A charmingly awkward evening at the first installment of this episodic immersive production, which will take place over several months at several locations.
At the launch party for Rebecca Young’s new talent agency Ray of Light, which took place at The Bishop Art Gallery, my friend Oni had just started her stand-up routine when I was whisked away.
Rebecca’s creative collaborator Carlos needed me to decorate a cake and, after handing me an unopenable box of sprinkles, a pack of icing, and a toothpick-wide spatula, he left me to my own devices. When he returned a few minutes later, he assured me that the dreadful work I had done was “fabulous” and that I was free to go back to watching Ray of Light come to life.
In fact, I was not really attending an awkward party — or I was, but there was more going on than that. Carlos was actually the actor Darius Vines, and my “friend” Oni the actress Marinda Anderson. We were all participating in the first episode of Show:UP! City of Dreams, an immersive theater experience conceived by William Bryant Miles and Nickolas Vaughan. Over the course of the evening, we were guided through the lives of entrepreneurial Rebecca (Jamie Ann Burke), her holistic-science-sympathetic cousin Oni, her boyfriend Derrick (Jude Tibeau), and her creative collaborator Carlos.
Show:UP! started out in 2014 as a series of one-off immersive dinner parties. Now, with City of Dreams, Bryant and Vaughan have shifted into an episodic narrative approach. “We decided to create City of Dreams as a way to further stretch ourselves as a creative team and engage with our guests all year long,” Miles told me. “Rather than creating a tiny capsule for just one party, City of Dreams allows us to explore working with characters for a significant amount of time.”
In order to heighten the idea of being surrounded by real-life people, Miles had given each of the characters an Instagram account, and audience members had been highly encouraged to follow them before attending the launch party.
“We felt it was only natural that our characters would have social media accounts, and then to incorporate those accounts into the storytelling,” he said, adding that the way someone’s life plays out online crucially speaks to who we are as people living in the 21st century.
Unlike the other immersive theater experiences, where audiences observe actors the way a tourist observes different varieties of fish while strolling by an aquarium, in City of Dreams you actually get to engage with the characters as if they were your friends. And the actors, who just need to keep to a generic plot, interact with the audience members with the highest possible amount of freedom, in theatrical terms.
As Rebecca’s launch party steadily went south — the first artist signed with Ray of Light had failed to show up for soundcheck at five, and it was now past 8 p.m. — both she and Carlos were at loss as for what to do, so they turned to the guests, begging anyone to entertain the crowd. One gentleman wearing a camel coat gamely obliged, confidently performing an a cappella rendition of “Hey Ya.”
“Were you actually part of the cast?” I asked him when I was getting ready to leave.
“No, but the hosts really seemed like they needed a hand, so I jumped in,” he said, adding that he had really felt bad about the situation.
In fact, for the duration of the night, the entire audience cringed — but not because the acting was bad or the plot lackluster. On the contrary, we were overwhelmed by the feeling one experiences when a party planned with a lot of zeal goes awry. I also felt a sting of guilt when, near the end of the party, Carlos brought Rebecca the cake I’d tried to decorate — my efforts having resulted in a mangled doodle of about the same artistic caliber as what one draws on a sticky note during a boring phone call. I am not being modest: Upon seeing the cake, Rebecca’s face distorted in an expression halfway between disappointment and disgust, and who could blame her?
Yet, over the course of the night, it had been the presence of food that demolished any remnants of a proscenium once and for all. Show:UP! established itself as a series of dramatized dinner parties, to the point that the theater company even has a culinary director: chef Shellie Porter.
“Virtually everyone likes to eat and drink, and that is a great way to facilitate meaningful connection, which is at the core of Show:UP!” Miles said. “I also kind of wanted to thumb my nose at the ‘no eating, no drinking’ rule that many theaters have.” For the Ray of Light launch party, which was held at a gallery, a full sit-down menu was replaced by an array of decadent finger foods, such as mini grilled cheeses served on top of shot glasses of tomato soup, turkey sliders, and fried shrimp doused in an indescribably tasty sauce.
I was not the only one who tried to stay as close as possible to the buffet table, and true to Miles’s prediction, just saying “Isn’t the food great?” was indeed a perfect conversation starter. Plus, I have to admit, the food did distract me from the tense drama that was inexorably unfolding all around me.
Given that City of Dreams is now a sequential experience, it was fitting that Rebecca’s launch party ended on a dramatic cliffhanger: When the only artist she’d signed finally arrived, we all found out that she was not particularly gifted, and Rebecca was so distressed that a screaming match between her and Oni ensued. Oni flatly told her, “We saw a ray of light, but now it’s darkness” meaning that Rebecca should really consider whether her latest business venture had any hope of success. “I could just sit in the rain all night long. Wash away some of this shame,” reads the caption of her latest Instagram post.
What she decides to do next will be revealed in the second episode: a dinner party that will take place on January 8th.
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All images courtesy of Show:UP!