Last Saturday, my best friend called and I let it go to voice mail. “Sorry,” I texted. “Rescuing a lady in Caracas.” Then I went back to Googling how to escape police handcuffs.
The closure of theaters, into June at least, has meant a surge in the availability of filmed performances and live readings. I have moused and clicked through a few, mostly ones I could watch without covering the screen whenever the children walked by. In all but the best filmed theater, a sense of something missing — evanescence, a snack bar — persists. And these days, with my focus as finely honed as the blob of Play-Doh stuck to our carpet, I look at the screen, I look away. Someone demands milk with a curly straw or needs place value explained. I give up.
But two weeks ago, I received an email from Candle House Collective, a theater company specializing in remote immersive experiences. I have always liked immersive theater — a form of performance, usually but not always site-specific, in which audiences participate, to lesser and greater degrees. This is probably because I’m the kind of person always waving her hand when a magician asks for a volunteer. And because when I participate actively, my mind seldom drifts toward unfolded laundry and pandemics.
So I wrote to Candle House and requested the deluxe Leap of Faith package. After the company sent an email clarifying that the encounters “feature intense/disturbing content,” I tried, not quite hard enough, to downgrade. By scrolling through my inbox and a guide to remote and online experiences, aggregated by the site No Proscenium, I discovered other companies offering milder encounters. I booked five. At best, this would mean an all-inclusive vacation for my neocortex. At worst, a break from what I like to call Mommy’s Disaster Montessori, accreditation pending.
I had plenty to choose from, maybe too much. There was “Pass the Sugar, Please,” based in Salem, Mass., which combines a remote tea party and B.D.S.M. And the Majestic Repertory Theater in Las Vegas offered “Dial S for Salvation,” which advertises itself as an interactive “that’ll knock you upside the head … with FAITH!” Theater is typically local, a selling point or a hitch, depending on your outlook. Now I could roam as widely as my data plan and home-schooling schedule allowed.
Noah J. Nelson, who runs No Proscenium, has observed an upswing in these remote performances, with some companies reviving archived shows and others pivoting to so-called intramedia work — incorporating phone, email, SMS and video conferencing — for the first time. “The tools are limited, right?” he said.
But traditional immersive theater, with its reliance on human bodies and questionable carpentry, has limits, too. The challenge, Nelson noted, lay in reproducing the contingency and intimacy of live theater digitally. The question for this moment: “How do you take that magic and bring it into people’s homes?” he asked.
My experiences began on a Wednesday, at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, when my phone buzzed with a text from an unfamiliar number. I stopped the stroller to read it: “Text from Romeo: HEYYYYYYOOOOOOO!!!!! What’s good friar, Thx for helping me out with this female. She’s worth the trouble, ya know?” My 6-year-old, seeing the look on my face, asked, “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Spelling? Everything?
Charm City Classics Company, a Baltimore outfit, had initiated “Civil Hands Unclean,” a version of “Romeo and Juliet” accomplished via SMS. It casts the recipient as Friar Laurence, a good role for a time when many of us can’t bring ourselves to change out of our bathrobes. It is ongoing as I write this — Tuesday’s text from Juliet groused about Romeo’s “weenie”— and even now, with several characters dead, I am feeling more unclean all the time.
On Friday, I tried again, twice. Around lunchtime I began a “telephonic investigation” with “The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries,” produced by the Toronto company Outside the March. An email query had directed me to the Misplaced Keepsakes Division (alternatives: the Striking Coincidences Thinktank and the Paranormal Activity Task Force), and I found myself telling a caller who identified himself as Inspector Heins how years ago I had lost a Piaget watch — easily the nicest thing I have ever owned — at the Union Square farmers’ market. Other related phone calls arrived, one from a jittery subscription agent for The New Yorker, another from a man identifying himself as Hugh Jackman. “Will you postpone ‘Music Man’?” I asked.
A few hours later, I attempted “Play in Your Bathtub,” an immersive (submersive?) performance from This Is Not a Theater Company. Erin B. Mee, the artistic director, had developed the show when she found herself quarantined in a rented apartment in a foreign country. “I started thinking to myself, ‘What kind of work makes sense in this world that we’re living in?’” she said when we spoke pre-performance. Hot baths had always relaxed her. “I suddenly realized we could actually do a site-specific participatory piece that everyone could do in their own bathtub.”
That afternoon, I ran water, assembled suggested props (including a mug of herbal tea, which I discovered, hours later, still in the microwave) and tried to talk my husband through what the 6-year-old would need for her robotics class. Just before the 3:30 curtain time, I rushed into the apartment’s only bathroom — which I had definitely intended to clean — hit play, stripped down (which felt low-key creepy, even for a prerecorded performance on SoundCloud) and stuck a foot in. Surprise! I am a terrible props mistress and may have scalded myself. What with the draining and refilling and screaming into a towel, I missed the first several minutes of “Play,” which mixes music, sound effects and murmured monologues. Relaxation never really hit.
The next day, while my husband took the children to the park, I received a clumsy text. “I’m ab American I’ve been taken hostage,” it read. The following text explained the clumsiness: “They handxudffed me.” This was “The Girl on the Phone,” a live-action role-play from Sinking Ship Creations, a company based in New York City. The group developed this piece before the current crisis, Ryan Hart, the show’s producer, had told me a few days earlier. “It just so happens that now, everybody has time to try it,” he said.
Through further texts, I learned that the girl, Irene, had been on her way to visit her grandmother in Caracas when men dressed as police kidnapped her. She had found a phone, and the phone had my number in it. I have never visited Venezuela, but… OK? A tense hour followed in which, with minimal competence, I texted a shortened wikiHow on cracking a combination lock and pecked phrases into a translation program. In the midst of a traumatic situation, Irene kept her patience with me, even when I gave her wildly wrong Google Maps direction. At one point, she asked me to contact her grandmother if she didn’t make it, and I apologize to the real Venezuelan woman who had to field my panicked Facebook friend request.
That night, my Candle House sessions began, first with a message from an unknown number telling me that the best way to make a new friend was to text someone you don’t know. “Or rather, someone who doesn’t know you,” the text continued. “Don’t you think, Alexis?” Then a man calling himself The Operator phoned. Soft-voiced, sinister, he told me an eerie Jewish folktale, and I tried to convey that this might not be the most horror-curious time of my life. Did I mention that Candle House provided me with a safe word and a list of mental-health resources?
After that call ended, another man came on: a pilot who had lost control of his plane. “I can’t breathe!” Captain Jackson screamed. “Can you help me? Can you help me, please?” I couldn’t find a wikiHow on how to land a 747. Which is to say: No.
On Sunday afternoon, I participated, silently, in two short plays by Performance for One. Edward Einhorn, the playwright and director, connected me, via Skype, with an actress who presented two oblique monologues. On her end of Skype, impromptu sirens came and went. And then, after dinner, more Candle House — first a conversation with a death row inmate, then a chat with a caseworker about my recent demise. My 3-year-old woke up from a nightmare right when the caseworker wanted to know if I had ever been immobilized with fear, and the conversation may have turned curt. “READ THE ROOM,” I scrawled in my notebook. She also told me that in a past life, I had been a potato.
On Monday, the inmate phoned again. The call ended poorly. For him, anyway. Then The Operator performed a debrief, telling me that I had been very brave, which made me smile in that laughing/crying cat emoji way. A few minutes later, I spoke to The Operator again, although this time he identified himself as Evan Neiden, Candle House’s founder. “Every single call is different,” he said. “You got one of at least a few endings. The focus is always on storytelling as a conduit for connection.”
I thought back to how the caseworker’s call had ended, with a goofy twist that walked back most of the horror. She had read the room.
Me? I learned a lot during that week. How to open handcuffs with a shim, that Romeo is a boob guy. (Don’t ask.) Mostly I learned that I am bad at immersing while semi-panicking about Covid-19 and that I am worse at it while hearing my children cry in the next room of our very small apartment. There has rarely been a time when I wanted to escape into theater so much or have botched so many escapes so badly. Sorry, Irene. Sorry, Captain Jackson. And here’s a handy tip for home immersers: Check your water temperature.
The piece I enjoyed the most — maybe because it was made-to-measure and I am a narcissist; maybe because it was executed so generously — was my Mundane Mystery. It was dopey, sure. And it assumed, because I had made a passing reference to “Iron Man,” a thorough knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Also they never found my watch. But it let me be who I am (a harried writer and home-schooling flop who might be drinking too much right now) and met me where I was, usually at my kitchen counter, slicing apples for the children’s lunch. It asked about my world, listened and then let me slip free of it, at 10-minute intervals.
“We want it to be a project that leads with optimism,” Mitchell Cushman, a co-creator, told me. “We wanted it to have conflict, but we didn’t want it to be dark and disturbing. Because our real world right now is very dark and disturbing.”
I thought about what he said later on that night, after my final calls, and about improvisation, live-ness and what it means to attempt theater without theater. And then I immersed (submersed?) myself in a very large glass of biodynamic wine.