What's it about?
Think cafeteria, but instead of getting a taste of lots of different foods, you're getting a taste of lots of different theatre.
Performeteria is "TDF's first-ever immersive festival," which "features works from some of the most innovative Off-Off Broadway theatre and dance companies in New York City. This two-night event, co-presented with Baruch Performing Arts Center, invites you to travel through multiple levels of theatres, nooks and hidden venues within the performing arts center to discover unique, site-specific works from 15 Off-Off Broadway theatre companies. Sample these 10-minute performances throughout the night; your timed ticket entitles you to new shows starting every fifteen minutes until closing" (tdf.org).
What I experienced?
Anyone who knows me knows that I love theatre festivals. Anyone who knows me also knows that I seek out immersive theatre. And so when I heard that TDF was co-presenting (with Baruch Performing Arts Center) its own immersive theatre festival, well, there was just no way I wasn't going. I had been sporting a Fringe-festival-sized hole in my heart for months, ever since it was announced that there would be no Fringe Festival this summer, and so what better way to help fill that hole than with a night jam-packed with the best of Off-Off Broadway's immersive theatre?
I had never been on the Baruch College campus, although I must have passed by it over a hundred times in my life. But this time I was going in. I checked in at the TDF booth and picked up the folded map that would be my guide throughout my experience. I looked at it dubiously, knowing on a personal level how much I struggled with getting around in New York City, even with the aid of having been born there, a grid system, and Google Maps. I looked at my phone. There was ZERO reception in the building, which meant I wouldn't even be able to call anyone if I got lost without exiting the premises, if I was even able to find the exit. And while I knew I was about to see a whole lot of theatre scrunched into a few hours' time, I was also very aware that I was standing inside an academic building: a school, which was basically a maze constructed to make students late to their classes. I spent four years at Hunter and still had to ask people for directions during my final semester.
I was assigned to tour group B to start with, and so I set off down a winding stairwell in search of my group. Thankfully, it wasn't hard to find, and I practically glued myself to my guide, knowing it was better to leave things to a paid professional than to my own "navigational" skills. Apparently, since we were early, we were going to be treated to a special pre-show performance.
Three people, all dressed in orange tunics, swayed rhythmically to music atop a winding stairwell, the same winding stairwell that I had just come down. In the middle of their dancing, the elevator directly below them beeped, cutting through the music, and a large bunch of people emerged to join their groups. At some point, the dancers made their way down the stairs, always moving gracefully and to the music, and they maneuvered their way throughout the space, separating and coming back together, making sure they were seen. And as suddenly as they had started, they stopped, and disappeared from view. And thus my tour had officially begun.
I was led into a large performance hall with a stage, about 100 seats, and a Steinway piano. Everyone in my group was told to sit on chairs that had been placed on the stage, facing an empty theatre. I assumed we were going to see a piano recital from a unique perspective, but what actually happened was way more affecting. A performer was announced to us, we applauded, and as she took her seat at the piano, her head slowly drooped and hit the keys, making a loud and unpleasant chord. I gasped, and waited. All of the other performers rushed the stage and fell into a standing embrace, facing us. They each spoke about their grandparents, mostly immigrants, mostly people who had come to America to escape persecution, all people who wanted a happy life. As painted scrolls of paper illustrating faces, fish, and oceans, were floated around the space, I thought of my maternal grandfather, and how he was forced to fight in World War II, how he had seen his friend and fellow soldier die, how he would later become afraid to drive, afraid to leave the house... We were told to think about what we wished for as a child when we blew out our birthday candles. As a little girl, my wishes were very materialistic. I wanted the same things my friends had, things that I didn't have: my own room, my own computer, another American Girl Doll. But come my early teen years, I was already wishing to simply have a happy life. Granted, my idea of a happy life consisted of falling in love, getting married, living in Manhattan, and raising a family there. But I wanted happiness above all else. And I still do. And I think everybody does. We were told to think of somebody in our family significantly older than us, and to think of what this person might have wished for before he or she knew us. Happiness was all I could think of. This piece felt especially appropriate to me, living in an America where the President was continuously trying to restrict certain people from entering the country. We all yearned for the same things at the core.
From the performance hall, I was led to another room, this one full of chairs overlooking a sofa, a table and chairs, and a kitchen counter. It was here that I bore witness to a scene from Chekhov's The Seagull, and while I was familiar with the scene, in this setting, this small room, I felt like a fly on the wall. I could smell the sandwich that one of the actors made for himself, and I was close enough to wipe away the mustard that got on his beard.
The next space was much larger, and partially drowned out by the hum of a huge air conditioner. A few songs were performed for us, live, and I was impressed by the use of video projected onto the wall behind the performer, highlighting the odd lyrics the that were being sung, "Winter is hard. I contract. Timbers groan. Pipes crack. Porcupines shit in the cellar."
I was regularly surprised by the variety of spaces, of hidden areas and little crannies, all in one building, and all occupied by performing artists. I loved the way that spaces that were clearly designed to be classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and stairwells, were being used so originally.
I found myself sat at the bar, waiting for something to happen. I had just completed my tour with group B, and now I was joining another group, group A, and all I knew was that the next performance happened at the bar. Then a drunk guy wearing a Santa-riding-a-reindeer costume barreled his way into the bar to sit next to this girl. She had been sat there the whole time, seeming so natural, I never would have thought she was a part of the show. But she was, and what transpired between the two of them was the destruction of a several-year-long relationship. It was brutal to listen to her saying that she had known it wasn't going to work out for a year, but it was also so... real.
I was crammed into a teeny tiny room. Well, it was more like the space between two rooms. It was around 20 people, myself included, and then this guy, the performer. At some point, he launched into an emotional speech about how the precious metals in false teeth and hip replacements outlive even us, and can withstand cremation, that resulted in him getting down on one knee and proposing to the lady in front of us with a ring he said was made from old tooth fillings. And she said? No! Apparently she was the first of 8 people to reject him! But he was a good sport about it, and even snapped a selfie with her.
I forced my way into a medium-sized room filled to capacity with people. I stood towards the back of the space. On stage, there was a bench seating a man and a woman who seemed to be co-workers. The woman was clearly overwhelmed at the way her boss was treating her and the man tried to cheer her up. Then things got racial, quickly. The woman confronted her co-worker about why he had declined her invitation to the office holiday party, and he admitted that it wasn't that he didn't want to go, but it was that he didn't want to go with her. The more she goaded him, the more his racism was made known. He disliked her "thick" nose and "big" rear, her "puffy" lips, and the way he observed certain black people treating their children. Not all black people, he was quick to specify, just "food-stamp people." Tensions were high.
Without exiting the way we had come, we squeezed into an even smaller room. The few seats that were provided were snatched up in seconds and everybody that was left standing (like me) was touching someone else. A lady was stationed at a desk in the center of the space, positioned at a microphone. I heard her voice speak into the microphone, and then distort into a robotic sound. There was a barely noticeable delay between when she would speak and when the robotic voice would be projected out to us. She asked us questions, like whether or not we had an online presence (duh), and whether or not photos of ourselves existed online (also, duh). Eventually, she asked anyone who had a working phone with battery life and sufficient space to record video to step into the performance space. The room stopped. I felt self-conscious. Nobody was volunteering! This performance was dependent on audience participation. Would I be that person? Right when I was considering stepping forward, another person beat me to the punch. And I was truthfully a little relieved. The volunteer's name was Jess. Jess plugged her phone into a cord that was provided for her, and set her phone up to record. She flipped the camera, as instructed, so that it was facing her. Whatever Jess' camera recorded, we could see projected behind her. Jess donned a green curly wig to feel more comfortable, and the voice continued to alternate between asking her questions and giving her instructions. What was her least hated form of social media? Facebook. When told to pick up the item that was of least value to her, she picked up an empty bag of chips from the floor. The voice ended the entire exercise by telling Jess she was beautiful and worthy of a happy life, to which Jess replied, "Thank you very much."
The order of pieces began to blur in my mind. I was so fully immersed in a never-ending stream of art, with minimal pauses, that it was difficult to view each piece as its own separate entity. But that dance company, with the people dressed in orange tunics? I saw them everywhere - It was like they were following me. Their dancing helped, and acted as the closest thing there was to a palette cleanser between pieces.
One large space contained railed-in stairs, and a dozen (at least) people running and leaping around wildly. A girl, in the midst of this chaos, was captured, and it seemed the people wanted her flesh above all else, as in they literally wanted to eat her. But she was saved by another girl who claimed her as her playmate, and the two formed a love connection.
A boy and a girl met secretly in a hidden room in their school. Were they lovers? It was hard to tell. Something was going on. It turned out that the two were old friends, since baby-hood, and the girl was getting lessons from the boy on how to walk in heels. Her 18th birthday was coming up, and she wanted to make a grand entrance at prom without falling on her face. She knew her friend would be the right one to teach her, ever since he came out to her as a gender non-conforming pan-sexual person. He liked high heels, plain and simple, and he was also sexually attracted to males, females, and everything in between. And he liked his friend, so much so that he wanted to take her to prom as a date. While she was attracted to him, she was bothered by his "different" sexual tastes, and refused to accept his offer, a decision that hurt both parties involved.
I emerged from the Baruch Performing Arts Center at around 9:30pm, in a daze, having seen and walked and felt so much in so little time. I had never in my life seen as much diverse, immersive theatre in one day, and certainly not all under the same roof!
Want to see it?
Performing Monday, March 20: The Assembly, Blessed Unrest*, The Fire This Time Festival*, Kinesis Dance Project*, Lesser America*, The New York Neo-Futurists, The Pumpkin Pie Show*, Rady & Bloom, Talking Band, Theatre Breaking Through Barriers.
Performing Friday, March 24: Blessed Unrest*; Dramatic Question Theatre; The Fire This Time Festival*; Flux Theatre Ensemble; Kinsesis Dance Project*; Lesser America*; Ma-Yi Theater Company; New York Deaf Theatre; Project: Theater; The Pumpkin Pie Show*
*groups performing on both nights
What did you experience?
Let PXP know in the comments below...