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set design

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

CHRISTINE JONES ON THE GIFT AND RECIPROCITY

Christine Jones.

Christine Jones.

CHRISTINE JONES is a Tony-winning set designer and the artistic director of the critically acclaimed Theatre for One, a portable private performing arts space for one performer and one audience member. Most recently, she directed the sensational immersive nightclub dining experience Queen of the Night, which New York Magazine has called the “hottest nightlife experience in town”.

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and what is the point?

Christine Jones: I guess the most straightforward response is to say that immersive experiences operate with no fourth wall, and sometimes no walls at all. There are many degrees of interactivity, but at the core, interactive work doesn't pretend that no one is watching. The watcher and the watched are aware of and responsive to each other. There is an acute awareness of their dependence on each other. If there is no audience, there is no performer, and vice versa. I find that when this interdependence is made a primary part of the experience there is an added depth. I believe this is true of non-theatrical experiences as well, in which there is a giver and a receiver but no performance. When people interact in ways that are fully present in the moment, be it theatrical or magical, their experience can become more transcendent.

 

OW: Why create experiences? 

CJ: As a parent, I am aware of creating a world where Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy exist for my kids. When they die, it's our job to make other kinds of magic. I love what Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere said. He said he wanted to live in a world where anything can happen at any moment. His work makes our world just such a world...I think everyone has a desire to be surprised, delighted, moved, and transported. If we don't do this for each other, no one else will. Our parents will make magic for us when we are young; when we are older, we have to make it for ourselves and each other.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

OW: What are you trying to do with your work? 

CJ: This probably sounds horribly pretentious, but lately I have been thinking of myself as an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint. My intention with all of my work is to enhance a feeling of connection and presence that makes people feel seen, and sometimes, especially with Theatre for One, loved. It is always amazing to me how simple acts of kindness and generosity are so deeply appreciated. We very rarely slow down enough to feel truly with other people. I am trying to create fruitful circumstances for a gift exchange between audience and performer. Whether it be a big Broadway show, or an immersive dinner theatre experience, or Theatre for One, I am hoping to create a space and relationships within the space that allow the audience to feel that they are receiving a beautiful experience, and in return they are giving the performers or creators the gift of their full presence and attention.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located? 

CJ: When we worked on Queen of the Night, we did a workshop for the actors with a dominatrix. She described creating a reciprocal energy loop between herself and her clients. I think this is where the artwork is located, if you can create that loop. In the best circumstances the collaboration happens in the contract the artist and the audience make to engage in these roles. "I will perform," "I will watch," or "I will create," "I will receive." Sometimes this is unwritten and happens spur of the moment in a pop-up performance, sometimes it happens with a ticket purchase, or an application process as with Odyssey Works, but there is a moment where artist and audience commit to a relationship, and from there the artwork flows in the energies they exchange and how they are exchanged. Is it an energy loop, or a game of tennis, or two groups on either side of an invisible wall. I love how immersive and interactive work makes us much more aware of our roles as participants.

Queen of the Night .

Queen of the Night.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

CJ: I once heard someone describe themselves as a serial epiphanist. I think it is a great way to express the desire to be filled with wonder that I think we all have. I visited an installation called The Infinity Room by David Wheeler at a gallery in Chelsea a few years ago. I was struck by how being inside a space that truly did feel infinite felt like what I imagined death might feel like, and I was also struck by how much it felt like being engulfed by love. When we never stop feeling wonder and never stop making discoveries, then it means we live in an infinite world with no end of imagination and generosity. It means that at least while we live, anything is possible and at any moment something you never imagined was possible might happen to you. And how much more beautiful life is when we as mortals and fellow travelers make these experiences come alive for each other.

 

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

CJ: I remember the first experience that blew my mind was seeing Fuerza Bruta in Montreal at an International Theatre Festival when I was maybe twenty and just finishing school studying theatre design. The electricity that coursed through my veins to have performers running past me and an apocalyptic universe coming to life all around the space was an eye-opener as to what an event could look and feel like. Later on, having a magician perform a magic trick for me and me alone at a wedding made magic feel like the most beautiful intimate gift one could receive. It was an intoxicating feeling that made me hungry to experience other work in private settings. Lewis Hyde's book The Gift helped me understand what I was trying to do in creating an artistic process of gift exchange. Improv Everywhere, Odyssey Works, Wanderlust (now Sextantworks), have all been extremely influential and inspiring. I feel fortunate to be engaged in so many different but related forms of theatre and experiential work that is both personal and commercial and sometimes even illegal, but all in service of reminding us that the barriers we experience in space and in our relationships can be dissolved.