‘Immersive theatre’ is a relatively new creative concept in live theatre. Leave it to Jim Manning, one of the most creative members of Nashville’s theatre community to take the idea and run with it for the debut of Boundless Theatre Nashville’s “The World’s a Stage” with performances at The Darkhorse Theatre (4610 Charlotte Ave., Nashville, TN 37209) from Friday, August 12 through Saturday, August 27. Earlier today I caught up with Jim for an abbreviated edition of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire.
Rapid Fire 10 Q with Jim Manning, director of “The World’s a Stage”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Before we immerse ourselves (see what I did there?) into chatting about the upcoming immersive theatre experience “The World’s a Stage”, tell me about your new theatre company, Boundless Theatre.
JIM MANNING: Well, I shopped the idea of an immersive show around town to several existing theater groups, and they (wisely) turned it down. An immersive show a pretty big gamble and really hard to stick in the middle of a traditional theater season. So in true Nashville theater fashion, I did the thing I swore I’d never do–I started up a new nonprofit group, called Boundless Theater. It exists to house shows that stretch beyond the traditional boundaries of theater. (Yes, I saw what you did there and two can play at that game.) I have no plans to withdraw from my very busy life with theater around town–I’ll still be designing sets, directing, and performing whenever I get a chance, but this group exists for a slightly different purpose.
JP: Boundless Theatre is presenting what I believe to be the Nashville premiere of not only your show “The World’s a Stage”, but the first-ever immersive theatre experience of its kind in town. I gotta admit, I first heard of immersive theatre on “LIVE: with Kelly”, that and an episode of HBO’s “Girls”. For those who may not be familiar, can you elaborate on the concept?
JIM MANNING: I’ve realized recently that trying to describe immersive theater is a bit like trying to tell an alien what a plant looks like. It can take on many forms. I’ve heard of shows where the audience moves around a room, where they move throughout a hotel, or even where a cab ride becomes a show. I like to think of it as a non-traditional theatrical experience in which the viewer takes some ownership in how they see the show. Given that definition, I think there have been a couple of immersive shows in town, but to my knowledge, not one where the audience will have quite so much flexibility as they will with “The World’s a Stage.” When they enter the theater, they will be given a mask, and are told they can go anywhere the actors go. Darkhorse Theater is a terrific location for this sort of show, because the dressing rooms and green rooms are beneath the stage, and that area is almost a maze, with multiple staircases and hallways. So an audience member might want to select an actor and follow them throughout the course of the evening as they do scenes onstage, and then move behind the scenes; or they might wander around room to room following bits of action they see. Because of the tight quarters backstage, only 20 audience members are allowed into each performance, and there’s no way for any one of them to actually see the whole show. No two audience members will see the same show, which will make the car ride home a lot of fun.
JP: So it’s sort of an update on the show within a show concept, but wait. Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labors Lost” already utilizes the show within a show idea. Won’t that get confusing?
JIM MANNING: Believe me, there’s plenty of confusion to go around with this one. I’ve done a pretty substantial edit of the onstage production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” and one of the casualties of my edit was the show within the show, mainly for the reason you mention–it’s already happening backstage. This version of the script removes several characters and runs about an hour and a half. It’s a fully produced show (and pretty dang good), and we’re actually offering a show-only ticket for audience members not wanting to have the backstage experience.
JP: understand you’ve taken some creative liberties with The Bard’s original script. Why did you feel that was necessary?
JIM MANNING: The theme I wanted to explore with this show was that of the masks we wear every day. That idea is already in Shakespeare’s text, and I’ve whittled it down a little to focus it more sharply, looking to that theme. So, the audience is wearing masks, the actors take on characters onstage, sometimes those characters wear masks, and backstage, the actors change pretty substantially, depending on who they are around.
JP: Ok, I think I’ve got it straight now. Tell me about your cast.
JIM MANNING: I have one of the most daring casts in town, and I am honored to be working with each of them. Some names the Nashville theater-goers will recognize are David Wilkerson (in a fun, comic role), Lauren Jones (who works regularly with Nashville Children’s Theater), Melissa Silengo (as a brainy spit-fire), Randal Cooper (who has played more leads around town than I can number), and Lynda Cameron-Bayer (who is coming back after taking some time away from the stage). There is also a group of actors who just finished “Romeo and Juliet” in Murfreesboro. Chris Wagner and Jessica Theiss played Romeo and Juliet, Shane Lowery directed the show, and Alec Lanter was part of Romeo’s posse. Rounding out the cast are Josh Webb and Daniel Morgan, both with pretty impressive theatrical resumes.
JP: Can you divulge any details about the relationships audience members will see unfold behind the scenes?
JIM MANNING: I’m not falling for that one, Jonathan. Part of the fun for the audience backstage is figuring out those relationships. I will say that some of those relationships are secretive. Some of the actors are two-faced. And some of what the audience learns backstage is fairly shocking. Backstage, the actors are using their own names and drawing from some of their own experiences. Some are really putting themselves out there in daring ways and being quite vulnerable.
JP: Is everything completely scripted for the backstage action, or have you given your cast creative freedom to improvise?
JIM MANNING: The answer to this question is “Yes.” We began the process of preparing the backstage part of the show by doing some short form improv, talking about theatrical stereotypes, and discussing preconceptions. As we have put all that together, several storylines emerged. So this process has been based a lot around who these actors are as people, and sometimes around the worst versions of themselves.
JP: What happens when an audience member gets brave and interacts with the cast?
JIM MANNING: Some immersive shows have more audience participation than others, and this show actually has very little. The audience is wearing masks as they move throughout the space, which gives them the suggestion of voyeurism. So they are largely ignored by the cast. Part of the fun of this show is to spy on people and to try to figure them out.
JP: I’m always impressed by your work as a set designer. Can you offer a preview of how the stage will look and what went into the concept?
JIM MANNING: We are going for a “vintage hipster” look where scrolls and ipods coexist. I tried to keep the design concept as simple as possible, given all the hats I’m wearing this time. But if you’re a bibliofile, you’ll love the look of this set.
JP: Alright, I always think an abbreviated Rapid Fire 10 will work, but it’s never enough time to ask everything I want to know. What else would you like to share about “The World’s a Stage”?
JIM MANNING: The show is an experiment for all of us–actors, audience, and me. Honestly, if I had known a week ago what I know now, I would have approached some of my directing tasks very differently. With a show like this though, you can’t call up someone who’s done something similar before and ask advice. The other immersive shows I’ve seen revolved around dance and pre-existing fictional characters. I’ve never heard of an immersive experience that also incorporated improv–let alone one that is drawing so much from the actors’ own experiences. I hope Nashville will go down that road with us and explore the conventions of theater–specifically where the boundaries of theater lie.
Because of the inclusive nature of “The World’s a Stage”, there are two ticket prices. If you’d just like to see the action of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost”, general front of house tickets are available for $10. For $20, twenty patrons per performance can experience the full immersive experience. Since the immersive audience is limited to only 20 per performance, “The World’s a Stage” will offer an expanded run to allow Nashville’s theatre patrons more opportunities to catch the show with performances every day except Mondays from Friday, August 11 through Saturday, August 27. Each performance begins at 8 p.m. with additional Sunday matinee performances at 3 p.m. Click Here for tickets. Click Here for more information.
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