NOLA Project Founder and Artistic Director Andrew Larimer enjoys breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ in his productions. And often, that goes for walls one, two, and three as well.
His latest piece, Exterior. Pool – Night, is one of his most boundary-defying yet. The audience begins and ends the show together at the pool deck of the Aloft Downtown New Orleans Hotel, said Larimer, who wrote and directed the play.
“And then in Act II, the audience splits up into three different groups, and two of those groups go down to the street and walk around a little bit following a couple of actors, and one of the groups goes into a hotel room on the same floor as the pool, so you get this nice intimate scene in the hotel room.”
Live and recorded video is also used during the production to create the atmosphere of a working film set, and audiences are given hand radios to voyeuristically listen in on conversations happening between characters at a distance.
And at the end, the audience is invited to join the cast and crew for a swim in the titular pool after the show, Larimer said.
“I’ve long been a fan of immersive theater,” said Larimer, before clarifying that by ‘immersive’ he means “theater that invites the audience into the world in which the play happens, as opposed to ‘interactive’ theater which sometimes people get nervous about, having a spotlight shone on them and being asked to do something.”
Immersive theater “just adds so much to the experience for the audience,” he added. “If what theater is about is making this event happen, and taking the audience on a journey…taking that a step further, it’s like, ‘well what if we physically get people up and walk them around? That adds something to this feeling of experiencing a journey that just sitting in a seat can’t do.’”
Larimer got into immersive theater as a theater student at New York University. He was inspired by the likes of the Sleep No More on the west side of Manhattan, which is a converted six-floor hotel in which the rooms have been converted into a forest, a mental institution, “all kinds of different worlds, and I’ve loved those kinds of shows,” he said.
“But I’ve always found that they typically lack a narrative,” added Larimer. “They’re typically kind of episodic or just absurd or abstract in a way that they don’t really have a cohesive narrative structure. So this was my experiment: can we do this kind of theater but actually with a cohesive narrative?”
Exterior. Pool – Night is about the granddaughter of polio vaccine-inventor Jonas Salk. “This granddaughter is now a screenwriter, and she’s writing a biopic about her grandfather,” said Larimer. Tensions start to run high when the film’s temperamental celebrity director keeps changing the script, despite the granddaughter’s objections. As buzz around the project grows, the cast and crew are forced to make some quick decisions about their personal lives and public careers.
“It’s about ego,” said Larimer, “it’s about what it takes to get a piece of creative work made and put out into the world, and it’s about creating work and the collaborative nature of creating art, especially in today’s art world where most work is collaborative in some way.”
And then visually and technically, “it’s kind of about theater versus film, and what theater can do which is make an event happen at one moment,” said Larimer, “bringing an audience together, versus what film can do with close-ups and different locations and slow motion visual effects and all that stuff. This show is about us trying to be greedy and have all of the things that theater and film can do all in one production.”
With its many moving parts, immersive theater often provides the unexpected, but “that’s part of the plan,” said Larimer. “It’s just like loving someone and accepting someone for all of their faults; part of the plan is accepting everything that goes along.”
Larimer founded the Nola Project, now in its eleventh season, with several of his NYU classmates. Larimer is a New Orleans native, but most of the others are not. They did their first show of the summer right before Hurricane Katrina. “It was originally going to be just a summer project in between years of school,” said Larimer. But in that short span, the others in the Project fell in love with New Orleans, so after the storm, they wanted to come back.
They saw a real need for the arts in post-K New Orleans, said Larimer, and “a hunger for the kind of work that we could do and could do really well. There wasn’t a lot of that already being done so we saw this opportunity and it’s been a wonderful and very rewarding experience for all of our classmates. We get to create the work that we wanted to create and act in, great roles for years and years.”
And fortunately, Larimer added, it’s been “something that a the people of New Orleans have been really, really excited to see, typically.”
Exterior. Pool – Night runs through August 6, Thursday through Sunday. For tickets, visit www.nolaproject.com.