Rory Mullarkey

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Originally written for The Stage.

“I’m bad at being told what to do,” says Rory Mullarkey with a grin. The playwright, raised in a military family, quickly found that taking orders wasn’t for him when he tried to join the army as a teenager. A few years later, fresh from studying Russian at Cambridge University, a stint at drama school in St Petersburg was similarly short-lived. “My temperament just was not suited to being told what to do for a year.”

The same unruly streak runs through Mullarkey’s plays. Cannibals, the play that made him the youngest writer ever staged in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s main house at 25, contained a whole section written daringly in Russian. His Royal Court debut The Wolf from the Door playfully set violent insurrection in the green and pleasant land of rural England, while Pentabus commission Each Slow Dusk deliberately eschewed accepted First World War narratives.

Avoiding or subverting convention, Mullarkey says, has paid off. “I wrote stuff for a while and sent it off to places, but when people really started to take notice of it and put it on was when I’d abandoned all desire to do anything that was what I thought I was supposed to do.”

The acting might not have stuck, but Mullarkey’s fascination with Russia did. He reels off a long list of Russian authors – Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol – whose influence has seeped into his writing. “I read and re-read those guys until they were in my metabolism, because I loved what they said so much; not only their stories, but also the philosophical weight of the feelings they express.” Learning Russian as a teenager at Manchester Grammar School, he fell in love “with the sounds of it, with the way the words move”.

It was Mullarkey’s Russian that got him his first gig out of university. While performing in his own play on the Edinburgh Fringe, word of the show spread to director Lyndsey Turner – Mullarkey’s “number one living inspiration” – who asked to read the script.

Discovering that Mullarkey could speak Russian, she quickly set him to work on a series of translations for the Royal Court, offering a crucial foot in the door. It was also a steep learning curve.

“Going through 20 plays and every single line, seeing it in one language and making it work as an active line in English – it’s probably the best education I could have asked for in making sure the dialogue I was trying to write was going to be active,” he says.

The Edinburgh Fringe show that got Mullarkey noticed back in 2007 – “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that,” he insists – was directed by one Robert Icke. Now, eight years later, both men have found themselves tackling The Oresteia, Aeschylus’s epic trilogy of Greek tragedies – Icke for the Almeida Theatre, Mullarkey for Shakespeare’s Globe.

“I’ve always loved it as a thing because it’s huge and ambitious,” says Mullarkey of the play cycle, adding that “it feels like it’s got this huge, monolithic weight behind it.”

Mullarkey and Icke’s new takes on The Oresteia are just the crest of a huge wave of Ancient Greek drama on British stages. Another Oresteia is coming to Home in Manchester later this year, while the Almeida continues its Greeks season with Bakkhai and Medea, alongside a summer festival of related events. That’s not to mention another new version of Medea at the Gate Theatre, Greek myths for kids at the Unicorn Theatre, and National Theatre Wales’ epic multimedia retelling of The Iliad.

What is it about these ancient narratives that speaks to us so powerfully now? Mullarkey suggests that in an age of globalisation and inconceivably powerful market forces, “our world feels a lot more confusing and abstracted and we feel further away from the decisions which affect our lives”, an experience that Aeschylus’ trilogy timelessly captures.

“It takes all of those things – foreign policy, the economy, discussions about gender and politics as a whole– and boils them down to the thing that is ultimately the most tangible thing of all, which is blood.”

Greek tragedy also offers plenty of scope for reinvention. As Mullarkey puts it: “The texts are these extraordinary stories but ultimately they’re blank canvases for adaptation and production.”

He’s seen Icke’s radical reworking of The Oresteia – “It was like listening to someone else tell you a story you’ve heard before” – but his own adaptation opts for a different tack, focusing instead on the role of the chorus. Rather than worrying about fidelity, Mullarkey suggests that it’s about the theatrical journey of the trilogy.

“The Oresteia takes the audience through such an extraordinary cycle of events,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to try and get from doing a production of it: you come out of it having been through something.”

Photo: Marc Brenner.

The challenges of using video in live theatre

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Originally written for The Stage.

Paul Barritt, animator and co-artistic director of theatre company 1927, is frank about the challenges of using projection onstage. “Ask anyone who’s worked with video in theatre and they will say that it is a nightmare,” he says. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that video has remained such an integral ingredient in 1927’s work ever since its Edinburgh Fringe breakthrough with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2007. As Barritt puts it: “It’s core to the very idea of what we do.”

Live performance is put in front of an animated backdrop in 1927’s shows, using projections in novel and surprising ways. The two-dimensional and three-dimensional layer on top of one another form one unique texture. Their debut, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, drew on silent film techniques to integrate a monochrome film with performers on stage, while hit show The Animals and Children Took to the Streets exploded the same technique into vibrant colour.

The key to 1927’s successful use of projected animations, providing the company’s distinctive style, is collab-oration. “It’s never really just me sitting there making my own animations,” says Barritt. “It’s a very collaborative way of working, and that’s the only way that it really works.”

Barritt offers the example of Golem, which the company is currently taking on tour after its premiere last year at the Young Vic. The show draws on the centuries-old myth of the golem, drawn from Jewish folklore, to create a satire of 21st-century capitalism and technology, with the clay servant of the title fast becoming a must-have, life-ruling accessory. The concept came jointly from Barritt and fellow artistic director Suzanne Andrade, who worked together from the very beginning on both the ideas and aesthetics of the show.

“We knew we wanted to set it in a city and we knew that part of the journey was going to be going from a chaotic, exciting metropolis into this homogenised, Westfield-type city,” Barritt explains. “Aesthetically, we talked about lots of different things.” Inspired by the “hodgepodge” quality of downtown Los Angeles, the city has a collage quality that then flattens out into an “almost pop art aesthetic” as the world of the show becomes increasingly neat and uniform.

The company’s shows are known and celebrated for their almost seamless integration between animation and performances, making an often clunky marriage of live and filmed elements appear effortless. Barritt tells me that this, too, comes from that close collaboration on the overall aesthetic of the show, which extends to performance style.

“Suzanne’s style of direction is very much focused towards bringing out the best in the animation,” he says. “You have to make the actors as large as the animation and they have to behave a bit like the animation behaves, so they have to act in a very gestural way and it has to be slightly heightened because we’re in a big, illustrated, heightened world.”

And it’s not just the performances that have to marry up with the images. Music is also essential to 1927’s shows and helps to hold all the other elements together. “Everything’s timed to the music,” Barritt explains. “It’s when you’ve got this synchronicity of everything, that’s what makes it all work.”

Although the animated worlds that Barritt creates for 1927’s shows would seem to have much in common with film, he warns that “you can’t go too cinema-tographic on it”. He continues: “The film elements that I’m making, I’m doing them in a very theatrical way and they’re actually much more like moveable, animated bits of set than they are film. For example, we’ve never really been able to do close-ups, we’ve never worked out how to do close-ups properly or in a good way. You can’t do it, because your actors are there on stage and it’s all to do with the scale.”

While this means limitations, Barritt sees such constraints as creative rather than frustrating. “You might start off with an idea and it’s this giant thing, this massive idea that you’ve had, but the actual logistics force it into becoming something different and often something better,” he suggests. “Limitations are really good things to work within; it’s much better to have them.”

The process has, however, got easier over the years, both as 1927 has increased in reputation and capacity and as the technology it is working with has improved. After starting out working with DVDs – which Barritt says are now “virtually obsolete” – the company has more recently begun working with a media server that allows Barritt to break the show’s animations down into individual chunks.

“All the animated events are cued,” he says, “so this has made it easier for timing purposes and it has also made it easier to reshape the film. We used to use just one film that played through, so if there was one tiny element in the film that didn’t work, I’d have to go into one massive film and just change one element, and then that can throw a spanner in the works.” He adds that the media server “loosens things up”, allowing more flexibility both in rehearsal and in performance.

New, more sophisticated technology has also eased the often painful process of transferring the company’s shows from venue to venue.

“With the media server it’s much better,” says Barritt, though he admits that there can still be problems. “Every projector is different: it’s really one of the more imprecise technological arts, setting up a projector, because each distance on each angle is always different and that affects how the projection is on the screen.”

Apart from moving to a media server, Barritt insists that technological developments have altered very little about 1927’s ways of working over the past eight years. “The way we’re using [the technology] is quite simplistic, really, in comparison with how some people use it,” he says. “The essential nature of what we’re doing hasn’t changed since we were using DVDs. Our actual process hasn’t really changed according to the technology at all. There are hundreds of things you can do with the technology, but that doesn’t mean you should do them.”

While the technology now allows the likes of motion sensor triggering and live feeds, 1927 hasn’t yet been tempted by such tricks. “People can get seduced by technology a bit and use it just because they can, which is ridiculous”. He says that 1927, on the other hand, would “only use it if we really thought the idea warranted it”.

For now, though, the company is happy to continue within the niche it has carved out for itself. “I think our process is still giving,” says Barritt, “and we’re still finding new ways of doing stuff within it.” The company is unlikely to be doing Shakespeare or kitchen-sink realism any time soon, Barritt adds, but that’s not where its interests lie.

“We’re ploughing our furrow and we’re quite excited about it still,” he says.

Photo: Bernhard Muller.

Walter Meierjohann

Originally written for The Stage.

Britain and Germany have never felt closer. At least, British and German theatre cultures – often defined as polar opposites – are increasingly moving towards one another. Spurred on by regular visits from German directors such as Thomas Ostermeier and productions including Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, young British theatre-makers are increasingly fascinated by working practices and aesthetics borrowed from the continent, while there’s evidence of German theatres hankering after Britain’s talent for developing new plays.

Walter Meierjohann represents this collision of cultures. Born in Amsterdam to German parents, the director trained in Berlin and established his career in Germany, but for the last few years he has been gradually establishing himself on the British theatre scene. “Obviously they are very different,” he says of British and German theatre cultures. “The playwright in this country is completely number one, whereas in Germany it’s the director who is more in the lead.”

It was this director-led theatre on which Meierjohann was raised. Training for four years at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin, his teachers were heavily inspired by Brecht and the course was theoretical in its underpinning. “We had to write concepts,” Meierjohann explains. “Constantly from year one we had to do something with a text.” His understanding of theatre, as a result, was as “a political tool for talking about the time we live in” – a tool wielded by the director.

“I was very lucky to have that training,” Meierjohann says, describing it as “really thorough”, but he always felt that there was “something lacking” in this approach. “Sometimes I got a bit wary of the word ‘concept’,” he continues. “When I started really properly directing I thought, I’ve got my concept, but actually I want to work with actors on the text. You have to leave space.”

Starting his career in a small town in the east of the country, Meierjohann went on to direct classics by the likes of Friedrich Schiller and Arthur Miller at theatres across Germany, as well as working on devised commissions at the Sophiensaele and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. He was invited to direct Peter Stein’s ensemble in 2002, and between 2004 and 2005 he worked with the State Theatre of Dresden as the founder and artistic director of international new writing theatre Neubau.

After moving to London, Meierjohann wrote to five theatres in the city introducing himself and requesting a meeting. He received just one reply, from David Lan at the Young Vic. A meeting over coffee turned into “a two-hour conversation about plays and projects” and quickly led to Meierjohann being offered the role of associate director at the Young Vic. This was in 2007, and for the next seven years Meierjohann split his time and work between London and Germany, with inevitable effects on his approach as a director.

“Over the years I haven’t dropped the conceptual approach, but I’ve tried to be much more flexible,” Meierjohann tells me. This shift has been influenced by working with British actors, whose approach is appealing to the director. “There is more of an openness in the UK,” he explains, “both from actors and also from directors, to try things out without being judgemental about it.”

Equally, though, Meierjohann was interested in bringing a continental influence to the Young Vic. Noting both the absence of formal training for directors and less of an emphasis on the visual, he spent much of his time running workshops for young directors and bringing in designers from mainland Europe.

“My dream was to create a fusion between English theatre and continental or German theatre,” he says. “What I mean by that is a strong emphasis on great actors here – who move you, which is very different to German actors – but then also make it a bit more director-led, a bit more visual.”

Meierjohann has also observed the closing of the gap between British and German theatre in recent years. “It seems to me like England is moving more into the German way of more emphasis on directors,” he suggests, “and I think in Germany now actually people are saying ‘we want to get the playwrights in again’.” Change, however, comes down to more than creative appetite. “You can’t change the culture overnight,” Meierjohann cautions. “The UK has fantastic writers and that’s a cultural thing. The whole emphasis on language will always remain.”

Things are shifting, though, especially at theatres such as the Young Vic, where Meierjohann quickly felt at home. “I trained academically in Berlin, but I felt like my theatre school in the UK was the Young Vic,” he says. He calls Lan “a hugely inspirational man” and found that, as outsiders to British theatre, they had an immediate affinity. “Maybe that was a meeting point: we weren’t part of the British culture originally.”

Meierjohann hopes to bring some of the international spirit of the Young Vic to his latest role as artistic director of theatre at Manchester venue Home. Formed from the merger of Cornerhouse and Manchester’s Library Theatre Company, Home is a new international arts centre in the city that will be a home for contemporary visual art, film and theatre. After a site-specific season last year, which included Meierjohann’s promenade production of Romeo and Juliet at Manchester’s Victoria Baths, the director is now preparing to open his first season in the new, purpose-built venue.

Meierjohann offers the example of The Funfair, opening at the theatre this month, as an ideal example of his approach to programming. The play, which will be directed by Meierjohann, is a modern European classic written by Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath and adapted by Simon Stephens, who has shifted the drama to Manchester. “What I’m trying to introduce here is plays which have a great message, are very bold, but also talk about Manchester,” Meierjohann explains. “We’re not doing kitchen sink; it’s moving away from naturalism and realism. It’s bold, it’s classical, and it sends out a clear message that we’re working with one of the greatest UK writers at the moment, but with a strong director’s emphasis as well.”

Similar thinking can be seen throughout Meierjohann’s first season. Before The Funfair, the arrival of Hofesh Shechter in the building blurs the boundaries between theatre and dance, while visiting productions from the likes of Kneehigh and 1927 showcase different forms of storytelling on stage, often with continental influences. There’s also a revival of Meierjohann’s world-touring production of Kafka’s Monkey, starring Kathryn Hunter, and the UK premiere of Philippe Quesne’s La Melancolie des Dragons. On the whole, the programme sends “a clear signal that we’re doing things differently here”.

Meierjohann is particularly keen to throw off the “regional theatre” label. “Of course we are a regional theatre because we’re in Manchester, we’re not in London, but I think we can create something here which has that international appeal as well.” While insisting that “a theatre is for the community which you work in”, he is keen for Manchester to become a “second London”, with Home at the forefront of a burgeoning cultural scene.

“The aim is basically to say we’ve got stories from all around the world in our building and we want to talk to an audience who are interested in this,” says Meierjohann, putting an emphasis once again on the international, as well as on making the venue a welcoming – and exciting – place for Manchester audiences. “I think Home, if it all works out, could be a really sexy place.”

Olivia Poulet

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Originally written for The Stage.

Olivia Poulet has a good line in peddling the unpalatable. The actor and writer is best known for her role as pragmatic,  fast-thinking Tory policy adviser Emma Messenger in television satire The Thick of It and is currently starring as a hard-nosed Hollywood producer in Mark Ravenhill’s monologue Product at the Arcola Theatre. Both characters are always desperately putting a positive spin on the catastrophic – or, as Poulet bluntly puts it, “trying to polish a turd”.

“That’s what was appealing in the writing for me,” she says of her first impressions of Ravenhill’s script. In the play, Poulet’s character is pitching an audaciously offensive romantic thriller about a relationship between a 9/11 widow and an  Al Qaeda terrorist, skewering the ways  in which Hollywood glosses over tragedy and complexity. “It’s just very, very witty, and when I first read it I thought ‘I know how I’d want to play this part’.”

In her teens and early 20s, Poulet developed her skills as a performer in  the National Youth Theatre and at the University of Manchester, where she was involved in the student drama scene. “You get much more scope at uni; people take risks because they have less to lose,” she says. “Also having no money and rehearsing in a cupboard upstairs enables you to justmuck in and get on with it wherever you are.”

Straight out of university, Poulet landed a role in a production of The School for Scandal at Derby Playhouse, but she describes the job as “fairly diabolical” looking back. “I learnt a lot,” she reflects on the experience, describing herself as “wide-eyed and innocent” going into it.

“You have to learn how to put your foot down, without being a pain in the arse. I think sometimes people can…” She pauses. “Manipulate is maybe too strong a word, but when you’re young and starting out there are some people who slightly take advantage of that.”

Thanks to more recent meaty roles in plays such as How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse and Out of Joint’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which she describes as “a really magical experience”, Poulet now stresses the importance of holding out for the right parts. “Yes, the money’s not great, and sometimes you’re a bit hand to mouth for a bit, but the challenge of doing a part that is really exciting and fulfilling is just so worth it,” she says of her work in theatre. “Of course you’ve got to make money, but I think as I’ve got older I’m definitely very much about the part and I feel less desperation to just be working for the sake of it.”

She adds that her parallel career as  a writer keeps her going during lean  periods. “It’s incredibly important to  have something else you love, otherwise you can go a bit doolally if you put everything on to acting.”

Poulet had always written alongside acting, but it was only when she paired up with friend and fellow performer Sarah Solemani to write The Bird Flu Diaries, a comedy that the duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, that she thought about pursuing it further. Similarly to acting, though, Poulet has found that writing for stage and screen can be a tough profession to break into. “It’s hard,” she admits. “Everyone gives writing a bit of a crack – why not? It’s very highly populated; there’s a lot of people sending in scripts and drafts. But I think there’s probably quite a lot ofpeople who aren’t very good at it as well. Now I think I’ve finally got to a place whereby it’s been recognised that I can write.”

Although her focus has moved to the stage in recent years, Poulet still acknowledges the huge impact of The Thick of It. The programme’s makers threw her and the rest of the cast in the deep end by demanding regular on-camera improvisation, a challenge that was both terrifying and exhilarating. “I love structure,” says Poulet, “but my brain thrives under pressure and always has.” This process chimes with the frequent behind-the-scenes crises depicted by the series, which Poulet suggests “opened up people’s eyes to the lunacy”  of much of modern politics.

As well as both turning around media disasters, there’s a strain of frantic,  suppressed despair that long-suffering Emma Messenger shares with the superficially confident speaker in Product. “I think it smacks of desperation, the whole pitch,” says Poulet, explaining that she has seized on the character’s “fragility and vulnerability” in her performance.

“There are a lot of swans,” she  suggests, offering a neat metaphor for both British politics and the “undercurrent of desperation” in Product.  “A lot of people who are trying to look smooth on the surface and scrabbling around like nutters underneath.”

Photo: Richard Davenport.

New experiments in binaural sound technology

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Originally written for The Stage.

Binaural sound technology is nothing new. The technique of binaural recording, which creates the sensation of 3D sound for those listening through headphones, has been around in one form or another since the end of the 19th century, when it was used in the transmission of theatre and opera performances over telephone lines. What’s more novel, however, is its use in theatre.

Director David Rosenberg has long been aware of the potential of binaural sound. “I first came across it through my dad,” he remembers. “My dad was a physiologist working in the area of soundand he was doing work with binaural sound when I was about 10.”

The technology was not put to use in Rosenberg’s theatre-making, however, until he and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham started creating experimental scratch performances with theatre company Shunt, of which Rosenberg is a co-founder.

“Ben and I and David developed that interest together,” Max Ringham tells me, recalling their early experiments at the Shunt Lounge under London Bridge station in the mid-2000s. “First of all, we were working with an illegal radio transmitter and we would set up impromptu illegal radio stations to send audio out to people.” From these illegitimate beginnings, the trio gradually refined their use of the technology, eventually putting it to full use in the 2007 show Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith.

In Contains Violence and subsequent shows Electric Hotel and Motorshow, Rosenberg explains that the use of binaural sound was “about trying somehow to bridge the visual gap between the audience and what they were watching”. In each piece, audience members were positioned as onlookers, with the sound pumped through their headphones immersing them in distant spaces, be those hotel rooms or car interiors.

But there are problems with this as a technique. “There’s a hierarchy of perceptions,” says Rosenberg, with sight at the top. “Sight occupies the very safe territory where lots of other sensations then attach themselves to what you see,” he continues, using the example of an experiment in which participants attributed different sounds to the same set of moving lips. “Sound is not a precise thing in the way vision is,” Ringham compares the two senses. “When you look at something you can see the clear relationship between a tree and a car, for example, whereas there’s an element of subjectivity with sound about where things are coming from.”

This explains why, for their latest experiments with binaural sound in Ring and Fiction, Rosenberg and his collaborators have plunged audiences into darkness.

“We wanted to completely change that hierarchy and have images created by the sound,” Rosenberg explains their thinking. “Deprived of other sensations, the audience become incredibly sensitive to the sound.”

Ring, created by Rosenberg, Ben and Max Ringham and writer Glen Neath, enveloped audiences in inky blackness and placed them at the centre of an unnerving aural experience. “With Ring, we were really looking at how to expand the role of the audience within this set-up and how to make them the subject of the piece,” says Rosenberg, “so they find themselves deeper and deeper within a performance that they have a role in, that they have a reason to be in.”

While audio performances often raise the question of what qualifies them as theatrical, it was this positioning of the audience that ensured that Ring remained a live experience and one that could not just be listened to at home. “The show for the audience is about being in a room full of people,” says Rosenberg. “You need to be in that situation in order for it to make sense.” Neath agrees, going as far as to claim that this work heightens the liveness of the theatre: “It feels like one of the most live experiences I’ve had in the theatre.”

Robbing the audience of their sight, meanwhile, has given greater scope for the sound. “The darkness is such a massive gift for us,” Ringham says. “It’s brilliant, because it means to start with everyone thinks you’re about 10 times better than you are. Your sense of hearing is so much more heightened in the dark and people’s focus is absolutely on what they’re hearing, because they have nothing else.”

As a sound designer, Ringham relishes the new opportunities that binaural technology allows. “The geek in me really enjoys throwing sounds around,” he says. He remembers a moment during Electric Hotel, in which the audio feed tricked audience members into believing that they could hear people speaking from among them. “Every night, watching 500 people turn around and look over their shoulder to see who was talking behind them when there was no one there, was quite a big thrill.”

Like any technological development, however, it has its challenges. “There are lots more facets to take on board when you’re trying to create it,” explains Neath, as well as lots of theatrical devices that are ruled out by the use of headphones and, in the cases of Ring and Fiction, the complete darkness. “There were so many things that you couldn’t do and you had to find a way round.”

Lessons have been learned along the way, such as the sound designers’ discovery that “people’s perception of things in a space has a limit; people can only hold three separate things in a 3D environment in their head and know where they’re coming from”. Ringham insists, therefore, that it’s important for theatre-makers working with this sound to keep it simple and not attempt to do too much at once. He also stresses that it’s “incredibly important” to use high-quality recording equipment in order to create the best experience. “There’s the KU100, which is the industry standard best and nothing sounds quite as good, to be honest.”

So what makes this technology so exciting for theatre-makers? “The main thing is a question of intimacy,” says Rosenberg. “With all live events we’re trying to create some sort of intimate relationship between the audience and what they’re seeing. How do you keep that intimacy when you have increasingly large audiences?” Binaural sound, which can create the sensation of a performer whispering directly into each and every audience member’s ear, is one answer.

Intimacy also seems to be the lure for audiences. Observing the growing interest in binaural sound across the theatre industry, Ringham suggests that “it’s more and more of interest to people as they’re more interested in an immersive type experience. It’s an incredible way of transporting people and putting them into different environments.”

This sensation of immersion is central to Fiction, the team’s second show using binaural sound and complete darkness. This time, the show puts audiences in two places at once: the room of the theatre, and the dream world that the sound transports them to. “The principal difference is that we’re taking the audience to a lot of different locations and there’s been quite a lot of discussion about how we actually record that,” says Ringham.

The effect of this sound, Neath hopes, is “something magical”, allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief even as they are made aware of the physical space they inhabit. “This is not real, but we challenge you not to believe it.”

Photo: Alex Brenner.