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Lots of shows promise a one-of-a-kind evening. But that description is literally true when applied to Then She Fell, Third Rail Projects' immersive dance/theatre piece inspired by the life and works of Lewis Carroll. Performed in the former St. John parochial school in Williamsburg, which has been re-imagined as a Victorian-era psychiatric facility called Kingsland Ward, Then She Fell only accommodates 15 audience members per show, and every viewer's experience is unique. A variety of characters---including major players from Carroll's Alice books and the 19th-century author himself---lead you on a journey through the labyrinthine building, which dates from 1909 and feels decidedly like a wonderland, albeit a dark one.
There's no plot per se, but there are plenty of unforgettable interactions. You may end up taking dictation from the Mad Hatter or painting roses with the White Rabbit or brushing Alice's hair or watching the Red Queen freak out in her cell or downing unidentified contents of various vials. When you set off on your adventure, much of what happens isn't set in stone. Even the creators and cast don't know exactly how everything will play out.
"That's one of the big reasons the piece took two years to develop," says Zach Morris, a co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects along with Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett. "We wanted to ensure that every audience member had a really personal experience. Everyone has moments when they're watching scenes with a group of people and moments when they're by themselves. We needed to create seamless transitions so audiences would feel swept up going from one place to another. Every person helps to construct their own narrative arc. It took years for us to figure out how to engineer that."
Third Rail Projects is a Bessie Award-winning performance troupe that specializes in site-specific work. The creators had been looking to mount an immersive piece that would be a hybrid of theatre and dance, and Morris felt Carroll's work was a natural fit for the project. "Immersive theatre tends to be inherently nonlinear, so we wanted to start with something that had cultural cachet," he explains. "I thought of the <i>Alice</i> text. We started reading it and doing all this research about Carroll, and we became fascinated by the lives of the author and Alice Liddell," the real-life girl who inspired her fictional namesake.
Prior to Then She Fell (which ran for three months last year in Brooklyn's former Greenpoint Hospital before transferring to its current Williamsburg location for an open run), the company was well known for its annual Steampunk Haunted House at the Abrons Arts Center. In 2011, the theme of the Halloween installation was Alice in Wonderland, and that's when the troupe started trying out different set pieces that would eventually evolve into Then She Fell.
While the three co-artistic directors jointly directed, designed, and choreographed (and also play various roles at certain performances), Morris was the designated Vision Keeper. "That's the person who has the initial idea or the big vision," explains Willett. "We all brainstormed, but Zach collected all of the information and created the vision and we were there to support that." As such, Morris is credited as the author of the show's original spoken text and written ephemera. "We weren't interested in doing a retelling of Alice in Wonderland," Morris explains. "We wanted to see what the points of intersection were for their biographies and the books, and to explore themes of duality and reflection."
If that explanation sounds rather heady, Then She Fell is actually quite accessible and very visceral. It's impossible to move through the scenes without becoming involved, emotionally and otherwise. There's so much to see, taste (yes, there are snacks), touch (you get keys to open cabinets and drawers) and do. There are two rules---don't speak unless spoken to and don't open any closed doors---but beyond that, you're on your own.
"It's impossible to see every scene, and in some cases, people don't even see several of the rooms," Morris says. "We designed it that way. We wanted audiences to have that Alice-like feeling of there being a world you really can't see the edges of. "
In moving Then She Fell to its new home, the creative team needed to make a number of modifications, especially since the old space was just one story and the St. John building is three floors. "It was a challenge," admits Pearson. "We retained a lot of material, but changes had to be made. But as site-specific artists, we take our cues from the architecture and even try to incorporate some of the history of the space." To that end, even though the show is ostensibly set in a hospital, there are many authentic school-related artifacts on view. "It's not easy to get your bearings in the space," adds Willett. "I still find myself getting lost a little bit when I go through."
The trio is reluctant to reveal much about the mechanics of how the show works---one minute you may be in a group of five, watching the Red Queen and the White Rabbit in a kind of S&M dance, and a few minutes later you might find yourself alone in a bedroom, staring at copies of real photos taken by Lewis Carroll, wondering exactly how you got there---because they don't want to ruin the magic. But Morris does say that the audience experience is not predetermined. "They make decisions about which drawers to open and how to engage the characters and where to move in the room," he says. "The cast walks in not knowing what's going to happen and we try to honor the way each audience member wants to navigate through this world. It's a conversation and a collaboration. No audience member experiences the same show."
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Darial Sneed