Are you one of those people who always meant to go see one of the high-octane immersive-theater productions by Williamsburg-based Third Rail Projects, but never found the time, occasion or money to do so? You’re in luck. A documentary about the masterminds behind Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise is set to premiere on July 23 at the Dance on Camera festival, and will be available for digital download at the same time.
And yet, on the phone with Third Rail’s co-artistic director Tom Pearson, I told him that Between Yourself and Me left me somehow dissatisfied. Sure, the visuals were striking, there was insightful commentary from Times theater critic Ben Brantley, and a good combination of fin-de-siècle imagery and 1970s roadside Americana. That’s precisely why I felt mild annoyance when the credits started rolling a little south of the 30-minute mark.
“Once we started trimming the fat of it,” Pearson told us, “We found that the short format was what was going to keep the interest up. It’s about experiential work, so after a while it’s hard to represent what it really feels like without going and see the work.”
The movie juxtaposes shows that are polar opposites within the body of work of Third Rail Projects. Then She Fell (performed 3,500 times since it opened in 2012) has a fin-de-siècle aesthetic and filters the psychological element through an Alice Liddell//Lewis Carroll prism. Roadside Attraction (2013-14) was an itinerant glimpse of summertime Americana, with a 1970s JC Penney look that uses a ‘70s-era pop-up camper as setting and stage. “Between the two of them, you get the range of our aesthetic, which is the way that we work,” Pearson said.
The seemingly far-flung subjects of their work come from the artistic directors’ own lives. “Everything that we’ve created is autobiographical in some way. Even in Then She Fell, with the Lewis Carroll framework, the story is US. It came from a question about duality, a question about love,” said Pearson. Roadside Attraction was loosely based on co-artistic director Jennine Willet’s family. The Grand Paradise is a kitschy tourist trap Pearson envisioned based on his upbringing in St. Augustine, Florida. Steampunk Haunted House was inspired by their visits to Burning Man.
Location-wise, they seem to love lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. “Many of the times, it’s the luck of the draw,” Pearson said. “Space is such a rare commodity in New York.” So, sets depend on where the space is and their attempt to make sense of it to the audiences. “There is a sense of mystery about space that is big part of our work, too; it wants to feel a little bit like you’re on an exploration.”
Pearson has been setting up immersive/experiential productions all over the world since the early 2000s. This type of work was called “promenade” or “experiential” before Sleep No More made “immersive” a buzzy term; Pearson, meanwhile, uses the term “analog” to describe Third Rail’s aesthetic. “Because there’s so much technology available, I think there is something beautiful about the simple magic of a really good analog experience,” he said.
Pearson sees the popularity of immersive theater as a reaction to our digital-device-tethered lives. “I think what people are trying to get at is that people want experiences over things,” he said. “The maneuvers you have when you’re online or playing video games have also taught people how to navigate these immersive settings. People want to have engagement and control over the experience.”
Another pillar of Third Rail’s creations is the manifestation of psychological spaces within seemingly ordinary scenarios. Yet, even in their more psychologically fraught moments, Third Rail Projects doesn’t want to startle the audience beyond a certain point. A powerful scene that connects with the audience needs to both stir an emotional response and to protect them. Structure is key: Audience members want to feel like they know where they’re going even in a seemingly topsy-turvy context. “Even if a scene goes into a very deep dive, it’s still structured in a way that is really clear,” Pearson explained.
Should you want to experience these (structured) psychological thrills first-hand, it looks like Then She Fell will keep being extended. The official closing date is September 30, but Pearson said it all depends on ticket sales and audience involvement. “As long as things are going well…we extend!”
“Between Yourself and Me” premieres on July 23 at Dance on Camera Festival and will be available for download and streaming.
“Then She Fell” continues through Sept. 30 at the Kingsland Ward at St. Johns, at 195 Maujer Street, Brooklyn.