Baltimore-based Submersive Productions breaks the mold of traditional theatre

By Taylor DeVille
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Baltimore has been a hub for visual and performance artists for generations. Theatrical artists Glenn Ricci and Ursula Marcum, who have lived in Baltimore for over a decade, have created a production company to bring immersive theatre, a growing trend, to the city.

The inspiration to launch their own immersive theatre production company, called Submersive Productions, came when the two artists saw the Brooklyn-based interactive retelling of Macbeth, “Sleep No More,” in 2011.

Immersive theatre combines elements of experimental, interactive and site-specific theatre into a performance in which the audience is “essential to the experience,” Ricci said.

The concept has existed in various forms since the mid-20th century but has only just received a name.

devilletheaterphoto1Several theatrical movements in the 1960s, like the Happenings movement, in which the performer actively engaged the spectator, gave way to the rise of immersive theatre as it is defined today.

Two New York shows, “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell,” seem to have brought immersive theatre into the mainstream as the two longest running immersive productions and the ones that most people reference, Ricci said.

Ricci had always been drawn to world-building, specifically by way of creating haunted houses since he was 12. He later became a sound designer for the Scare House in Pittsburgh.

After seeing both “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell” within a few months of each other, Ricci felt inspired.

“My first instinct was, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do,’” he said. “Because with haunted houses, no matter how intricate or how much story you put into it, people want to be scared. And when you get scared, your body goes into fight or flight mode, and there’s only so much detail you can see and pick up on. You can’t do a lot of story and narrative and intricacy in a haunted house setting.”

In 2013, Ricci and Marcum were brought onto the creative team of an interactive performance in the Scare House called “Scare House Basement,” which Ricci described as “a series of interactions with characters […] in the horror theme with a very slender narrative.”

It was his first experience in devising an interactive piece and how he “really came to enjoy devised theatre.”

devillephoto2“I was going to Pittsburgh to do this cool stuff, going to New York to do this cool stuff… The talent is definitely in Baltimore to do this, so I was like, ‘Why isn’t it happening?’” Ricci said.

One year later, Ricci and Marcum received a Rubys artist grant to create their first devised piece, “The Mesmeric Revelations! Of Edgar Allen Poe.”

The show was “the longest running immersive theatre experience in Baltimore history,” according to Submersive Productions’ website.

Using the historic Pratt House as a performance space, the ensemble told the abstracted stories of the real and fictional women in Poe’s life, Marcum said.

Audience members had free roam of the house, and by wandering into each room, could piece together a unique story, something Ricci relates to a “pick-your-own adventure” book.

In September, Ricci and Marcum produced artist Siobhan O’Loughlin’s highly-acclaimed solo performance “Broken Bone Bathtub,” in which O’Loughlin sat in the bathtub of Ricci and Marcum’s home in front of a small audience.

During the performance, O’Loughlin told a story of recovery, loss and love, while punctuating her monologues with thoughtful questions to and conversations with audience members, bringing them into the narrative.

Submersive Productions is currently working on two shows expected to be performed in early 2017.

The first, “Plunge,” is a devised collaboration of seven “tellers” (performers) and “makers” (visual artists) that, much in the same spirit of “Broken Bone Bathtub,” involves one-on-one interaction between the spectator and the performer in various spaces of St. Mark’s Church.

The second show, “H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere,” Or “Museaum” for short, is the collaborative work of Ricci, Marcum, theatrical artist and designer Lisi Stoessel, and performer and director Susan Stroupe.

“Museaum” will invite audience members into the grand opening of “high society” space explorer H. T. Darling’s turn of the century “cabinet of curiosities.” It presents “conflicting themes” of “wonder, exploration of new worlds, the beauty of the exotic” as well as “exploitation, corruption, [and] imperialism,” according to the show’s Indiegogo funding page.

devillephototheater3In what Ricci describes as a “full immersive” experience, spectators will be able to create their own experience by choosing where to look and move in the Peale Museum, where the show will take place.

“The audience has a level of agency that they don’t have in a regular frontal theatre show,” Stoessel said. “It’s important that the audience has a choice in how they experience the performance. The performance that they have is partially up to them, so in that respect every single person has a totally different experience.”

Marcum, who previously worked as a teacher for students with learning disabilities, sees immersive theatre as a break from the way schools and theaters have structured themselves to be language-based.

“There are so many people in the world who aren’t necessarily catching all of that [information] the way we expect them to,” Marcum said. “I think if we can tell these stories in alternate ways, people gain so much more meaning from that. By having their own sensorial experience that involves everything and not just listening, there’s so much to be gleaned from that.”

Although immersive theatre is becoming more recognized in mainstream culture, it isn’t likely that it will replace traditional theatre as a more popular storytelling medium, for a variety of reasons, Ricci and Marcum said.

For one thing, it’s much more expensive.

“When you have a stage, one plane you have to design that looks good from maybe 20 feet away, that’s that,” Ricci said. “But here, you have every wall of every room.It has to look good to the touch. It’s a whole other level. So that’s expensive and difficult and requires a different skill set. It takes a lot of resources.”

It’s also impossible for an immersive theatre production company such as Submersive to function by seasons, given the amount of time and effort it takes to devise and create a show.

“The gestation period for it is so much longer and doesn’t really fit into a model in traditional theatre,” Marcum said. “It’s not rehearse for a month, tech for a week, and then run the show. Having some [performance] space for that amount of time is a whole different thing.”

Even so, the popularity of immersive productions has some traditional theatre companies are re-thinking their own approach to theatre, Stroupe said.

“There [are] a lot of regional theaters that use space in really interesting ways inside of their theater, and I think a lot of them now are intrigued by what is attractive about immersive theatre,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s going to result in any [immersive] shows in regional theatre, but certainly they’re thinking about how do we make our audience feel essential in the way that immersive theatre is.”

Editor’s Note: All of the photographs were taken and provided by theatrical artists Glenn Ricci. They come from Submersive Production’s “The Mesmeric Revelations! Of Edgar Allen Poe,” the longest running immersive theatre experience in Baltimore history.


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