Near the end of “Seeing You,” a dance and theater piece about World War II written and co-directed by Randy Weiner (a producer of both Sleep No More and Queen of the Night ), I learned first-hand the difference between this kind of immersive theater and a Broadway musical. Three star-spangled gals had just finished their rendition of the Andrew Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” as part of a USO show for the GIs, when one of the entertainers shot off a confetti cannon. In a Broadway musical, the confetti would have been shot above the orchestra seats, thus showering down on the theatergoers who had paid the most for their tickets. In “Seeing You,” it was shot straight at me, from just a few feet away. (It took hours to get rid of all the tiny gold and silver strips.)
This assault by confetti, I guess, counts as a uniquely personal experience, and thus fulfills Element 4 of the six essential elements in any good immersive theater. I should point out that I’m the only one who says good immersive theater requires six elements, a theory I developed after attending many such shows, and which I expressed in a couple of essays (Immersive Theater, Defined, and Rethinking Immersive Theater.) There are some indications that my theory still needs some work, but let’s apply the six elements to “Seeing You,” a show that may not be the top of the line in the genre, but that fans of immersive theater would surely find worthwhile.
- Immersive theater creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theater.
“Seeing You” takes over a huge warehouse-like space in a building that hugs the 14th Street entrance to the High Line, in the once-rough, now-chic Meatmarket District.
There is no seating. After we were given dog tags (mine was stamped with:”Heaven, Hell or Hoboken”), we were instructed to stay silent unless one of the 14 cast members speaks to us. Then we were let loose to move around for 90 minutes, at first individually on our own, visiting a choice of vignettes involving one or two characters, but as the show progressed, we were shepherded around as a group.
The closest to traditional theatrical experience were the brief, intermittent stage shows for the troops, and even then the troops had to stand.
- Immersive theater tends to stimulate all five senses—sight and sound, as with conventional theatre pieces, but also touch, and frequently taste, and even smell.
No food in this show, but definitely touch, and even, to a certain extent, smell – the smell of the smoke accompanying the atom bomb at the finale.
It’s worth noting that the underscoring for “Seeing You” was mostly gentle and tuneful, not the pounding rock and Cage-like repetition that accompanies many immersive theater. The title, after all, comes from the song of the period, “I’ll Be Seeing You (in all the old familiar places),” and there is a retro quality to the music and some of the dancing. The choreographer is co-director Ryan Heffington, who choreographed Sia’s “Chandelier” video, which has been viewed on Vimeo more than 1.6 billion times.
- The best of these immersive shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.
This is not the case with “Seeing You.” There are no crowded desks to riffle through or cluttered bulletin boards, and only a few war-time posters on the wall. Set designer Desi Santiago’s approach is more minimal, focusing on mood, with the inestimable help of lighting designer Jamie Roderick. The vignettes are acted out in lit playing spaces surrounded by darkness and appointed with a table or a chair if anything at all. There are, however, a few vivid sets that pop up during climactic moments – including two in the photographs above: the red cross with the tubes descended from it represents a blood bank or nursing station. The backdrop of the barely clad young men is a blackboard that presumably is filled with plans for making the atom bomb.
- Immersive shows make individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience, that they are not just part of the crowd.
Long before the scene with the confetti blast, a nurse (Heather Lang) made me stick out my tongue, and then push down on her arms with my own, so that she could feel my “resistance.” (Resistance to being singled out was exactly what I was feeling.) Then, apparently satisfied that I was sufficiently healthy, she recruited me to stand in the middle of the entire group and catch all the large packets of blood being tossed my way, and flip them into a box held by another nurse.
- At the same time, there is always an aspect of an immersive show that emphasizes the social, through playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups.
My interaction with the nurse was part of a group activity that engaged half of the theatergoers. While we were involved in the blood drive, the other half of the theatergoers had been drafted into basic training.
- For immersive theatre to work, in my view, a show has to have a story to tell—and it has to have respect for that story.
I had second thoughts about this element when I reviewed Inside the Wild Heart, an immersive piece about the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, which used her texts but didn’t really tell a story. This fit in with her writing, which is concerned with sensations, epiphanies, rather than conventional plots. I had thought that the success of Sleep No More and Then She Fell were in part because we knew the stories (Macbeth and Alice in Wonderland respectively) in advance, and so could follow what was happening no matter how mystical or mute the performers.
The broad outline of the story in “Seeing You” is clear enough: We are introduced to the anxious people of Hoboken, New Jersey, at the outset of World War II and then we follow them through the duration of the war until the decision to drop the atom bomb. Some of the characters are recognizable throughout the piece, such as Grace (Eriko Jimbo), a Japanese-American artist who we learn is in a long-distance relationship with a GI (Aaron Dalla Villa) and who eventually experiences racial discrimination. Much of “Seeing You” though is a mosaic over time of isolated moments, most of them expressed primarily in dance, some memorably. There is a silent erotic dance, for example, between two soldiers (Jesse Kovarsky and Nicholas Ranauro.) A woman comes upon the scene, and one of the men sobs into her arms. Later, there is a shadow play showing men in combat, with some of these silhouettes turned into giants pinching off the heads of their adversaries, surreal and haunting.
There may be stretches of time during “Seeing You” that seem nothing more than a muddle, even for the most experienced theatergoer (my face-saving way of saying I got confused.)
But the beauty of immersive theater — from the point of view of its creators anyway — is that theatergoers have only themselves to blame for such lapses in clarity or momentum. If only I had followed a different character, or gotten into the other group, or had a greater understanding of modern dance
At one point, a Congressman (Ted Hannan) asks the assembled to write on a small slip of paper how many Japanese civilians would each of us be willing to sacrifice to save a million American lives? (That was reportedly the calculation that President Truman faced when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) It is the sort of moment not as easily accomplished in any other genre of theater. If there was no follow-through (we weren’t called on to state and defend our choices; there was no tally, etc.), it was still the kind of “audience participation” – involving not just our bodies but our minds – that holds great promise for the evolution of immersive theater.
450 West 14th Street
Created and directed by Randy Weiner and Ryan Heffington
Choreography by Ryan Heffington, production and costume design by Desi Santiago, lighting design by Jamie Roderick, sound design by Shannon Staton
Cast: Jesse Kovarsky, Heather Lang, Jodi McFadden, Zach McNally, Lauren Cox, Aaron Dalla Villa, Christopher Grant, Ted Hannan, Alison Ingelstrom, Eriko Jimbo, Maija Knapp, Nicholas Ranauro, Jay Stuart and Lauren Yalango-Grant
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $55 to $100 General Admission
“Seeing You” is scheduled to run through August 31, 2017.