Questions to Ask During Diamond Heists, Fifth-Grade Reunions, and Other Immersive Experiences
I do plays in apartments. It’s not the only place I do them, but apartments and other non-traditional spaces have certain practical benefits: they’re cheap or free, they’re not already rented out, I wrote a whole essay about it. And the artistic benefits can be pretty great too: your audience can have a special, intimate experience that shakes them out of their usual theatergoing headspace.
Untameable, by Daria Miyeko Marinelli and directed by Elana McKelahan, is an immersive diamond heist that takes place in the event spaces and side rooms of a church in Brooklyn. You can watch the storyline of the museum that’s trying to keep the diamond safe, or of the people trying to steal it (and of course not everyone is what they seem), depending on which room you choose. And in this format, a number of questions come up that generally don’t come up if you’re sitting in a chair in a theater looking at a stage.
Who is the audience? Do they need nametags? Are all audience members created equal?
Untameable offers tickets at multiple price points: You can be a “Museum Guard” for fifteen dollars, a “Museum Guest” for thirty, and so on. We were given nametags that let other people know which kind of guest we were. (To be honest, once the piece began, I couldn’t tell what the difference in experience was for different people. Other than a brief prologue where we were all separated out by category, I tended to see both “guards” and “guests” everywhere I went.)
In Sleep No More, you’re a silent person in a creepy white mask. In my immersive party play Mrs. Mayfield’s Fifth Grade Class of ’93 20-Year Reunion, you’re a former classmate of the characters (though you could put a red sticker on your nametag if you didn’t want actors to talk to you – yes, I also did nametags). And to my chagrin, I missed Highly Impractical Theatre’s Three Sisters, where you could be anyone from a Serf to a Tsar (again, at different price points).
I’ve not yet seen a show in a “traditional” space where the audience was given a specific identity in this way; it seems to be specific to immersive, site-specific experiences. I’d love to see a production with a genuinely splintered experience depending on the kind of ticket you’ve got, and not just which room you choose to enter. In Untameable, the variety in our experience seemed to be mostly up to us.
Is the audience even there?
We were mostly NOT there, according to the characters – which is interesting when you’re sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Even in an environment where we could wander as close to the actors as we wanted, there was clearly a “fourth wall.” The museum guests were addressed directly at the very top of the play by a woman affiliated with the museum (Majo, played by Stacey Salvette), who told us she looked forward to seeing us at the gala later. Then we ceased to exist until the gala at the end of the show. We eavesdropped on private conversations to which guests, guards, or otherwise were clearly not actually privy.
Allowing your audience to “exist” – having your characters acknowledge them as actual humans who are in the same world they’re in – can get you in trouble. I’ve had audience members get handsy with my actors, yell at them, and spoil plot points (all in Mrs. Mayfield). So I applaud Highly Impractical Theatre and The Unsoft War for keeping their actors safe. That said, I also found it a bit confusing to be “there,” then “not there,” then “there” again, and then “not there” again. There was a moment at the end when the “museum guests” had, apparently, all run out of the museum, but we were still there. I went from present to invisible within a single scene.
I’ve seen immersive shows where the audience transitioned seamlessly from “there” to “not there” and back again. In The Representatives’ production of The Lower Lights by Stan Richardson (which happened in an actual apartment), we alternated between watching naturalistic scenes play out between two couples, fourth-wall style, and being addressed directly by the characters. It wasn’t much different than when proscenium theatre does this, and as such it worked just fine. Perhaps because the audience was not assigned a specific identity in The Lower Lights, there was more room to transition back and forth.
Is everything we’re watching “actually happening”?
This is, of course, a question for many plays and not just the site-specific ones: What, of what we’re watching, are we meant to understand has actually transpired, and what is symbolic or imagined? Untameable, for instance, includes a lot of dance breaks. I’ve become something of a dance break evangelist in my theatrical career; for the most part, if you ask me if there should be a dance break, I’m going to foam at the mouth and shout, “YES DANCE BREAK!” But in this case, it’s complicated.
The dance breaks all take place between the Boy Prince (Nikita Chaudhry), who originally owned the diamond around which the play’s action revolves, and the Lady Queen (Ian F. Stewart), who stole it from him. Both roles are played cross-gender (another item on the list of things I tend to find awesome). The Boy Prince, as we learn in a sorta-prologue poem, was in love with the Lady Queen. We watch their friendship and the Boy Prince’s subsequent heartbreak almost entirely through dance.
These sequences are the only parts of the story that are told this way, and other than giving the diamond some history, they are not strictly necessary to the show except when they cover a costume change. As a result, the show is essentially told in two different languages, which has a jarring effect. After the first dance sequence, I was confused to see the Boy Prince in a scene with the diamond thieves, not speaking; then I realized that he was there to direct audience traffic, much like the black-masked stewards of Sleep No More. Which poses another question…
How do you move people around?
Both Sleep No More and Untameable use people “of the world” of the show to move the foot traffic. Here Lies Love at the Public used stagehands with no attempt to disguise that fact, in blacks and headsets. It worked well; big scenery was moving around and audiences generally understand that stagehands move scenery. There’s also something about the sight of a stagehand in a headset that conveys authority, which is great when you need to get out of the way of a large rolling flat.
Mrs. Mayfield had no one, save me, the director, and the stage manager (or whatever combination of the three of us happened to be there that night) to manage the crowd. We tried to stay as invisible as possible, since the experience was so intimate, so we only stepped in when someone was being visibly obnoxious. This meant that some scenes were played to no one at all, because the audience had all decided to stay in the other room, so it was an imperfect solution. It also meant, in the tiny railroad apartment we used as our venue, that sometimes crowds bottlenecked at doorways. In Untameable we were encouraged by the Boy Prince and Lady Queen to move further into the room, which helped flow and sight lines—and since not everything we were watching was “realism,” no illusions were shattered.
What’s it all for?
OK, so this one’s a question for all art. Another way to put it might be: Why this story, and why this way?
One purely practical reason for “why this way” is: overlapping scenes let you tell twice the story in half the time. The Mrs. Mayfield script, read end-to-end with no overlap, runs about two and a half hours; in performance, it’s about 80 minutes. Untameable ran about two hours in performance, so let’s say it would run three and a half hours in a “traditional” format. That’s a long-ass play. When you overlap, you can go deeper without making people’s butts hurt. Overlap also gives people a reason to come back, to see what they missed.
And why this story? Untameable is, strangely, a love story. The main heist orchestrator, Nel (Vicki Rodriguez), was once (is still?) engaged to the woman entrusted with keeping the diamond safe, Cabel (Annie-Sage Whitehurst). Nel and Cabel both fall for other women, but the connection remains white-hot and present for both of them throughout. The show ends up raising questions of loyalty, love, and betrayal. That story, ultimately—dance breaks and immersion aside—is what it’s all for.