By Ron Fassler
As a seasoned theatregoer, I freely admit that I am new to immersive theatre; which to those similarly uninitiated, features no theatre, no stage, and instead takes its audience members in small groups that travel to different locations in order to experience stories (performed by actors) that are designed to come together by evening’s end. Sleep No More, the most famous example of this genre, is still playing at downtown’s McKittrick Hotel, entertaining audiences since it premiered close to two years ago. Stars in the Night, presented by the Firelight Collective & Hillary Ellison, has been brought here from Los Angeles, where it has been reimagined on the streets of Brooklyn, in the distinctive (and stunning) area known as DUMBO.
As described on its website: “Intimate groups of 12 audience members are taken on a journey to witness the fallout when a woman suddenly goes missing, and the ripples of her disappearance illuminate mystifying connections between seeming strangers.” And indeed, as we walked along the cobblestone streets, which on the night I attended was an absolutely beautiful night of clear, cool weather, different cast members lured us to a handful of site-specific locations that made for a mysterious and delightful tour of a part of the city that is well worth exploring. As for the drama that unfolded, in what for want of a better word I hasten to describe as a play, this immersive experience left me somewhat hungry for something a bit more flavorful and appetizing.
I couldn’t help shake the feeling that as scenes were unfolding (mostly monologues and, on one occasion, a two-person scene), that I was in an acting class, which did not make for an ideal execution of this material. At the end of the evening, when we were handed programs that told us who the players were, which included the bios of the writers, producers and directors of the event, my hunch played out as I discovered that the play grew out of improvisations in an acting class. Stephanie Feury, the Firelight Collective’s co-artistic director, is a well-known and respected acting teacher in Los Angeles (and the daughter of the legendary Peggy Feury, who has been credited by such acolytes as Anjelica Huston and Lily Tomlin for guiding them to their best work). As promising as this may sound on paper, it’s a more difficult road to go down by way of execution, in the sense that the evening should feel improvised (which some of it is in terms of the way the actors sometimes interact with the audience), but when the switch comes to scripted material, it’s always best that you can’t see that switch turn on. As many of the greatest actors have said, the secret to acting is trying not to let anyone catch you doing it.
I would then single out for praise the actors that brought the most to the evening: an energetic and slightly dangerous performance from William Nicol; an ethereal and original turn from Deanna Noe, and a much-welcome, less serious one from Devonna Dehay (as a real estate agent who took us to two locations with broad enthusiasm, energy and superb comic timing).
One of the nicer aspects was an unexpected discussion that was had amongst the twelve of us left standing on a street corner at the end of the performance. Together we had our own improvisatory experience, going over what we had just seen and how it all added up.
If what I’ve described appeals to your sense of curiosity, by all means take a shot with Stars in the Night and on what immersive theatre is all about. And if it gets you down to the unique world that is DUMBO, you’re halfway already to a magical experience.
Photos: Matt Pulliam
Stars in the Night: An Intimate Immersive Production
Tickets on sale now through October 14th.