Ryan SparksTHEATER, FRINGE13

New 'Immersive Experience' Category Dares Performers & Audiences at N.O. Fringe

Ryan SparksTHEATER, FRINGE13

The New Orleans Fringe Festival’s motto has long been, “Fearless Performers, Fearless Audiences,” but a new category of performances will put both parties to the test this year.  The idea behind an immersive experience is that the performance, whether it is intimate or grandiose, provides the audience a greater sense of involvement beyond mere observation.  The category is a flexible one, and many shows also fall under more familiar genres.    

Kristen Evans, the Executive Director of the festival, said the addition of the category to the application was meant to encourage more of the shows that both organizers and audiences were strongly responding to like Freefall's lie.lay.laid from last year or Skinhorse Theater's Port/Architect from 2010.  "These categories are interesting things.  When we put a category on the application, it says we welcome this type of performance.  The other reason we put it there is because we have this perception [that] it might encourage people to do more of that work." 

Martin Dockery, a professional storyteller based in New York City, devised his show The Dark Fantastic as a way to capture an audience completely.  Most of the stories in his repertoire are humorous and autobiographical, but after a particularly bad experience performing at an outdoor carnival festival where people came in and out of his tent and not really engage, Dockery decided to come up with a new approach.

The Dark Fantastic // Shadowbox Theatre // Showtimes & Tickets

The Dark Fantastic // Shadowbox Theatre // Showtimes & Tickets

“I was like, you know what, I want to do a show that would really freak these people out,” he said.  “I want to do a show that will get into a dark place in someone’s soul and into someone’s dream.  I want to create an experience where you can’t just wander drunkenly in with a date.  Where you sit down and go on this journey if you’re willing to go there.”

The Dark Fantastic starts in total darkness as the narrator begins to weave the story of four characters whose lives collide--one of those characters is the audience itself.  There is a soundtrack that Dockery times his story to that aids in the entrancing of the audience and pull them into the narrative.  

Dockery said that the tone is inspired partly by David Lynch, but also by an attraction at the amusement park he grew up right next to.  “There was a ride at this park that was completely in darkness called The Scrambler that whips you around.  There’s something about when you’re in darkness you’re all alone in your experience, and you think the voice is speaking directly to you.”  

While The Dark Fantastic provides a dare to the audience to step on its ride, Sacred Waste offers a different challenge: acknowledging a phenomenon in which they are already participating before they even buy their ticket.  

The show consists of a suite of faux tribal rituals and mythmaking stories about plastic waste.  The inversion of plastic’s role as a one-use afterthought into objects of worship were inspired by director Bonny McDonald’s work on a documentary about waste disposal in Austin, TX.  

“It has long been my thought that if we respect plastic's history as a fossil fuel which came into being across the vastness of geologic time, as well as its future as a substance that will outlive us and likely all imaginable future generations--that we ought to treat it with the greatest respect instead of mere junk.  Hence, the idea of worshiping it as ‘sacred waste,’” she said.

Sacred Waste // Mardi Gras Zone // Showtimes & Tickets [Photo by Max Trombly]

Sacred Waste // Mardi Gras Zone // Showtimes & Tickets

[Photo by Max Trombly]

The show takes a tongue-in-cheek tone with its performance, but not about its message, or, as McDonald said, “we delight even as we indict!”  All of the costumes and props are made from plastic items, and the plastic shamans treat the audience as initiates into their religion.  It calls to mind last year’s hit Trash Rabbit, but as opposed to how that show incorporated plastic bags into magic tricks, Sacred Waste will offer the audience the chance to be a part in both creative and destructive ways.

The show evolved out of a series of flash mobs McDonald organized in coffee shops in Baton Rouge, LA, where similar characters tried to subvert customers’ attitudes towards their to go cups.  She believes the theatrical performance can evoke the same response.  

“Audience members from the first run of the show reported having great fun dancing and chanting, getting swept up in the spectacle, but after the show, they were haunted, thinking: ‘Wow, I was celebrating this really gross stuff; I was cheering for birds' dying.’  There is a real tension between the whimsy and beauty of the spectacle and the terrifying reality it describes.”

Audience participation performs a different function in With Love, From the Underground by the local company, Second Foundation.  Founding member and actress Danielle Mettler performs as Persephone, the goddess from Greek mythology who was kidnapped by Hades and installed as the queen of the underworld.  Through multimedia, physicality, and communal drinking, the show compels the audience to become involved in the action.

With Love, from the Underground // The Red House // Showtimes & Tickets

With Love, from the Underground // The Red House // Showtimes & Tickets

“It’s up to the audience to see if they can save her or not,” Mettler said.  “[Persephone] tells her story through the drinking game and ultimately it comes down to a game of chance which she plays with the audience.  So it’s basically up to the audience whether or not she’s stuck in the underworld or she’s freed.”

When asked how she rehearses for a show dependent on the audience, especially one that’s encouraged to imbibe, Mettler said it will definitely be a challenge.  Some friends have been available as stand-ins for the audience, but when it comes to the real performances, Mettler said, “I will have to take what they give me.”  

Of course, this is the kind of fearless performing without a safety net that the Fringe built its reputation on.  Mettler feels like in New Orleans audience members are looking for something beyond just a show to watch--they want an experience that isn’t just immersive, but also slightly exclusive, a feeling that if you weren’t there, you won’t ever really know what it was all about.  

“I feel like [in New Orleans] what an audience expects from a show is what they expect from a concert.  Which isn’t necessarily immersive, but they expect to have that level of engagement and transcendence.  New Orleans is a town where whenever you go to see something live, they expect to hear and be involved.  I feel like musicians like Shamarr Allen, Mia Borders, the Revivalists--they demand that their audience interact with them.”

Once again, the Fringe Festival is balancing local character with national trends in theater.  


For a full list of immersive experience shows at the Fringe, click here.  

Go to our dedicated New Orleans Fringe Festival page for more feature previews and reviews.