- Graham Brown
For theater companies around the country and around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has generated a need to think creatively about where and how it might be possible to produce live theater in this time, when most traditional theater spaces might not seem safe for potential attendees. According to Graham Brown—artistic director of SONDERimmersive, the company behind site-specific interactive theater works like Thank You Theobromine—they might have been just a little more prepared than most to figure out what comes next.
"I think creative problem-solving is one of our primary features," Brown says. "The fact that we always make work in odd spaces entirely gave us a position to go, 'Give us any parameter, and we can make it work.'"
SONDERimmersive puts that experience to the test with Through Yonder Window, a new spin on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet conceived and designed specifically for this unique time. Making use of one of the parking garages at The Gateway, it offers a fully social-distance-friendly set-up in which groups of patrons pay by the car, and never actually have to leave their vehicles in order to enjoy the performance. During the one-hour show, cast members interact with the vehicles—and with one another—from a safe distance, without live spoken dialogue and accompanied by pre-recorded audio provided over FM radio.
The work on developing Through Yonder Window began shortly after the stay-at-home period began, as the company dealt with the realization that its planned production of The Chocolatier—which was to debut on March 13—would have to be postponed. "Everything pretty much went down on March 12," Brown recalls. "It was a really tough moment. My creative partner, Rick Curtiss, and I sat down in March and went, 'What do we do?' So many [theater companies] were going digital, and we were thinking, 'Do we do that, put our work online or something?' But we concluded that so much of what we're about is a live experience, so we tried to think of how we can make live experiences in this moment."
It was Curtiss who first brought up how drive-in movie theaters were seeing a resurgence in popularity due to the closure of multiplexes, and wondered if there was a way to piggyback off of that idea. "That got all of us excited," Brown says. He then followed up by suggesting that they use as the material for their production something that was really familiar, "like Romeo & Juliet. I was kind of kidding, but everyone said, 'Let's do that.' It's a really physical story, and there's a lot of room to play with it."
That flexibility within the text allowed for the development of a variation on that familiar story that would resonate with the specific dynamics of our pandemic moment, while digging deeper into the traditional play's supporting characters in a way that gave, for example, Friar Lawrence an equal dramatic footing with the two young lovers. The production would also have to provide safety for the cast and creative team, in addition to that which is afforded to the audience by virtue of staying inside their cars.
"First of all, the show is a direct commentary on our COVID moment, in the sense that our performers themselves maintain social distancing and wear masks," Brown says. "It makes for interesting performance parameters, because how do you tell Romeo & Juliet when people can't touch each other? One of my hopes is that the audience almost forgets people aren't touching."
The physical space is another unique element of the production, as SONDERimmersive settled on the parking garage after conversations with Utah Arts Alliance's Jonathan King. The result is sort of a mix of a drive-in movie and theater-in-the-round, as the audience members' cars are pointed at various angles towards a central performance space that Brown says creates kind of a "fishbowl" effect. "The transformation of the space—a big, kind of boring parking garage being turned into Verona—is a major part of it," Brown says.
While Brown says that Through Yonder Window isn't designed specifically as a family-friendly show, the logistics of the production make it easy for people to bring along children—both because they can feel safe, and because there's no concern about youngsters disturbing the performance. Yet he also wants to emphasize that, in a key way, this show really does continue the creative direction that has already defined SONDERimmersive.
"With immersive theater, one of the key features of the work is the audience always has choice and multiple experiences; no two people have the same experience," Brown says. "You're in your car, which feels very safe, but we come quite close. We always like to put people just a little off-guard."