A passing moment from ’Then She Fell’, an immersive theatre and dance performance by Third Rail Projects in New York City, 4th December 2014.
A boy in a doctor’s suite guides me to a wooden chair under a staircase in a small, enclosed space in an old building. He opens a door with a vertical mirror attached to it. The mirror reflects a girl on the other end of a room with her naked back to me washing herself in gentle movements. Her waist is covered with a white cloth.
I don’t know if this is how it happened. This is how I remember it now, the next day.
When she has finished washing herself, she turns slowly to look at me through the mirror. Then she walks to the door and moves it slightly so that I can’t see her.
She asks me if she can ask me a question.
”Do you think it’s more important to follow the rules or to do what you want?”, she asks.
”I don’t know.”
”When did you last did what you wanted?”
”I can’t remember, and it makes me a bit melancholy.”
I really don’t remember. I don’t mean I haven’t broken the rules for a long time. At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s just not something that I remember at that passing moment when a beautiful girl is asking you good questions.
The rest of her garments are beside me outside the door. She asks me to give them to her one by one and I obey. Then she opens the door wider, steps through the doorway and asks for the last one. I hand it to her, but when she takes it I don’t give it to her.
”Please.”, she says, not in any particular way.
I would like to keep having this discussion as this is the first time during the performance when it really responds to me beyond simple choices. There suddenly seems to be more space for meaning generated by my involvement. Before this moment it has been a performance that’s been performed for me to watch, not so much to participate in.
I give the last piece to her after a moment’s hesitation.
I would want to explore this moment further, but it feels that there’s really no real space in the structure of the performance to allow this. The structure says to me she can’t really stay. She walks up the stairs to the next floor and looks at me one more time through the mirror and asks:
”When did you fall in love the first time?”
”When I was about six.”
She leaves me and a female doctor comes to get me.
There has been a lot of other writings about the performance which tell you more explicitly about the show. You can also take a look at the site of ‘Then She Fell’ to get more sense than you will from this write-up. Here I wanted to write directly from the point of view of one specific moment, because I think those are the ones where the meaning is created especially in an immersive performance.
It’s definitely exhilarating what is happening in immersive theatre at the moment in both United States and Europe. In the States it seems to be developing a quality of a new form of entertainment when Europe is more geared towards developing it as an artistic form. By this I don’t want to belittle the ambition of the artists in the States, but the lack of public funding reflects in the performances. The latest and biggest production by Punchdrunk (’The Drowned Man’) cost 19 £ (from a student) in London when ’Sleep No More’ costs 125 $ in New York. The funding affects who are the ones who can afford to go and experience the performances.
‘Then She Fell’ connects with the approach of Punchdrunk in that they both have a pleasurable sweet and sour quality of physicality paired with intense feelings. The feelings of the spectator are still mostly quite safe. I feel that there would still be a lot more to discover even only in terms of emotions. But that is quite natural at this stage when immersive theatre is still in the process of finding its form. And I think that’s great because it promises a lot of thrilling and intense works for the future.
The question that remained with me from the performance was the girl asking when did you last break the rules. I contacted the production company as I would’ve wanted to discuss with the specific performer what happens in those moments, what kind of reality or fiction of intimacy they create and what kind of power structures they cause in relation to the spectator.
The production company said it’s not possible. I think I tried to break a rule that’s not supposed to be broken.
In the photo: Rachel I. Berman as Alice. Photo by Darial Sneed.
Sonya Cullingford in Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’. Photo: Birgit & Rolf.
This post is an article I wrote for the Finnish theatre periodical ‘Teatteri&Tanssi+sirkus’ (2/2014) about immersive theatre.
The whole text is in the Finnish version of this page.
Conor Doyle, Ed Warner, Omar Gordon, Tomislav English and Vinicius Salles in Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’.
Photo: Birgit & Rolf.