#WorldTheatreDay: Exploring the Surreal World of Immersive Theatre
When a situation doesn’t make sense, just go with the flow. That’s what I did, when I stepped into the theater.
(This story was originally published on 08.03.18 and is being republished from The Quint’s archives on World Theatre Day. Please note, this performance by the immersive theatre production company Crow, took place in Delhi in March 2018.)
What happens when you lose the outfit you carefully picked out for a birthday? You lose time (looking for it). But the Lost & Found Department at ‘The Emporium at the Edge of Certainty’ claims that you lose the time you spend thinking about your lost possession.
Unlike such departments elsewhere, one can shop here — when you buy a lost possession, you buy back the time the original owner lost thinking about the item.
Now, let’s step back in time.
It was an ordinary Saturday. I had decided to watch a play at south Delhi’s Okhla area, which was mysteriously named ‘The Emporium at the Edge of Certainty’. Little did I know it was an ‘immersive experience’, one that would involve audience participation.
The purpose of the experience was to facilitate spontaneous interactions between the actors and audience members. This is typical to the ‘Stanislavski method’ of acting or the immersive method, in which the actors play off of the audience’s reactions.
This is what sets apart an immersive theatre production from a regular play.
The venue was unassuming. It was an old, two-storey house, with paint peeling off its decrepit body. A cold, palpable silence hung about the air. Barring a lone street lamp and a tungsten bulb at the doorway, the house was mostly cloaked in darkness.
At the doorway stood a lonely old desk and chair, both at the end of their tether. Two ushers welcomed me into the “emporium”.
I (mis)heard — auditorium.
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The door creaked open, onto a dimly-lit corridor that segued into a larger lobby.
"Where's the auditorium?" I asked the nearest person.
Oh, no, I think you’re mistaken. There is no auditorium. You’re IN the play.
When a situation doesn’t make sense, it’s probably a good idea to just go with the flow. And that is exactly what I did.
The production’s format involved audience members taking their own unique routes through the two-storey house. I navigated myself to Room No 1 aka the Lost & Found Department.
The room looked unremarkable at first glance, much like any other room where one could hope to find one’s lost belongings — at train stations, or at school. Yellow paint peeling off the walls, bright white tube lights, giving it the appearance of an average Indian school classroom, except, there were dusty shelves upon which stood ‘objects lost to time’.
A smorgasbord of curios, ranging from greeting cards, to teddy bears to encyclopedias – stared back at us forlornly, asking to be owned again. A woman, with the demeanour of a friendly school teacher, greeted me. Noticing my bewilderment, she began to explain how these curios had landed up at the store, and how I could buy them.
The purpose of the ‘store’ was to spin the eternal debate of whether “time is more valuable than money”, into meaningful interactions.
Turns out, I didn’t have the right ‘currency’ to buy anything at the ‘store’. In pursuit of this ‘currency’, I trudged along to my next (unknown) destination.
The meandering corridor led to many rooms. Room No 2 – aka a property consultant’s office – seemed to be in demand. After waiting in queue for about ten minutes, I entered the (self-proclaimed) award-winning ‘Dream Home’ office.
The dealer, sitting across the table, threw a set of keys onto his desk with an air of bravado, and said in a self-assured tone, that he offered only the ‘best deals’. Gesturing at the trophies that lined a nearby shelf, he went on about his ‘best reputation’.
He asked me to participate in the ‘Dream Home’ lucky draw and tried to lure me with a ‘dream car’. But as I glanced again at his awards, they appeared comically dubious.
Next stop: Pest Control Department. Inside a dilapidated, lantern-lit room, with a pungent smell and a million bottles of god-knows-what, stood a lean fellow sporting an Afro. Pest Controller claimed to have a solution for every kind of pest known to humankind.
I optimistically told him about the pests I wanted to rid my home of. The kind that creep into your dreams, don’t let you sleep, make you check under your bed for monsters – but Pest Controller referred me to a psychiatrist. I was confused. I thought he had a solution to EVERY possible pest?
In keeping with the intended effect of an immersive theatre experience, many of the audience members like myself were improvising their reactions by mimicking the eccentricities of the characters — the unique end-result being, the blurring of lines between actor and audience.
The clock struck 8. It was time for court. The dodgy-looking ‘lawyer’ I had briefly encountered in between rooms, had told me to be at court by 8 pm sharp.
His menacing yet hypnotic tone made me unquestioningly follow his mysterious instruction.
It was a doll’s courthouse.
The scene seemed to be a nod to Henrik Ibsen’s renowned play ‘A Doll’s House’, which deals with the fate of a married woman in 19th century Norway.
Seven of us, men and women, sat on the benches of the court, waiting for the trial to begin.
We were not alone.
The others witnessing the trial were no ordinary folks. They were battered dolls. Some with gouged out eyes, blood-stained clothes, one with a knife stabbed into her back, and then some with missing limbs. It was but natural that the under-trial would be a doll too.
Much like the Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) on social media, this court allowed its audience (the human ones) to argue the case and declare a verdict, based on no real evidence, of course.
A true slice of life.
My mind hadn’t stopped reeling from an overdose of creepy companions at the courthouse, when the court was adjourned. At this point I thought, ‘nothing can possibly surprise me’. And there, I was wrong.
I soon found myself at The Wellness Boutique which appeared to be a nostalgia shop. In it was a man from the past – decked out in a three piece tweed suit and bow-tie.
The obvious change in lighting struck me as I entered the room. It was a warm amber, which set the mood for a trip back in time. The dapper gentleman manning the ‘boutique’ knew all about opera glasses, LPs (long-play records) and antique cameras.
In the background, a radio was playing Chopin.
Two racks in a corner displayed collections of used spectacles, many of them partly damaged. The gentleman asked me, “Can I get you an invention you're missing?”
And I said:
Sir, do you have something which can help me see the world through someone else’s eyes?
He promptly said he would try to conjure up something in time for my next visit.
My last stop was at the ‘hospital’. At first glance, it looked like any other government hospital – in dire need of maintenance, highly understaffed, and poorly equipped. But unlike the ones at a typical hospital, the patients here were silent and uncomplaining.
The patients were words. Words that were no longer used in common parlance, and in desperate need of revival. (And no, a certain Dr Tharoor did not run that hospital.)
We were allowed to visit all the ‘patients’ barring those who had been quarantined. My heart bled especially for the terminally ill – among them were ‘elucubration’ and ‘triclavianism’ – for whom all hope was lost.
Just as I had finished visiting the terminal ward, a loud bell was sounded, accompanied by louder, successive claps. The play had come to an end. Or was it really a play?
Directors Nayantara Kotian and Prashant Prakash told The Quint over email that their production was “an experience; the coming together of a dozen different characters, with different stories unfolding simultaneously.”
Kotian also told The Quint:
We are trying to build the idea that there are people – and stories – hidden in plain sight. We want to show communities that live off the grid, outside of our capitalistic systems of production... these are people who value words, light, lost possessions, courage, and stories. Some of us in this production belong to these communities.
What you have seen above, is a mere sneak peek. Each person’s experience of this immersive theatrical production is unique. In fact, I attended the show twice, once alone, and the second time with a friend, and my friend and I found it almost impossible to reconcile our individual experiences of the show.
The show is testimony to the age-old adage — there’s always more than meets the eye.
Photos & Inputs: Vidur Conrad Moitra
Text: Indira Basu
(Vidur Conrad Moitra is a multidisciplinary designer based out of New Delhi. You can follow his work on Behance. He can also be reached on Instagram: @vidurconrad, and via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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