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Third Rail Projects ups its game with its latest immersive theatre experience
"Next time, I'll make sure you get more sex and less death," promises Third Rail Projects' Tom Pearson after my night spent exploring The Grand Paradise. Like the theatre company's long-running, Alice in Wonderland-inspired Then She Fell, its new interactive show takes place in a multilayered fantasyland where all of your senses are stimulated -- yes, even taste, touch, and smell. However, The Grand Paradise is produced on a much grander scale, with 60 audience members and 20 performers frolicking in a late-'70s, hedonistic, tropical resort where adventures and awakenings await. And, in large part, you determine your own fate.
"There's a certain section where you are very much shepherded, but how you get there is based on your own choices," says Pearson, who co-created the show with his Third Rail Projects co-artistic directors Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. "There's a lot of freedom in the beginning. Depending on where you are in the room or who you gravitate toward in that first section, that leads you into the curated time."
Indeed, unlike Then She Fell -- which only accommodates an audience of 15 who are guided throughout -- the first quarter-hour of The Grand Paradise resembles a retro spring break party, with strangers meeting and mingling on the sand as the performers gift them with leis next to the purported Fountain of Youth. Soon, a square, Polyester-clad family of five arrives for what will turn out to be a life-changing sojourn. Once the Siren sings, everyone sets off on different routes inspired by the vacationers. Do you follow one of the parents as they confront midlife crisis in two entirely different ways? Or do you shadow one of the teenagers (a son, a daughter, and her boyfriend), who each experience a sexual coming of age? "There's five different paths and you only get to try two," explains Pearson. "How those pan out and what meaning you take from them is up to you."
The Grand Paradise takes inspiration from the '70s upbringing of Third Rail Projects' fortyish leaders, especially Pearson's childhood in St. Augustine, Florida, and features the same family from its touring show Roadside Attraction. Just as Then She Fell conjured Victorian England via vintage artifacts, this show evokes its era with carefully selected details sure to induce a nostalgia trip in anyone old enough to recall 45s, rain lamps, and Blueboy magazine. Those too young to remember may still quickly succumb to this well-rendered world.
"When you start creating a piece that takes place not so long ago but still in a different time, you ask yourself, what were the specific tastes and smells?" says Pearson. "Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was very much the soundtrack of my childhood, and the smell of Charlie perfume and coconut air fresheners. We wanted to get at the era's sensory components without relying on obvious things like lava lamps and disco balls. And then we had this idea of a place being sentient, having its own fragmented identity. A town that is always performing itself. How does that manifest in the characters? How do we make a place that is both ridiculously artificial and authentically magical?"
Third Rail Projects literally built this experience from the ground up with a little help from Kickstarter, transforming a 5,000-square-foot Bushwick warehouse into a labyrinth filled with barely lit secret rooms, a shipwrecked-themed bar, a disco, and a human aquarium, and devising the dances and dialog in collaboration with its company members. But perhaps the most daunting task of all was figuring out The Grand Paradise's choose-your-own-adventure setup. "That was the big structural experiment for us," admits Pearson. "How do we create it so audience members have more agency but still craft the experience to give intimate encounters? Those are almost mutually exclusive endeavors, but I think we found a balance that's working."
Of course, as with any interactive show, the audience is the unknown factor. During the course of your evening, you may be called upon to rub sunscreen on a lifeguard, get in bed with a hustler, hand underwear to a naked swimmer, or contemplate your own death. No one knows exactly how you'll react -- not even you. Regardless of how many fail-safes are put in place, there's always a chance that a rogue reveler will derail the journey. But Pearson is confident the company can always get everything back on track. "The cast has all these tactics in terms of how to navigate mechanical errors or audience anomalies," he says. "We make sure that the performers have the control so they can reroute or end a scene on a dime if they have to. Most people play along just fine. Even when they're pushing the choices, they do it in the spirit of the piece. I think it's because it's like a game. If the rules are clear, then people know how to behave."
Photos courtesy of Third Rail Projects. Top image: Elizabeth Carena and Tori Sparks.