Inside – A Unique Theater Experience at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
There are a couple of things to know should you decide to embark on the 70-minute journey that is Inside, playing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The first is that you should dress for the weather, whatever it may be. A portion of the performance takes place outdoors, and if it’s a cold or rainy night you want to be prepared. The second is that the Cathedral was once the workplace of legendary science fiction author Madeline L’Engle. The place and her relationship to it is important, if not integral. If you have not read A Wrinkle in Time, it may be something of a disadvantage as that work seems to be the inspiration for Inside.
There’s something extraordinary about the setting, about taking up the very same space as a woman who so contributed so much to, and some might say pioneered, the form of science fiction/fantasy storytelling as L’Engle did. To gaze out the window where she gazed as she pondered her characters’ journeys. There’s also something visceral and creepy about doing so at night, climbing down narrow stairs into a dark basement, shut off from everything else by means of noise-cancelling headphones. In that way, Inside has very intelligently used the space and its history.
Below: Meggan Dodd, Above: Robin Johnson
The idea of the performance piece (which it is, more than a traditional play) is to give the audience members, twenty-two all told sent in pairs through different rooms in the cathedral’s administrative building, a unique experience. This means unique to each other. The story unfolds over the course of several related mini-plays, one per venue. The first and last are experienced together, with performers who are somewhat in conversation with the audience. The middle three segments use additional storytelling means—a book in one case and audio broadcasting in the other two to supplement the experience. It’s an interesting idea, and very specific to the space, but being as dependent on technology as it is, there’s also the chance for it to be hobbled by that same technology. It’s a very ambitious project, but not quite perfected.
Left to right: Tamilla Woodard, Tjasa Ferme, (almost hidden) Victor Yao, Peca Stefan
The creative team, directors Tamilla Woodard and Ana Margineanu and writer Peca Stefan, describe it as: “immersive. Our intention is to make it plain that you can be in the same place at the same time and have your perspective manipulated, so much so that you can begin to ignore the reality in front of you.” Says Margineanu, “In a present reigned by ‘alternative facts,’ Inside explores the deep mechanisms of manipulation, posing the question ‘how much of what we experience is affected by the voices in our heads, in the media, on social media or from inherited family beliefs?” Both costumed main actors and supplemental voice actors are on at the same time, following their various leads to create a layered experience. Unfortunately, between sometimes patchy reception and breathily whispered lines, it can be quite difficult to discern what is being said over the headphones while also keeping track of what is happening on the performance floor.
Each new pair of audience participants are led through the experience every twenty minutes or so, meaning the scenes must be reset. The transition, including participants being led out, actors returning to their starting places, and the stagehands replacing the props, makes the experience feel somewhat intrusive instead of immersive, which is a shame because the thinking behind the project is solid if not executed to its fullest potential. There’s also a lot of emotional heavy lifting. My partner in the journey, actress Marilyn Sokol, described the position of being a young actor tasked with delivering such heavy performances as “unenviable,” though those young actors really did throw themselves into the suffering the parts demanded, being as the performances are “continuous and overlapping,”
Unfortunately, the point of the production is for the audience participants to have two different experiences, but without time for discussion there’s no real way of knowing that they’re different until a later segment when one person is asked to perform a task and the other isn’t. Sometimes it isn’t even clear that the performance has begun, creating some awkwardness during attempts at dialogue with the performers, who have to stick to their scripts. Then again, that feeling of “is it or isn’t it?” lingers on. “In the theatre we are always asking for a suspension of disbelief and an acceptance of the reality we propose,” sums up Woodard. “In PopUP’s Inside that proposition — focused on the world around us — takes on an entirely new meaning.”
Despite the technical and logistic complications, there are moments of real emotional connection, even stark tension. If the group can solve the issues that break up and take the audience participants out of the experience, they will have a much more affecting piece, a piece of theater worthy of its astonishing backdrop.
Photos: Carly J. Bauer
Written by Peca Stefan
Directed by Tamilla Woodard and Ana Margineanu
Guest direction by France Damian
Choreography by Joya Powel
Contributions of guest playwrights Zhu Yi and Troy Deutsch
Tickets for April shows now on sale. Go to PopUP Theatrics.