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Making 'Midsummer' Even More Scrumptious

Date: Aug 01, 2019

How Third Rail Projects is reinventing dinner theatre while continuing to expand its horizons


Fans of Third Rail Project's immersive works may be surprised to find chairs at the company's latest show, Midsummer: A Banquet. The troupe is known for taking audiences on literal journeys through custom-designed environments at productions such as Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise and Ghost Light. But for Third Rail's take on Shakespeare's comedy about the intertwined romantic foibles of mortals and fairies, director and choreographer Zach Morris decided a sit-down affair at shared tables worked best since the entertainment is paired with a multi-course tasting menu.

Yet even though you stay in one place for the duration of the almost three-hour production, which is co-mounted with Food of Love Productions, prepare to be transported. Like Third Rail's other shows, Midsummer: A Banquet activates all your senses, including taste, touch and smell. The play goes on all around you as the dynamic ensemble of eight performs and serves, with the delivery of the food integrated into the action.

"I wouldn't define this Midsummer as immersive, but I would call it environmental and experiential," says Morris, a co-artistic director of Third Rail along with Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett. "The audience is not in the story in the same way, but every moment is about their experience. It is a unique situation to have our audience in one room for the entire show, but it turns out that getting an object to 138 people is infinitely harder than getting 138 people to move around a space. It is choreography to elegantly and intuitively get all of those courses to the audience in a way that feels like it's flowing along with and supporting the text."

The text is actually another way Midsummer: A Banquet differs from previous Third Rail shows, which were devised theatre with original scripts and a lot less speaking. Take the Alice in Wonderland-inspired Then She Fell: "95 percent of that text was stuff that I wrote, although I was pulling from many sources," says Morris. "When I started working on Midsummer I thought, wait a second, I don't have to make up the story! It was a refreshing moment realizing I was working with this extraordinary play -- the jokes still work after 400 years."

While Morris and his co-adapter Victoria Rae Sook (who also plays Titania and Hippolyta) cut and redistributed some passages, much of their work involved plumbing the script to see how food is referenced, and musing about what Athenians and forest fairies might eat (hearty meats and cheeses versus fruits, grains and vegetables). They then worked with food designer Emilie Baltz to come up with a menu, and scenic designer Jason Simms transformed the Union Square space (the former home and studio of artist Willem de Kooning) into the quaint Café Fae.


"We've done so many weird shows in so many weird places, but we've never opened a theatre and a restaurant at the same time, which is what we did this piece," says Morris. "Weirdly, this whole year for me has been about food and eating. It is a fundamentally communal and universal experience, and I'm super-interested in it as a medium for expression and community building. A lot of this really came out of the work Third Rail did with D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library in the spring when we produced Confection," which incorporated bite-size desserts by a local baking company.

With all the disparate and far-flung projects Third Rail has going on, it helps that there are three artistic directors. Lately, they have been spearheading separate creations. While Morris has been busy with Midsummer, Pearson curated Libraría: Stanzas, an intimate but engaging interactive installation about dreams on view for FREE at The Ace Hotel through August 6. Visitors can open card catalog drawers to find mini dioramas, peruse flipbooks and even use an augmented reality app on their smartphones to watch static photos turn into short films. "The more you see, the more you open, the more you explore, you will start to see the repeated patterns," explains Pearson, who purposefully opted not to include performers in this particular venture. "If Third Rail wants to continue to deliver intimate experiences, we need to figure out how to do that for more people without losing that idea of intimacy. It's an oxymoron, I know. But I think one of the answers is to create experiences that can hold people's attention. I've just removed the live performance from it." Pearson is also developing Ikaros, a site-specific reimagining of the Icarus myth performed on a former naval base for La Jolla Playhouse's upcoming Without Walls Festival in October. Meanwhile, Willett in is Chicago collaborating with the multiethnic youth ensemble Albany Park Theater Project on a new work about what it means to be an immigrant in America.

Pearson says their eclectic artistic backgrounds are what fuel the company's category-defying work. "I was a visual artist before I was anything else," he says. "And then I was an actor and then I was a dancer and for 15 years Third Rail was known as a dance company. But Jennine and I are both writers, too, and Zach was trained as a director. It's even more confusing when you start asking who does what because we all do anything all the time. It just rotates around and it works so we don't question it. I don't see us as being any one thing. We get called immersive theatre most of the time, which is funny because we weren't called theatre at all until 2012!"

Morris adds that going off in different directions and then reuniting is what keeps the trio's longtime partnership going. "Third Rail is about to hit its 20-year anniversary -- that's bonkers," he says. "We've come to understand the different patterns of creative inquiry, times when it really makes sense to go and fill up our individual cups so when we're back at the collaboration table, we have new ideas. Each one of us is currently obsessed with a different thing, and though we're all pursuing our own journeys, it's always interesting to come back together."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Midsummer: A Banquet, and Libraría: Stanzas is on view for FREE at The Ace Hotel. Go here to browse our current offers.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Charles Osborne and Caroline Amos in Midsummer: A Banquet. Photos by Chad Batka.