When Theater Installations Aim to Make Room for Drama

For the last year and a half, I’ve imagined shuttered theaters as shrines to live performance — the empty seats, the leftover sets, the lone ghost lights lit like memorial candles.

While performances eventually moved online and outside, and in the last few months, thanks to mask mandates and vaccines, back inside, some companies and artists have chosen a different route: offering theater-adjacent installations that allow audiences to engage more directly with the spaces.

In these shows, we are often asked to walk through the venues and explore, freely or with the help of a guide, not merely sit and watch. And with small clusters of bodies in motion, they may be (or at least feel) safer than the typical experience of being locked down in your seat.

Unfortunately, most of the theatrical installations I’ve seen — which include “A Dozen Dreams,” “Seven Deadly Sins,” “The Watering Hole,” and, most recently, “Definition” and “Semblance” — have struggled to successfully integrate content and location. Most of these works, which, with the exception of “Seven Deadly Sins,” did not use any live actors, were an inventive approach to theater in a time when it was unsafe to sit and gather in these spaces. But they have yet to realize the full potential of these hybrid forms as more than a stopgap on the way back to pre-pandemic theater.

“Semblance,” written and directed by Whitney White for New York Theater Workshop, is a set of lyrical monologues about how Black women are perceived and stereotyped. Socially distant groupings of white director’s chairs situated on an Astroturf floor in front of two colossal TV screens set side by side.

On them we see Nikiya Mathis, playing Black women of different classes, from a bus driver to a politician. Her image often confronts itself, emphasizing the tension already present in the writing. And Mathis makes a feast out of these monologues, transforming her intonation and inflections. But the ultimate experience is far from immersive; in fact, it is little more than a dressed-up screening of a short film. The space is forgettable.

Another White installation, “Definition,” presented by the Bushwick Starr at the performance space Mercury Store in July, had a clear understanding of its space but couldn’t make it cohere with the piece’s myriad elements. The first portion was designed like a museum; the stark white walls and starkly modern architecture of the space lent themselves to the curated selection of paintings and photographs that hung on the walls.

Likewise, a selection of short videos by a handful of artists, which played on a projection screen on a mezzanine level that opened up to a bleacher-like flight of stairs, were comfortably showcased. This part of the production had a free-floating style; the audience members were left to wander at will, and were free to sit and watch the videos but could also stand or continue to browse.

Guides then appeared, leading us to a room where we were given headphones. The rest of the experience, an audio-only musical with each act taking place in a separate designated space, lacked clarity. Gauzy curtains divided up the theater, but there was little to distinguish each subspace beyond the different seating arrangements.

To lead an audience through a space should be to create a new narrative out of that movement: How do we change in moving from one room to another? How does our understanding of the text change? What do we see differently in one room that another couldn’t offer?

The beauty of En Garde Arts’s “A Dozen Dreams,” a sumptuously designed installation of 12 rooms that served as stages for audio monologues by female playwrights, was that each location had its own identity. The labyrinthine setup at Brookfield Place, with interlinked rooms divided by curtains, recalled the odd way we move through dreams — stories bleed into one another, scenes change suddenly. The experience of venturing from one piece to the next was essential.

But even with such a luscious experience, I questioned the installation’s awkward relationship with Brookfield, a high-end mall. Mundanely expensive shops were juxtaposed with a uniquely surreal visual journey — art placed in a home for consumerism. Surely there’s a disconnect there?

Similarly, “Seven Deadly Sins,” performed in empty storefronts in the meatpacking district, was an eye-catching spectacle but didn’t fully connect the text to the environs.

The neighborhood’s history (slaughterhouses and sex clubs, and now pricey shops) was ostensibly reflected in seven short plays that focused on the vices of its title. But mostly we got guides mentioning tidbits about the neighborhood in passing, as they led the audience from one storefront to another.

A lost sense of communal gathering was one of the themes of the installation “The Watering Hole,” a mixed-media project created and conceived by Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon that ran at the Pershing Square Signature Center last month. Seventeen artists collaborated with Nottage and Haymon on the installation, which lacked coherency. Piles of sand and deflated beach balls in one corner, handwritten signs on the walls: this disjointed odyssey did no justice to the space as a watering hole for thought or a beloved home for several theaters. Even with talented creators, the magic of a theater can be flattened by a misuse of space.

The irony is that I fondly remember the Signature Center as a safe haven. In my busy pre-pandemic days I knew I could take a break in the second floor cafe. I’ve waited there between a Saturday matinee and an evening show. I’ve ducked in to get out of the rain.

These moments — along with what appeared on the Signature’s stages — were stolen away by the pandemic.

Installations have offered reasonable ways to keep theater going during the pandemic. But they can’t just be backdrops. Real theater needs a space to breathe.

Semblance
Through Aug. 29 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 55 minutes.

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