I’m just back from another immersive theatre instalment.
This time I went with some friends to Then She Fell, a performance piece by Third Rail currently being staged in Williamsburg. Then She Fell invites audiences to “explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.”
I loved it. You should go. Really.
And like my experience at Sleep No More, it points to some interesting ideas for exhibition and experience design.
Then She Fell follows a different model to Sleep No More. For a start it operates at a far reduced scale – only 15 audience members per performance. This has the benefit of creating a very intimate experience and one that guarantees everyone gets several intense one-on-one moments with the performers. In fact my journey began with an intimate moment inside a cupboard and later in the performance when I ended up in a larger group with other audience members I felt a little annoyed at their presence – as if they’d now were able to share ‘my journey’.
The other difference is that it, as we say in video game parlance, is far more ‘on rails‘. Unlike the sandbox world of Sleep No More in which the audience roams pretty freely and events/acts happen at certain times in certain places whether or not audience members are there or not, in Then She Fell you are led along your path – often hand-in-hand with a performer. Importantly, every audience member is on a different path that come together and intersect at various points. Speaking to my friends afterwards it was clear that there is a core series of sequences that every audience member gets to experience in different sequences, but that there are also a group of other unique experiences that are only happen to one or two people. The choreography of the 15 audience members with this sequencing reminded me of the intertwined stories for the different playable characters – each with their own story – in Dragon Age: Origins.
This points to a complex multi-linear narrative as opposed to the almost non-linearity of Sleep No More. No one can accidentally ‘miss everything’ as I’ve heard a few complain of the Sleep No More experience, and this makes it instantly rewarding for ‘all’. In museum terms, it means it is more like that private collection tour with a senior curator – which all museums have trouble ‘scaling up’. (Although Neal Stimler’s experiments with Google Glass-led curator tours at the Met and the National Museum of Australia’s robot docent trials might offer new opportunities).
More broadly, I’m finding that these sorts of performances point to a growing pervasiveness of ‘video game literacy’. Not only do these productions draw on the tropes of video game design and multi-linear nested narratives, the audience is supposed to know and understand how to inhabit the worlds that these narratives create. This is something that museums haven’t worked out how to do well yet – and yet our audiences are increasingly developing these literacies charged by the mainstreaming of video gaming and also their influence on mainstream TV and cinema.