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audience inclusion

Teddy Bergman on including the Audience in Ambitious Theatrical Worlds

Teddy Bergman. Credit Blair Mezibov.

Teddy Bergman. Credit Blair Mezibov.

TEDDY BERGMAN is the artistic director of Woodshed Collective, one of the country’s premier immersive theatre companies. Since 2006, the company has presented large-scale theatrical events, including Twelve Ophelias, performed in McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, The Confidence Man, adapted from Melville's novel and performed on a decommissioned steamship in the Hudson River, and The Tenant, adapted from the novel and film and performed in a five-story 19th-century parish house on the Upper West Side. Most recently, Woodshed Collective presented the critically acclaimed Empire Travel Agency, a grail quest criss-crossing Lower Manhattan. They are currently under commission from Ars Nova and the Ma-Yi Theater Company for a new immersive theatre experience. Driven by the belief in the combined power of stories and architecture to break down the barriers of everyday life, Woodshed Collective aims to create genuine awe. 

 

We understand immersivity as an expansion of performance to include the audience in the envelope of the show.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work?

Teddy Bergman: Woodshed Collective exists to make ambitious theatrical worlds that invigorate our audiences' imaginations. 

 

OW: How do you understand immersivity? How does it work and what is the point?

TB: We understand immersivity as an expansion of performance to include the audience in the envelope of the show. This can mean a lot of things.  It can include 360-degree design, direct address, game play, physical engagement of the audience...but more than anything, I think it rests on an awareness that the audience is there, and that the nature of our relationship to them can't be simply assumed.

 

We want the scope of our shows to move physically, emotionally, and intellectually beyond what you thought you were getting into, and possibly beyond what you thought a show could or should be.

 

OW: You say that your productions aim to generate awe. Can you tell us more about that?

TB: Maybe "sublime" is a better word, in the sense that sublime experiences tend to have ambitious scopes. In our case, we are aiming to have the power to threaten your predetermined idea of what a performance can entail. I think that starts to get at an idea of awe. We want the scope of our shows to move physically, emotionally, and intellectually beyond what you thought you were getting into, and possibly beyond what you thought a show could or should be.

 

A scene from  Empire Travel Agency , a 2015 immersive production that took place throughout Lower Manhattan. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro.

A scene from Empire Travel Agency, a 2015 immersive production that took place throughout Lower Manhattan. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro.

 

OW: How does the “set” of an immersive play differ from the set of a traditional play? What is the role of architecture in your work? 

TB: We tend to believe that all work is site-specific: a church, a boat, a black box, a white box, and the Booth Theatre all carry with them unique histories, and everyone has certain feelings and assumptions about them.  Since we think immersive theatre is about including the audience, we take into account the relationships that people have to the spaces we work in, and we incorporate those histories into our shows. And architecture is a major collaborator in our work.

 

We try to create conversations between buildings and texts.

 

OW: What is your process for developing a piece? 

TB: We talk and argue a lot. We read. We work with writers to generate material. We talk a lot more. We find spaces. We try to create conversations between buildings and texts. We help design the script. We talk a lot more.  Then we starting drawing and rehearsing and building. Then we talk a lot more. Then we have previews. Then we talk a lot more and fix as much as we can. Then we run out of time and open the show and hope for the best.

 

Another scene from  Empire Travel Agency . Credit Ben Fink Shapiro. 

Another scene from Empire Travel Agency. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro. 

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

TB: Some of the people and institutions we love are En Garde Arts, Guy Debord, Richard Schechner, Herbert Blau, and Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson's immersive installation The Weather Project at the Tate Modern changed my life. It was a synthetic yet natural public space that nourished, humbled, and inspired every person who walked into it.

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Interview by Ana Freeman

Tom Pearson On Dream Logic

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

TOM PEARSON is one of the artistic directors of Third Rail Projects, along with Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Hailed as one of the foremost companies creating site-specific, immersive, and experiential dance theatre in the United States, Third Rail Projects is dedicated to re-envisioning how audiences can engage with contemporary performance. They are the creators of the long-running immersive theatre hit Then She Fell and the new immersive sensation The Grand Paradise, which is playing in New York through May 29, 2016. More information can be found at thirdrailprojects.com.

 

Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you seeking to accomplish with your work? 

Tom Pearson: In all of my work, I am hoping to give audiences intimate and transformative experiences by making room for them in the work and making the work about them. I hope each piece becomes a Rorschach blot for their own reflective experiences and takes them on a heightened symbolic journey.  At the end of the day, I hope they see and examine something of themselves in everything I make and that they walk away having perhaps discovered something they didn’t know before.

 

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in  The Grand Paradise . Credit Third Rail Projects.

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in The Grand Paradise. Credit Third Rail Projects.

 

OW: You create work that is both immersive and site-specific. Can you explain the relationship between these two qualities? 

TP: They relate in that they provoke similar approaches to creating work. Many of our public site works focus on the discovery of the narratives that are bricked into the architecture of a place.  In site-specific work, there is a rigorous engagement with real-world architecture and a deep sense of place.  I think that’s true for immersive work as well, but often it involves creating the place ourselves rather than excavating the meanings of pre-existing space. Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.
 

 

OW: How would you characterize the exchange you facilitate between artist and audience? Where is the artwork itself located? 

TP: My work is about creating scenarios that keep the audience in mind from the outset—so they are necessary to the work, and each scene is built with that exchange in mind.  I think I am trying to achieve intimacy, but also to challenge audience members' expectations, bypass their rational minds, put them in places with smells and tastes and textures that trigger emotional or physical responses and put them into a place of strong receptivityand then turn a corner to go into deeper, more symbolic, meaningful places. The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.

 

Roxanne Kidd in  Then She Fell . Credit Darial Sneed. 

Roxanne Kidd in Then She Fell. Credit Darial Sneed. 

 

OW: Unlike some other experiential art, Third Rail’s pieces seem to have a strong narrative focus, yet they are also clearly structured differently from traditional theatre. Can you talk about the role of narrative in your work?

TP: Our narratives are always fragmented, which is the nature of immersive work, and what is most effective about it.  Audiences seem to need to hook themselves onto some sort of narrative to navigate the worlds, which is why the writings of Lewis Carroll offer so much to Then She Fell; audiences have some cultural and literary signifiers that are easy to understand, so they can relax a little more into the figurative and fragmented and symbolic aspects of the work. They can go deeper into the dream logic because they have an anchor in the narrative images. It’s harder with something like The Grand Paradise, where we are hooking the audience’s attention onto broader cultural signifiers...like the idea of "paradise," a status quo family from Middle America on vacation, a coming of age, a midlife crisis, the collective cultural fantasies of the late 1970s, and the Fountain of Youth.  These are anchor points too, but much looser ones.

 

OW:  Immersive theatre is often compared to video games or other interactive virtual experiences. Why do you choose to create embodied experiences? What does liveness mean to you? 

TP: I think immersive theatre is just a more obvious form of liveness than other theatre, maybe because audience members feel some agency and control in it, but also because it allows them a more personal, tactile, intimate encounter with art.  And I think video games and the last 20 years of digital living have made us all crave liveness, while also preparing us to navigate these real worlds that follow video game logic. Like a video game, immersive theatre trains you, sets you loose to unlock possibilities, and then levels you through based on your choices; there are boons along the way, and a sense of discovery as you put the structure together for yourself through your own experience of it.

 

How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

OW: Tell us about your process for creating a piece. 

TP: It can start and finish in a myriad of ways. Often, it begins with a movement idea that becomes an organizing principle, or a narrative fragment, such as a sense of duality, or a yearning for the Fountain of Youth. Then She Fell began with the idea of a personality torn in two directions, towards two separate agendas, with both halves operating on either side of a real-life event. The Grand Paradise was inspired by archetypal psychology, by the idea of characters representing different aspects of a single psyche. I envisioned that psyche being that of a place, a sentient place that gives birth to a pantheon of archetypal characters who promise to fulfill audience desires. From those kinds of starting places, the choreography, writing, and scenarios spin out around the idea of audience inclusion and what that could mean. How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

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Interview by Ana Freeman