For once, this critic didn’t miss the boat. The 11 a.m. Governors Island ferry departed Lower Manhattan with a grand toot of the horn and glided across the harbor in minutes, delivering passengers intent on a Saturday afternoon of picnics — or…
Immersive theater. Walking across the park grounds — an Army and Coast Guard base for two centuries before its acquisition by New York State — I was reminded of an essential fact about site-based performances. The excursion itself can be a revelation, regardless of how successfully a show engages its location. This month “site-specific” performances of various kinds will take advantage of hospitable weather, bringing audiences to locations all around New York for experiences far beyond the customary auditorium configuration. The practice is nothing new — theatermakers have staged plays this way since medieval times, if not before. But location-based performances have proliferated in recent years, and it’s worth noting how different these projects can be in their approach. In the case of Trade Practices, which HERE Art Center bills as “an immersive, site-specific theater event,” spectators arrived on Governors Island and assembled in Pershing Hall, a brick building that once was a military administrative center. In a conference room stocked with notepads and pencils, we watch an infomercial about a fictitious paper company, Tender Inc., which started in stationery and now manufactures currency for the U.S. government. Soon we’re led to a small trading floor, with glimpses of Lower Manhattan through a few of the windows. For the remainder of the two-hour performance, we must choose which version of the narrative to see and follow. We can watch from the perspective of the owners, managers, marketers, or workers. Audience members buy “shares” granting admission to these story lines using prop banknotes and can trade if they want to change, at a fluctuating price.
Created by Kristin Marting and David Evans Morris with six playwrights, Trade Practices is meant to evoke with relentless zaniness the boom-and-bust cycles that have followed Argentina’s 2001 financial collapse. But for me the big question was what we were doing on Governors Island. What actual history do we uncover in this “historic” site? How does this building inform the project, visually or thematically? Indeed, what about Trade Practices is “site-specific”? Most of these scenes could have been staged in any building with multiple large rooms — there is no discernible design or conceptual reason for using Pershing Hall. Shipping off to the island did put me in a receptive frame of mind, though. Unmooring from daily realities may be a kind of necessary precondition for theater, and that’s harder and harder to accomplish in the age of electronic connectedness. Asking a spectator to go someplace unusual for a performance forces a break. I could observe the distance between the show and the financial district on the horizon. But did it make me more attuned to these tales of commerce?
Back in the city, Woodshed Collective is plotting a different strategy to take audiences to new destinations. The company is known for ornate immersions in a single location: Twelve Ophelias brought the public to McCarren Park Pool in 2008; The Confidence Man invited audiences up the gangway onto an old Hudson River steamship in 2009. Now the troupe hopes to make a choose-your-urban-adventure series into an annual happening.
Empire Travel Agency, which opened Monday, September 8, begins with each prospective audience member’s phone call to Rhonda, a fictitious travel agent who plans a real theatrical adventure tailored to individual callers. One person’s perfect trip — say, an underground Brooklyn odyssey through F-train stops ending at the Coney Island seaside — might be another spectator’s nightmare. The agency will determine preferences and concoct the best possible experience, and at the appointed hour, you’ll arrive at a pay phone and answer a call telling you how to get things started.
Most of the “trips” will be in Manhattan and Brooklyn, so it’s not a comprehensive investigation of the city. On the other hand, it’s free and you might see architecture or encounter spaces you’ve excluded from consciousness for years. I met Teddy Bergman and Mikhael Tara Garver, Woodshed’s artistic directors, at an on-site rehearsal at the Center for Fiction on 47th Street. Somehow I’d never noticed this exquisite literary oasis, even though I walk fairly often along the block. Inside, the nonprofit’s high-ceilinged rooms are lined with bookshelves, busts, and leather armchairs. The episode Woodshed was rehearsing led upstairs into the stacks of the center’s library, which has been circulating continuously since merchants founded it in the 1820s. Finding this eccentric spot among east midtown’s early-20th-century buildings was a surprising discovery. Other possible adventures include: apartment visits via Airbnb, Mercedes rides through industrial Brooklyn, and orchestral serenades in Central Park gazebos. Will the event’s mysteries upstage the drama? And if it opens your eyes to new facets of your city, will you care?
Argentinean artist Fernando Rubio has something far more intimate (but less personal) in mind for Everything by My Side, his installation in Hudson River Park. Seven actresses, each in a white bed, will invite one spectator at a time to join them under the covers. Childhood memories with intimations of mortality will be whispered into the participants’ ears. The short piece, co-presented by Performance Space 122 and FIAF’s Crossing the Line, will recur throughout the day, from September 26-28. Most site-based performances try to harmonize with their environs, but Rubio’s show will contrast location and experience: a deeply private experience in a strikingly public spot.
Of course, some theatergoers prefer armchair travel. For them, I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited will bring an entire neighborhood to life onstage, trying to evoke one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse communities through a panoply of characters and scenes. The drama, presented at New Ohio Theatre by Theatre 167, portrays Queens denizens — from cops to drag queens, parents, cabbies, renters, and everyone else. The project serves as a reminder that all theater creates a setting, wherever it’s done. Even on a stage, in an auditorium with seats and programs.