Cutting Room Floor
I’ve mentioned in previous columns that “immersive theater” is having a moment. At the Aurora Fox Arts Center, it’s having an orgasm. Or perhaps a petit mal seizure. Or maybe both. Petit mal, petit mort…whatever; I walked into Control Group Productions’ staging of Cutting Room Floor and walked out 90 minutes later, not quite sure how that time-loss had happened, but desperately hoping to make it happen again.
The idea is this: the historic Fox Theater, founded in a Quonset hut in 1946 and thriving for decades as a movie house, was gutted by a fire in the early 80s, by which time it had fallen into slummy disrepair. (This part is historically accurate). It was rebuilt, still densely packed with secrets and ghosts and just maybe some paranormal activity, too. (This is where history might begin to morph into fantasy?) The latest production there is The Beast, an incarnation of the “Beauty & the Beast” story—but wait! Strange and inexplicable things keep happening backstage as the cast and crew desperately try to keep things from unraveling because the show must go on! We, the audience members, are cast as “interns” and assigned tasks to perform as we are guided throughout the venue, from the box office to the dressing rooms to the wings to the main stage and back again. As we move, we glimpse pieces of the story and meet the characters as all of us devolve further and further into weirdness and possible insanity.
The production is the brainchild of Patrick Mueller, who plays “Uncle Andy,” the house manager who, along with “Ernie,” the custodian (Nicholas Caputo), launches us interns into the crazy underworld of a haunted theater. The first segment of the event sets the tone–we are sent into the bowels of the historic theater to explore and return with our target cargo. There’s some weird shit back there. We are then prompted to move from one section of the venue to another–from the main theater to the dressing rooms, from a stairwell to the stage wings–by the various players. In each location, we interact with different characters and learn new pieces of the story. The coordination of this is immaculate and impressive. If you’ve ever seen Laurel & Hardy perform a vaudeville routine, moving on and off stage in perfect synchronization, you might recognize the precise ballet of movement and timing. As a person who claps on the one-and three-beats and whose physical coordination peaks at riding a bicycle, I am amazed by this demonstration of temporal and rhythmic virtuosity.
As we move around the theater, we are treated to the sight of watching a rehearsal of The Beast, with “Lumiere” (Camille Delaney) being directed by “Jean Marie La Poubelle” (Bailey Harper). Being a demanding director, the scene is never to her liking and the players must repeat it over and over. We see this playing out in repetition on various screens throughout the venue—the dressing rooms, the green room, etc.—but since we are moving around, we don’t actually watch it live. The effect lends an eerie, out-of-time, trapped-in-a-dream feeling to the production. I’ll also call out how much production value lies in the carefully-coordinated videos and audio recordings/music. It’s an impressive feat of planning and execution to create all these moving pieces and have them actually work. Which they do.
The feel of the production comes not just from the interactions with the actors, but from their placement and movements *around* us. We half-glimpse “the Beauty” (Catlin Seavey) watching us walk away; we see her disappearing as she nearly melts over the set structures, like a Salvador Dali clock come to life; a woman (Bailey Harper) emerges from nothing in a stairwell, bridging and bending over the handrail until she’s descended into our midst, but still can’t seem to see us; we watch the Beast (James Brunt) sing and primp in the dressing room before we are recognized as presences. The longer we stay in this world, the stranger it becomes. By the end of the evening, we witness unseen forces overtake and drive to babbling incoherence the Leading Man (James Lopez) and the Stage Manager (Chelsea Frye). There is much mention of aliens. I wanted to believe and I really almost kind of did. At the least, by the end of the show, I began to doubt what I *didn’t* believe.
We, the audience “interns” are immersed in this production in the truest sense. I’ve had some lively discussions about what it means to be “immersive.” The title gets bandied around to include everything from a movie with surround-sound to a four-day, on-location LARP session. Mueller and company have ascertained that we would be required to use all of our senses to navigate this piece, genuinely immersing our bodies and ourselves in the story. Throughout the production, we eat, drink, smell, move objects, wear costume pieces, and handle props, in addition to observing the stage action, interacting with the players, and hearing the dialogue and music. It’s sensual in the truest meaning of that word.
I’m a big fan of a tight production; get your piece said and wrap up the show, folks! Let it be known that throughout the evening at Cutting Room Floor, I did not check my watch even once. Between the physical relocation, the new tasks set out to us, piecing together the story, the engaging performances, and just enjoying the eye candy of watching attractive people display their talents, the evening flew by. I felt like I could have effortlessly watched/participated in another 90 minutes. I wanted to know the ending but didn’t want it to end.
Due to the nature of the production, what with us traipsing around to multiple locations of varying sizes, the audience is split up into different groups and sent out hither and yon to different parts of the theater. I was told after the show that each segment of audience sees 70% of the production. You need to see the show multiple times in order to experience all of the hither AND the yon that they’ve created. I consider this to be an excellent thing because I walked out of the house after the performance still wanting more. Get your tickets, folks—this sort of thing doesn’t happen often.