Those Before Us – an interview with the creators

Photo Credit: Mike Esperanze

Culturebot recently caught up with Jesse Carrey and Katya Stepanov, co-founder of Rebis Immersive, to discuss findings related to their recent production, Those Before Us, on Governors Island.

1) What came first? The show or the location?

Jesse (Co-Founder/Director): The location came first, and what an amazing location to work with! I had always been passionate about the intersection of words, improvised dance, and music. We had met with the team of Governors Island in January 2019, and after they showed us all the amazing spaces that could be brought to life, they were very clear on what they are looking to highlight: history, environment, and innovative technology.

They had also mentioned that dance was underrepresented on the island. Katya had made a connection with Bose AR Frames at the Future of Storytelling Summit the previous year. So I sat with that for a while, figuring out what type of experience we could create knowing this criteria. Instead of writing a fictional narrative from scratch, we realized how many stories exist on Governors Island, waiting to be uncovered. After many collaborative sessions and conversations, Those Before Us came to life, marrying historical narratives with improvised dance. I had to trust in this project as an experiment for a new form of performance which manifested beautifully, where the audience could hear a plethora of different stories while watching the same dance and still create a depth of meaning through the movement.

Katya (Co-Founder/Experience Designer): While the location came first in this iteration of Those Before Us, I believe that there is a constant back-and-forth between story and location throughout the creation process for a site-specific work. The location inspires the story, but ultimately the story influences the viewer’s relationship with the location. The mission of any Those Before Us experience, including this pilot run on Governors Island is to bring back to life perspectives and narratives from history that are marginalized, untold or even erased from traditional history books. It was really inspiring to work with American Indian Community House, who happened to be in residency on the island this summer. They provided a great deal of resources and history for us to weave into the narratives we were creating. Their location on the island influenced the framing of the show. The show is designed to bring audiences from point to point on a map while also giving them freedom to choose which narrative from which time period they wish to explore, and as such the location and show are inextricably linked.  

2) What types of challenges do you expect to encounter when working in site-specific settings, and were there any that caught you by surprise?

Jesse (Co-Founder/Director): The process had its challenges, especially with a very limited budget and timeline. The biggest challenge was the limited time we had for testing in the space, seeing in real time what works and what can be improved on. As such, every public performance was extremely informative, and even small changes in the on-boarding or experience drastically improved the following performance. This is a huge challenge for all site-specific, immersive, or interactive work, and I urge other creators to find the space, time, and budget to prototype their experience with beta-testers so that the audience experience can be as fluid and organic as possible. The other challenge that caught us by surprise was that while some audience members were more confused than others until they understood the rules and flow of the experience, the general feedback was that once they did figure out where to go and what to do, they felt a deep sense of accomplishment which inspired them to continue on their journey with curiosity. As we enter into a new age of experiences, we have an audience that is used to sitting in seats and experiencing a performance without needing to “do” anything. Now we are asking the audience to figure things out, to follow paths to the unknown, and to take agency over their experience.

While this is a new language for theater goers to be comfortable with and understand, I think there is a unique and exciting opportunity for our audience to embrace the discomfort of not knowing the “right” thing to do, only to realize that there is no right way to experience it. Such is life; all we can do is make choices, and see where they lead. That is the beauty of Those Before Us! While many wanted to experience the linear story available to them, once they began experimenting with choosing different stories and dancers, they realized how many other ways they could experience it, and hopefully left with an understanding that there is not one way to experience someone’s story. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Katya (Co-Founder/Experience Designer): The greatest challenge when working with new technology or creating a system that doesn’t exist is always unexpected errors that take time to work through because there is no manual — you are the first ones creating something! Therefore, you’re on your own to figure out why something might work perfectly in one location and then suddenly not work in another. For example, our Unity developer was working to create an app which would use the Bose AR frames’ GPS and gyroscopic features to track audience members in real space and time to trigger the audio narratives. While it worked perfectly in Brooklyn, as soon as we got to the island, suddenly we experienced errors. We decided to move the dream of a fully functional app to our next iteration of Those Before Us rather than affect an audience’s experience due to an unexpected glitch. The other challenge we faced was simply a lack of cell service on the island. Our experience was QR code based, and while Jesse figured out how to create static links that would download seamlessly and play automatically, if it was particularly cloudy there was no telling whether or not your cell phone’s service would suddenly dip out. Each time we stumbled across a new challenge, we took note of how we could prepare for it in the future. Such is the reality of doing something new — you don’t know until you know, and once you do you never make the same mistake twice. 

3) How do you imagine new technologies – such as the further development of the Bose AR Frames, featured in Those Before Us – will change the way theatrical experiences are created?

Jesse (Co-Founder/Director): With technology like Bose AR Frames, we can make intimate and transformational storytelling accessible to the masses. For this first iteration of Those Before Us, we could potentially have 200 participants in the experience simultaneously, each having their own unique journey while they experience the live dance performance around them. New technology also allows for unique ways to make experiences even more interactive and curated for each user. Rather than a group of 50 following one actor with each audience member fighting to be in the front, hoping to be picked out for a one-on-one experience, 50 people can all be listening to four different narratives that feel personal because the characters are speaking directly in each person’s ear. As a creator, I am extremely excited by what we will be able to accomplish in AR and XR Performance, giving a new platform for artists to create experiences and an exponential amount of audience members who can have direct access to it.

Katya (Co-Founder/Experience Designer): I believe that as tools for creators to interface with AR technology like the Bose frames become more accessible, artists will be able to design their own apps and create immersive AR experiences that are completely hands-free for the audience member. For example, when we create a Those Before Us app, participants will essentially be able to become the main character in a real-life video game, activating sound that is hidden in space simply by knowing where to go. They will be able to make choices through physical gestures that guide them on their own unique journey through the experience and allow for a much higher level of interaction that is more seamless than having to use your phone to scan a code. The manual nature of QR codes can take you out of the experience for a moment, so as this technology advances, I believe people will be able to fully surrender to the present moment and become completely immersed in the experience as well as their own imagination. I believe that we’re entering a new era of pod-performances, and of interactive experiences where audiences drive the narrative and performers become more responsive rather than the other way around as has been the standard for centuries.

4) What’s your favorite Governors Island building, and why? Also, how many total ferries did your team miss?

Jesse (Co-Founder/Director): The Governor’s House in Nolan Park is one of the oldest buildings on the island aside from Fort Jay. The history of this space is so potent, and getting to bring stories to life around it made me see it in such new and different ways that I could have never seen just by reading the plaque. We only missed a small amount of ferries, sometimes due to the large amount of visitors trying to come to the island and putting the boat at capacity. I was coming from the subway once and had 2 minutes to spare, and despite telling myself that there was no way I was going to make the ferry, I ran. I dodged through aimless tourists and business people on their way to work, carrying four bags full of materials for the production. But I did not give up, and told myself that if I got this far, I might as well try. And I ran to the ferry, and JUST made it without a second to spare. It was one of those moments when you realize that sheer will can accomplish so much. And in a way, sheer will, focus, and passion have brought us from the seed of an idea to a project that will lead our company Rebis to new and exciting horizons.

Katya (Co-Founder/Experience Designer): Honestly, that ferry *shakes fist* that ferry! The greatest challenge with catching the ferry on time is that the schedule is….. Well, let’s just say more of a suggestion than anything else. Every time you were confident in a departure time, it turned out you may have been reading the times for the wrong day of the week. Despite this, I think I only missed about 3 ferries total in the time we spent working on this project. My favorite building on Governors Island is the Governors House as well, because it is right on the corner of the row of houses, and when you look at it, the New York skyline peeks out from behind it, and you can also watch the ferry as it comes back and forth to and from the island. You get this sense of past meets present meets future as you look at that house, still standing, as the city bustles on behind it. There is something so poetic about that view…I think I’ll remember it forever.

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