
if you're just sort of sitting in a theater seat.
There's a level of agency that gives
and creates this liminal space for this audience member
to, like, feel the texture of the world
beyond that which is, like, reality,
so it's sort of like
there's something that's a little bit extra.
And I think that friction
between, like, what we know is real
and, like, what is sort of proposed in an immersive show
is actually what creates that transformative message,
sort of creates that space for an audience member
to sort of transcend reality for a moment
and then sort of come back down
and then transition back into reality.
Something that we always talk about
is what it means to be human
and the sort of making sure
that our work always sort of resonates
on a very human level
so that when people walk away, we want to make sure
that they feel a resonance in who they are
because I think that especially, I think, during these times,
we're sort of questioning
who we are as humans on this planet
and what we can do to sort of either
help someone understand the world a little bit better
or to help someone cope with something
that they're struggling with.
And I think that our work
sort of transcends the whimsical sometimes
and really digs into what it means to be human
and our flaws
and all the things that make us beautiful.
Hello, hello, hello, welcome to
"A Cocktail Party Social Experiment"!
[ Cheers and applause ]
See you guys in a few minutes.
So, "A Cocktail Party Social Experiment"
is a weird hybrid of a lot of different things
that have come from different parts of my life.
It's a mix of immersive theater, a story slam, game night,
and sort of, like, boozy voyeurism
kind of all wrapped up into one thing.
Some wonderful willing participants
put their name in this here bucket,
and I will choose the guests, but one at a time.
And the rest of us for the next 75 minutes or so
will have the pleasure
of watching this experiment unfold.
I'm an actor by trade.
Starting in like 2012, 2013,
I started doing a lot more immersive theater,
so I always sort of grew up in that atmosphere.
And then when I was acting,
I always had a bar or restaurant job.
I worked on "Queen of the Night."
That was my first big immersive theater show,
and I was tasked with doing a lot of like cocktail
or bartending one-on-ones.
And I created this one little three-minute thing
where I would make a cocktail for a stranger,
and they would tell me a secret.
And by far, it was my favorite part of the evening.
When I left that show, I went back to my restaurant job,
and I realized that those two things were not so dissimilar.
Dmitry will then ask the guest of honor
the question on that page.
When we turn the sand timer over,
the round has begun.
What is it about a cocktail or a drink that facilitates,
like, the sharing of secrets of this kind of intimacy?
Bartenders are always sort of like secret keepers,
so I started to think about how to create a cocktail experience
that sort of felt somewhere in between
going to a regular bar but not quite theatrical,
like it's putting a little bit of a container around it.
What is a recent teachable moment you've experienced?
You can try as hard as you like with someone,
and it's pretty much their decision to make
as far as how far they will go with you.
And being up there, you feel like a little bit
of this hotseat kind of feeling, especially not knowing
what question you're going to be asked.
There's no, like, preparation, but afterward,
if you allow yourself to go there,
then you just you realize how easy it was.
In a lot of ways, kind of like a therapist.
Like, release your demons, and --
or at least I was able to.
I felt really good about it.
Petre: It's built for participants and voyeurs alike.
I think there are some people who only want to participate
and not be a voyeur,
and there are people who only want to be a voyeur.
For people who want to be voyeurs
and kind of watch this thing unfold,
I think sort of watching these eight strangers
navigating around each other with these rules
but really, this is an opportunity
to, like, get to know each other, in my opinion,
in a more meaningful way.
For a voyeur coming into this space,
someone who wants to watch,
I think they can very much be hooked
by the storytelling aspect of the evening,
and it's great cocktails and great music.
And I think, even though the randomness
at which people are chosen to participate,
they're going to be bringing their own energy.
I still think the structure
and the structure the evening holds for them.
Someone else came up to me afterwards,
after the after the experiment tonight, and said,
"Well, someone in the audience was sort of yelling
and adding things to that.
Was that part of the show?"
And I was sort of like, "It happened, so sure."
You know, like we're playing this game and you're watching,
but if someone is shouting
but adding to the conversation, I don't think that's something
that should be shut down.
It never happened before,
but if someone's shouting like, you know, "You suck," you know,
then maybe I'll be like, "Sir, you know,
this is not your party.
You can go to a different party."
But, yeah, it's a part of the fabric,
so part of this evening was, you know,
someone shouting their thoughts about X, Y, and Z.
Great. Great. Thank you for coming.
This girl who was my best friend for many, many years,
and we got into this weird fight.
And her family was being just really, really nasty
about a bunch of different issues,
and I kind of called them on it.
And she didn't stand up for me.
I was pretty nervous, actually,
because it's not normally something I would do,
but my friend wanted me to put my name in the hat.
And I was like, "Okay, I know I'm not going to picked,"
but when it just came to, like,
listening to people and responding,
it became a lot less nerve-wracking and pleasant.
But I don't regret anything, necessarily.
I think we're all kind of coming to a realization
that in this cultural moment,
it's much easier to be looking at our phone
than to be talking with someone else.
You know, you're really putting yourself out there
if you're, like, at a bar and you're like,
"I'm not going to look at that.
I'm going to be like, 'Hey, you.'"
You know, it's like it's very vulnerable.
How do you handle your anxiety?
Sometimes, I don't know if I'm anxious
or if there's just a physical problem, right?
And so my brain says,
"Oh, this is anxiety," or vice versa.
Petre: Some of the most emphatic feedback
I've been getting have been from people who are between
20 and 21, 25 years old.
I realized that they've been inundated
with, you know, smartphones and screens
and everything since the day that they were born.
I do think that there is a resurging interest in things
that feel analog, in things that are more about connection,
because even though your smartphone is supposed to
connect you to other people, it's been proven with, you know,
many, many studies that you actually feel more alone.
So, and I think that cuts across all the demographics,
a feeling of isolation.
So I'm trying to figure out some way to get people
who wouldn't normally be in the same room together together.
I think, honestly, everyone there...
gave genuine answers, contributed openly.
There was a sense of community but also a sense of, like,
"Let's help this person find something,"
whatever it was.
A lot of immersive theater experiences I have seen
have been catered towards, like, "This is for me,"
even, like, these, like, immersive museums, like,
which are just, like, chances to, like,
take your photo by something.
It's like, "How can I get my photo next to that thing?"
It becomes a little selfish and a little insular.
And so I think the thing that I'm trying to break
with this thing is, "Okay,
the audience is feeling more engaged.
What can I do as a maker of this experience?
What can I tinker with to kind of get them to lean on,
lean forward in their seats?"
And so that's the attempt.
"Reality is stranger than fiction."
That's an age-old saying,
but, like, I feel like with this...show,
we can tap a little bit more into that
because, you know, if you make a narrative from your life,
whether it's like the bad stuff or the good stuff, whatever,
you know, the ability to be able to kind of shape it up
into a narrative where maybe it's sort of like
leading to a better place is universal.
It makes us all feel good,
and I feel like that's a really great
point of connection for everyone.
Slack: The feeling of being inside a story,
the feeling of feeling other bodies next to you
that are moving and moving through space,
it really is a unique form in the sense that
I think what it could potentially achieve for someone.
Schechter: Everyone will have different experiences,
and that's the truth of anyone's journey in such,
you know, a harrowing place like that
is they all experience different things.
And we wanted to encounter what are the causes
that the audience is passionate about,
and how can we move to a place of getting those stories told?
Lee: It's not just you're being a witness,
you're also an integral part
of how that story plays out
and what those characters are feeling.
There really are no rules, really,
and we're all trying to figure out
what can immersive be together.
It's really cool to be a part of the community at this time.
It's so interesting to see where things started
and where things have progressed to.
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- VisualIMMERSIVE.WORLD traverses art outdoors and the interiors of the mindApril 27, 2021