Weird Is Good: Inside an Immersive Theater Audition with Third Rail Projects
"Auditions are weird anyway," says Zach Morris, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects. "So let's double down on the weirdness." It's mid-October, and Then She Fell, the company's wildly successful immersive theater production riffing on Victorian hospital wards and Lewis Carroll's Alice books, is looking for one male performer to fill a very specific role. (The directors never state exactly which one—"No spoilers!" they joke.) They've whittled down the pile of applications to the 12 men currently warming up in the rooms of the Kingsland Ward, a century-old building at St. John's Church in Brooklyn, New York. "We look for certain experiences that are translatable: That they've been working at this craft professionally, that they're looking for the next thing that they're hungry for," says Julia Kelly, a current cast member and the rehearsal director.
Dancers warming up before the audition. All photos by Jim Lafferty.
Solid technique and the ability to pick up movement quickly are the bare minimum of what's expected from potential performers. In immersive theater, the cast might also have to act, guide audience members through nontraditional spaces and improvise in-character reactions to an unpredictable audience every show. In today's audition, the dancers are being assessed on much more than their dancing abilities.
As 10 am rolls around, the men are handed name tags instead of numbers and are asked to circle up and introduce themselves briefly. "If we're doing our jobs right, everyone is comfortable," Morris says, explaining that they prefer to think of these auditions as workshops. For Then She Fell, they want to take the performance out of performing, focusing instead on completing a series of tasks that define each character—a necessary skill when your audience is merely a foot away. "It really comes down to, How simple can you be? How completely present can you be? Because then you can dial up to these other things," co-artistic director Tom Pearson says later.
They begin with core phrasework, Morris demonstrating a gesture series pulled from the Doctor character that mimes the handling of medical equipment—precise, efficient, upright. Halfway through, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, an original Alice in the show and current assistant director, takes over, shifting the phrase into something that sways, flows and initiates from the core. The character is meant to be watching her own reflection, but Nielsen-Pincus encourages the dancers not to be too focused on making the correct shapes.
They break into groups of four to show the Doctor/Alice phrase, and it's clear when a dancer has missed a detail, and, more importantly, if they're actually touching or seeing what they're directed to. Adding anything extra to the deceptively simple phrase breaks the spell instantly. "I was just trying to experience it rather than show it," says Nicholas Grubbs, currently a dancer with LoudHoundMovement who is auditioning for a Third Rail show for the third time. "When you have that heightened adrenaline in an audition, it's so easy to over-perform, but it's really about the task."
Marissa Nielsen-Pincus leads the men through a phrase based on Alice.
After a few rounds, the directors split the dancers into two groups: Half stay with Pearson in a large room while half leave with Morris. The six who remain are confronted with a large table and two chairs, one child-sized. They're tasked with exploring each of the "environments," improvising with each for 30 seconds to a minute. "Don't be afraid to be completely literal," Pearson says. "Gently walk yourself from the obvious to discovery." He continues to give cues as the dancers explore one at a time. The men cram themselves into too-small spaces, experiment with how much of their weight can be supported, and play with the surfaces and negative space of the architecture. "I was trying to keep myself in that mentality of being inquisitive as opposed to doing a trick," says Kyle Castillo, a 27-year-old freelancer who moved to New York City from Los Angeles about a year ago.
Just when they seem to have found a groove, Pearson begins adding limitations, asking them to spend only 15 seconds per environment and to follow a simple list of verbs as a score: pour, fill, spill, swirl, rise. There are a few nervous chuckles from the group, but the men flow through the improvisation, a smooth intensity overtaking the exploratory atmosphere.
"That was beautiful!" Pearson says. And then he gives them more notes before they start again. Kelly chimes in, "Even when you're quick, be even more awake." Nielsen-Pincus slips back into the room and requests that the dancers remember to make contact with more than just their hands and feet: "Can you still keep all of that surface area?" she asks. The new ideas flow almost constantly, the various directors layering thoughts across each other's points to shade the work with more depth.
Castillo quickly learns how to sift through input from several people. "When you have directors giving you multiple points of view, it's about trying to find the subtleties," he says. But in an audition setting, that can be a lot to process. "I'm an overthinker," Grubbs says. "So every time, I'm like, Okay, just pick two of these things to focus on—otherwise you're going to be all over the place!"
Meanwhile, in a small room around the corner, Morris takes the other group through a monologue from the Doctor character. After handing out copies and explaining the tone and the action, one by one the men take a seat in a small alcove and read the text. They speak as though to someone out of sight but occasionally glance over to Morris, who is seated just to their right. "Throughout the audition process I was getting further away from what was comfortable," Castillo says. "I would never categorize myself as an actor by any means, so it was very foreign."
The performers in Then She Fell have to be as capable of communicating through speech as they are through movement. Again, the emphasis is on simplicity. "Like a lot of the movement practice, it's really about listening to your audience and being responsive," says Morris later. Pearson adds, "You have to be the type of performer who can attune to what the scene needs. It's a different kind of virtuosity."
After all of the men go through both the text and the improvisation, they circle up with Morris to recap the day. The directors reiterate that they're filling a very specific role at the moment, but they love getting to know who is working in New York City's contemporary dance scene—and to reach out when they have performances. "I've always wanted to treat auditions like a workshop and then lost it halfway through," Castillo says later. "But this time I felt it."
"It's a very difficult show to be in," Grubbs muses. "They want people they can trust." Both he and Castillo are among those to be called back; Castillo will ultimately book the job. "It was really rewarding to realize that there are companies out there who understand that you are a human, not just a number they're trying to fit into their company," Castillo says. "They are really interested in exploring who you are as a performer and an artist."
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways:
Starting and sustaining a dance company is not for the faint of heart. It often takes tremendous sacrifice in terms of time, energy and money. But it's not a life sentence. Arts organizations, like everything else, come to an end, and nothing could be more important to an artist's vitality than knowing when to call it quits. Even as the founder of a company, there is a graceful way to move on.
I feel totally unlovable as a woman ever since my boyfriend left me for a male dancer in the company. I truly believed he was in love with me when we moved in together. How can I get over my gut-wrenching grief, let alone dance with him?
A serious boyfriend who suddenly comes out unleashes an avalanche of questions about your relationship, making you wonder if it was all fake. Understandably, this also complicates your emotions as his dance partner. But your ability to be loved has nothing to do with your boyfriend's desire for liberation after living a closeted life. Sexual preference is inborn and may emerge when a person admits that they're bisexual or gay after a long period of confusion, fear and inner turmoil. It's not a personal choice; it's who they really are.
Obviously, it would have saved you considerable pain if you'd known this beforehand. He may have wanted to be with you due to love, a misguided attempt to rid himself of his yearnings or both. Human sexuality is complicated, and love does not always equal sexual attraction. Right now, surround yourself with caring friends while you slowly adjust to this change. If you need a safe place to tell your story and discuss your experiences of grief, isolation, anger and betrayal, check out the Straight Spouse Network. While it will take time for you to feel more comfortable dancing with him, you may eventually develop compassion for your partner's own painful journey.