Windy City Playhouse's 2018-2019 production of Southern Gothic was not the first and not the only immersive theater production in town, but it is among the first to achieve a sustained high profile and perhaps the longest run at some 22 months. It earned Jeff Awards for its director, David Bell, scenic designer, Scott Davis, and properties designer, Eleanor Kahn. Its success helped put the then-five-year-old theater firmly on the map, and drew the attention of a wider audience to this form of theater loosely termed "immersive."
No Proscenium, a national website that reports exclusively on immersive theater, defines it "as an experience that physically and (usually) narratively puts the audience in the same place in which the action occurs." By that definition, Southern Gothic certainly qualifies.
If you were accustomed to hiding in the dark as you watched a drama unfold on a stage behind a fourth wall, your notion of theatergoing was challenged and expanded. And that is exactly what managing director Evelyn Jacoby and artistic director Amy Rubenstein had in mind when they and their cofounders, Milan and Joshua Rubenstein, established Windy City Playhouse in 2014.
When you arrived at Windy City Playhouse to see Southern Gothic, you found yourself on the veranda of a full-scale, 1,800-square-foot 1950s bungalow erected within the Playhouse. Here was a living room, there a dining room, to your right, a bathroom, and to your left a kitchen with a working refrigerator and drawers filled with utensils. Scenes played out, sometimes in all four rooms, most often simultaneously, as would happen at a party.
It took some trial and error for Windy City Playhouse to arrive at their own form of immersive theater.
AMY RUBENSTEIN (cofounder and artistic director, Windy City Playhouse): I was looking for a way to get more people to see theater, especially people who don't normally think of themselves as theatergoers. From day one, we wanted to break down any barriers or preconceived notions about what theater is. We knew we didn't want a proscenium theater because it separates the audience from the actors. We also knew we didn't want a traditional theater seating. That was very important to us.
DAVID BELL (director, Southern Gothic): Amy has a great sense that there is an audience/actor contract that is partly dictated by the space itself.
RUBENSTEIN: We started out with traditional plays, so we were contradicting ourselves. On the one hand, we were trying to be so different, but on the other hand we were scared to do a piece that didn't already have some sort of critical success. We also were bringing in designers who were wonderful, but we kept getting in-the-round, thrust, alley, and proscenium designs. Those are the usual models, right? So it makes sense that that's what we were getting.
Then, by the time we got to our third show, Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight [by Peter Ackerman], we said, "OK, we're not doing what we set out to do." This play was about three couples in three different bedrooms, so we said, "Well, this is our chance." We stuck a bedroom over there, a bedroom over there, and a bedroom in the middle, and the audience was everywhere in between. They sat in chairs that swivel so they could turn to the scene and were able to get involved in a different way. But the audience's focus was still on one thing at a time. So at that point, I went to see immersive theater everywhere I could find it. I saw a lot in New York and other cities, too. Some of my favorites were Fuerza Bruta, De La Guarda, Then She Fell, and Sleep No More.
Then, I read Leslie Liautuad's play Southern Gothic, and [an idea] came to me in the middle of the night. I actually jumped out of bed and said, "Oh my God, I've got it!" This play is about a party and all this drama that goes on at the party, right? I thought, the audience has to be literally inside of it. Forget these swivel chairs that aren't allowing us to get inside of it. They're keeping us in one place.
Then, I realized, "Oh! It all has to happen at the same time [like in a party], and the audience has to be able to move whenever they want so that they can have control [of their experience].
LESLIE LIAUTAUD (playwright, Southern Gothic): I got a phone call out of the blue. Amy said, "There's this relatively new form of theater I'm seeing: immersive theater. I really think we can do that with your script. I probably Googled "immersive theater" to see what this is. I was searching everywhere, thinking, please let there be a formula because I don't know how to do this. My original script is traditional and happens one scene at a time. So I took a year and worked with Amy and Carl Menninger. The three of us basically ripped the script apart and rewrote it to be staged [in the way Amy imagined].
What I had figured out is that I needed to write a script for each character. I printed all of them out, and we laid them side-by-side. We made a river of scripts that circled around Amy's entire apartment.
CARL MENNINGER (associate artistic director, Windy City Playhouse): Then we had to figure out how these stories wove into each other, how they overlapped and how they could happen simultaneously. We felt a little out of our league, to be honest, but we knew that if we just kept forging ahead with this concept in mind, we would get there.
RUBENSTEIN: We were midway through our first draft when I went to David Bell. I knew that David would be the right director.
BELL: We sat down in my apartment, and Amy said, "I would like you to direct an immersive play." And I said yes!
RUBENSTEIN: I said, "But David, you have no idea what I'm talking about yet." He goes, "No, no. I do understand. It's great. This is exactly what I want. I'm in."
BELL: I hadn't even seen a script yet. She gave me a thumbnail, but I'd already said yes because I believe the nature of theater now is changing. Clearly, when you have a 20-foot gorilla on stage being the lead in a Broadway musical [King Kong], the dialogue that we are having with technical theater is changing. The opposite end of the spectrum is a show where you see someone having a nervous breakdown three feet away from you and without the safety of a proscenium arch or even stage lighting to distance them from you. And that's the thing that we were exploring in Southern Gothic.
THE FIRST REHEARSAL
RUBENSTEIN: When we first got it up on its feet with our eight actors, we did it in David's apartment.
LIAUTAUD: It was just dumb luck that his apartment is laid out almost exactly the way the set was designed.
EVELYN JACOBY (managing director): On the first day we read the entire play straight through, every single scene one at a time, rather than at the same time, the way it would eventually be in production. Hearing it in that format . . . Well, I just put my head down. I thought, Oh my god, I don't know if this is going to work. But then the second day, we started doing all the scenes simultaneously.
BELL: Evelyn was sitting over there. Leslie moved around a lot. Amy was in my dining room. I tried to hog the best spot. Carl, I think, was standing by the front door. So we were the audience.
JACOBY: I found myself doing the very thing that our audiences ended up doing. I started out one place, and then I found myself, like: Uh, wait a second, something louder and more dramatic is happening in the other room. And I moved over there.
MENNINGER: The actors were so game and so willing to go along with this. They recognized that they were creating something new, that it was going to change as we worked, and they had to be part of that evolutionary process.SARAH GRANT (actor, originated the role of Ellie): I remember having a feeling of anxiety about it. I wanted to know what other scene was happening at the same time. I'm used to being able to watch from the wings before my entrance, so I couldn't get a sense of the narrative flow at first. I remember having a little trepidation, like, is this really going to work? But I also remember being really swept away by David's excitement and charisma and feeling like he did know what he was doing and had a good sense of where we were headed.
LIAUTAUD: I will never forget getting to the end of that first read-through and looking at Amy and Carl and David; all of our jaws were on the floor. We said, "Oh my gosh, this actually works!"
JACOBY: Southern Gothic was our first ever world premiere, too, so it wasn't just our first time doing this style, it was our first time developing a new script in house, a title nobody's ever heard of. I knew all the marketing challenges that go along with that. And on top of that, it's a style of work that few have even heard of. It's certainly not widely known here in Chicago, yet. As an administrator, I was nervous about the whole thing.
GRANT: It's not traditional theater and everyone was coming to the space with different expectations for how to behave and what immersive theater might be like.
MENNINGER: When the audience arrives, they gather on the patio and they're given a few basic instructions: Don't talk to or touch the actors, stay at the perimeter of the room. We were trying to keep those rules really basic.
RUBENSTEIN: We wanted to make it very clear that you're not a part of the story. You are an observer, a fly on the wall, a ghost in the room, an invisible guest.
JACOBY: We do keep that fourth wall. But it moves throughout the space with you.
MENNINGER: Some people stayed in the living room because you could pretty much see every room in the house from there. Other people followed a specific character, or moved when there was some yelling or action in another room.
JACOBY: There is no best seat in the house. The best seat in the house is the one that you think is best, appreciating that there's a multiplicity of experiences to have at any given moment. And you can change it many times during the evening, too.
RUBENSTEIN: Of course, audience members can't hear everything that's going on at a given moment, but they have to be able to follow the main storyline, so if some key piece of information comes out in the kitchen, for example, that same information had to come out in another room, too, but it didn't have to come out in the same way.
MENNINGER: At the end of the play, the lights would go out in each of the rooms, one at a time, which easily moved the audience into the last room with a light on, the living room, and that's where the last scene played out.
LIAUTAUD: When we first opened [in February of 2018], we hoped we'd sell enough tickets to stay open maybe eight weeks.
RUBENSTEIN: We were very, very pleasantly surprised. We didn't know that it would get the following that it got. We ran almost two years. [Windy City moved the production to their second venue in the South Loop on January 2, 2019, where it ran until October 27.]
GRANT: For me, it became this opportunity to have what felt like, by Chicago standards, a long-term run. I truly feel like it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to do this part in Chicago, my home, for 18 months, 500 performances.
JACOBY: Carl is directing The Boys In The Band, now, which opens January 29. We're turning our flagship theater at 3014 W. Irving Park Road into Michael's [the lead character] apartment. The audience will be free to move about the space, so again, you'll be surrounded by the story in a way that I think will be completely unique and hopefully bring audience members inside the story.
BELL: What Amy's trying to create now is repeatable, literate, enduring pieces of theater that are also immersive rather than the other way around. So this takes it far beyond just a gimmick. I do think it is the future of American theater.
Explore some of Chicago theater's other immersive companies, including Birch House Immersive, Silent Theater Company, and Albany Park Theater Project whose 2016 immersive production, in partnership with the New York-based Third Rail Productions, Learning Curve, became a sensation of its own. It placed audiences within the walls of an actual Chicago public high school and in the shoes of its students as they moved from room to room. APTP's current work-in-progress production, Port of Entry (through 1/25), invites audiences to step inside the stories of immigrants from all around the world within the walls of a single apartment building in Chicago's Albany Park. For more about immersive theater, both locally and nationally, check out the website No Proscenium (noproscenium.com). v