All at Once upon a Time


The subject of the email read “immersive experience in an historic house” and went on in the body to quote “‘this ‘aesthetically visceral, intellectually challenging and emotionally unafraid original work’ sounds right up your alley.”

Indeed, over the past years I’ve had opportunity to experience a number of these immersive performances, where the action takes place all around, often unexpectedly, in non-traditional performance spaces and involves/requires a certain level of audience participation.

Researching the background of “All at Once upon a Time” the new work in question to be staged in the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic Gardner-Pingree House, I learned that some of these experiences even shared a pedigree, tracing their origins to New York based stage director Giselle Ty.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to think that much of the appeal of these happenings [to appropriate the newly voguish 60s euphemism] lies in the anticipation of the unknown. What will it be like to experience a dramatic performance in a domestic space? What will be required of me?

Once you’ve been there and done that though, then, well, there’s not a great deal of mystery to anticipate, except perhaps the particular narrative into which we’ll be thrust.

I happen to always enjoy time spent in new and interesting domestic spaces, and all the better if those spaces are grand and/or historic. After all, a home is our first and most frequent stage, the place where we first learn to perform the roles of family, gender and social hierarchy. Imagining the rich and varied propagation and subversion of those performances over time in a space is a beloved personal past-time.

So, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never before been to the Gardner-Pingree House, [Yes, I know there are regular guided tours] but was delighted to have an immersive happening as excuse to do so.

I had no idea the narrative I was committing my evening to, but after affirming some house rules (e.g. “I promise not to stroke or steal other human beings, but I understand that gently nudging and physical contact might be part of the experience.”) and depositing my mobile in a PEM-branded muslin bag,  I eagerly and knowingly followed our expectedly mute guide’s wan directing hand to a seat on the floor of the grand house’s front parlor, transformed for our theatrical purposes by moody lighting and an impressionistic forest of trees constructed of raw lumber.

A school girl runs in and begins telling us in dense and scholarly language about the Northwest Coast, forests, and totems [reminding me that I really need to finish writing up those notes from PEM’s new contemporary native fashion show].

Before I have a chance to create context for this uncontextualized avalanche of images and multi-syllabics [post-performance research suggests the text comes from photographer William Reid’s 1968 exploration of decaying totems in British Columbia, “Out of the Silence”], that familiar wan hand guides me mid-soliloquy to an adjoining room where I’m eventually joined by four more of our party of 15.  

This room too has been unrecognizably transformed. Papers are everywhere: clothes-pinned to strings strung across the ceiling, scattered across the expansive table. Some are handwritten; some have been typed on a typewriter; some printed in familiar fonts. Some are in English, others are not. A handwritten card invites us to find a text that speaks to us, copy it, and share it with someone later. We’re here for awhile — no words are spoken though lots of words are read and written, and I struggle to make connections among them, hardly a discrete image let alone narrative of any complexity, so much stimulation! so hard to commit to focusing — until eventually our familiar guide returns with another note inviting us to meet her upstairs.

Totally and blindly committed to the guidance of our mysterious leader, we follow to an upstairs bedroom where another note placed upon a pile of strips of toile invites us to “unravel me,” revealing a ballerina in fetal position who begins to come alive with a violinist’s playing. Taking the ends of organza(?) tied to her wrists, we each are given the power/influence to manipulate her actions. A quick shake or graceful swing is reflected in the kick of a leg or wave of an arm. That sense of “control” or even co-creation is a misdirection though as it must be acknowledged our ballerina chooses and interprets each action at her will regardless of our action or desire.  

Eventually the violin player stops playing and therefore the dancer can no longer dance, and it’s time for us to be guided into another room.

Here we find proper seats, and a portable stage curtain, and a man running a soundboard. It’s almost like a traditional performance space, except of course we’re in the upstairs room of an historic house. We also discover that our presumed singular guide comes in multiples. She’s a twin! And then the curtain moves revealing more of our original group twinning us on the other side of the room. Now newly rejoined in an approximation of what we once we were, we together watch our guides dress as monkey and bear and perform an interpretive dance with bananas to a ragtime recording, the significance of which is honestly wholly lost on me. Are these archetypes? stereotypes? simply an absurdity? Definitely racial overtones. . .

The rest of the groups that splintered from our formative forest in the front room, rejoin us in this newly appropriated theatre. The ballerina and violinst are there. A lute player too. And others I don’t recognize. There’s a dance party! (I worry about the bouncing of the historic floor) and balloons!

And then a return to the room in the back of the house where we started for hot cider and snacks and conversation.

How different all of our experiences were! And so many questions about what we just experienced, where it came from and what it meant.

I suspect it’s this post-performance conversation that is intended to be the substance of “All at Once Upon a Time…(or Variations on the Theme of Disappearing)”. A time for us to make meaning from the rich material that’s been collected for us and presented to us.

Perhaps not much different the meaning-making that’s been being performed in the Gardner-Pingree’s dining room and parlor for centuries?


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