From now through January 6th, the former Greenpoint Hospital is hosting one of the hottest theater tickets in New York City: Then She Fell, an immersive theatre project based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland., Housed at the St. Nicks Alliance arts space Arts@Renaissance (A@R) – 2 Kingsland Avenue), the show is a nightly sell out, even with general admission tickets going for $95 each. The performance company (Third Rail Project) will next bring the work to downtown Manhattan to extend the show further. According to Artistic Director Tom Pearson, they expect little trouble selling out the first three months in Manhattan as well.
Then She Fell’s commercial success is tied to a greater trend known as “immersive theatre,” first brought to New York by the critically acclaimed Sleep No More in 2011. Whether or not this experience is a passing fad or a sea change in live performance remains to be seen. But to understand the appeal of Then She Fell, it is important to first understand what immersive theatre is.
Most people walk into a theater expecting a play to sit passively while the players on stage tell a story. In immersive theater, the audience members become active players and wander through the set, engaging directly with the characters. In a traditional staging of Alice in Wonderland there may be a scene where characters paint white rosebushes red. In Then She Fell, you and the Rabbit paint the flowers together.
To give this kind of personal attention, audiences are kept small. 15 audience members are present for each performance, which includes 8-10 actors. At A@R, members are swept from room to room in what used to be the outpatient wing of the old hospital, and are frequently isolated and removed from the people they came with. The result is a stunningly personal performance in which you really do feel that, like Alice, you’ve entered a magical world where only you’re normal and everyone else is as mad as a hatter.
Logistically, this creates all kinds of difficulties for the actors. “People can do whatever they want, and you as an actor have to be able to react and lead them without putting them off,” says Marissa Nielsen-Pincus of Williamsburg, who plays Alice and is an Associate Artistic Director of the company.
“Some of our performers are former horse trainers,” adds Zoe Schieber (the White Queen), a Greenpoint resident. “They talk all the time about using the same skill set to help them control the crowd.”
Unfortunately, some of that sense of being handled does come across; rather than given liberty to explore the world, you’re more being led through room exhibits. At times, it feels a bit like talking to a magician, where all your answers are predetermined by a set of questions, and are irrelevant to the scene being presented. (“Tell me… is this one your card?”)
Which isn’t to say that the magic trick isn’t a good one: it is. The setting is beautiful, the costumes are spectacular, and there’s a warmth and compassion to the dancing and score that makes up for some of the rough edges to the performance.
For those who have never seen immersive theatre, this is a good one to try to catch. For those who saw Sleep No More and were put off by the crowds, this might be more your flavor.
And if the idea of immersive theatre seems new and intimidating, Schieber says not to worry. “That’s what people like about it. It pushes their boundaries.”
“Sometimes I see how nervous [audience members] are, and I want to just tell them to relax,” adds Nielsen-Pincus. “This show is very kind.”