With only 15 audience members per performance, Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell is taking site specific, immersive theater to its most intimate level. Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Then She Fell opened to rave reviews last fall at Brooklyn’s old Greenpoint Hospital after earlier iterations in Los Angeles and other New York City locations. Culturadar Blogger Shoshana Greenberg talks to Third Rail Projects’ Co-Artistic Director Jennine Willett, who also originated the role of The White Queen, about creating immersive theater, what drew them to Alice in Wonderland, and what’s next for Third Rail Projects.
Culturadar: How does the creative process for site-specific immersive theater differ from the process of creating a more traditional performance?
Jennine Willett: Creating work that is site-specific offers so much source material for adding layers of meaning to a work. You have the history of the space, what it was used for, what it is now, who populates it. The list is endless. We were working on Then She Fell for over a year and a half when we were offered the space at Arts@Renaissance in what was formerly the Greenpoint Hospital. The hospital ward was the final layer that tied everything together, creating the world that our characters would live in.
CR: What appeals to you about these immersive theater experiences?
JW: There are so many things that I love about immersive theater, as a creator and a performer. We began as a company that made work mostly on a stage. The audience was always looking in, separated by real or imagined barriers. When we began making site works in public spaces, this barrier between performer and audience disappeared. We all shared the same landscape. As a performer, it was thrilling, so much more exciting than being on a stage. You never knew what would happen.
CR: What drew you to Alice In Wonderland?
JW: We were drawn to Lewis Carroll and particularly the Alice works for many reasons. They are iconic and resonant to most everyone, no matter what age or nationality, so it is a clear entry point for audiences. We were able to take images and ideas from the books and shape and develop them into our own world where Lewis Carroll could exist with all of the characters he created. Because immersive storytelling can be fragmented and non-linear, having some familiarity with the characters also gives audience members some check points within the show, helping them connect the dots and unlock clues to the thematic layers of the work and the various storylines.
CR: Why 15 audience members performance?
JW: We wanted each audience member to have an Alice-like experience, one where they could be absorbed into the world and lose sight of its edges and where they could find themselves often alone with the characters. It took years to figure out exactly how to craft this intimate experience, and the magic number that made it possible for the work we wanted to make turned out to be 15.
CR: Does Then She Fell have dialogue or is it completely dance based?
JW: It has a combination of the two. We use excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s works as well as original text written by [Co-Artistic Director] Zach Morris. When I was younger, I was uncomfortable speaking onstage and would usually try to avoid it. In Then She Fell, the dialogue is the most natural thing in the world. It is used in partnership with movement, image, and installation to convey meaning in the work, and it is a much different type of acting, speaking when your audience is a few inches away from you.
CR: What are the differences between the early iterations and what is now Then She Fell?
JW: Looking Glass was the first iteration of the performance aspect of this show. It was a site-specific work commissioned by Arts Brookfield to animate the Bank of America Plaza in Los Angeles, and then we brought it to various sites in New York. This type of performance has different parameters. It was created for a transient public space. People choose to engage or ignore, follow or watch from afar, seek it out or happen upon it. We use a different set of tools to create this type of work, aiming for accessibility and broader thematic strokes. We are doing this again for our new work Roadside Attraction, commissioned by Arts Brookfield for the River To River Festival in June (at Brookfield Place). We are re-creating the family vacation of my childhood, complete with a vintage 70’s era pop-up camper.
[Roadside Attraction is slated to tour later in the summer and fall and later interlock with Third Rail Project’s next immersive show in 2014.]
CR: How did Third Rail Projects form?
JW: When I moved from Poland to New York in 2001, I ran into Tom [Tom Pearson, Co-Artistic Director] and Brian Weaver, two classmates from my graduate days at Florida State. Tom needed a dancer for a show he was doing uptown with Brian, and I jumped in. Over coffee, the three of us came up with the idea of pooling our resources and producing an evening of our own works. We danced for each other and invited other dancers, including Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, who would go on to be in every work that we have ever made and would become our associate artistic director. We rented the Cunningham Studio in late 2011, calling ourselves Third Rail Dance at the time. A couple years later, Brian decided to move to Italy to work. In the meantime, Zach Morris had been making work on his own in New York and collaborated with Tom in the New York Fringe Festival. He joined us on a creative process in 2004, bringing an amazing directorial skill set that completed our triumvirate. In 2005, he joined the group as a co-director, at which point, we formalized the company and changed our name to Third Rail Projects to better encompass all of the mediums we were playing with that reached far beyond just dance.
CR: How did you begin doing site-specific and immersive theater?
JW: We were always interested in moving our work outside of the theater and exploring new ways to bring it into the public sphere. We were commissioned to make Reel in the rotunda of the Museum of the American Indian in 2005 and Hope and Anchor at the South Street Seaport in 2006. These were the first of many commissions that would take place in public sites. All along the way, Tom and Zach were building art installations that accompanied our performances, one of the largest being Zach’s Drifting Encyclopedia that began at Burning Man and found its way to the gallery of the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) as part of our Undercurrents and Exchange performances in 2010. We never sat down and decided to make “immersive” theater. It just sort of happened as all of the things we had been doing over the years began to be woven together.
CR: Where do you want to take this art form?
JW: I think the question might be where it will take us. We just want to keep doing what we are doing, building projects around themes and ideas that are meaningful and resonant, weaving together all of the aspects of our work and the many talents of our collaborators, and thinking carefully about the audience experience. When you make a world and live in it for a while, you never know where it will take you. And, if you continue to develop the ideas that interest you, keep asking new questions of yourself and the form you are working in, you can keep the conversation moving forward. I think that’s how new forms continue to develop.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.