By Frankie Kujawa
Submersive Productions will debut “rECHOllection,” an open-air and open-ended theatrical experience next to Latrobe Pavilion in Druid Hill Park on Saturday, November 6th and Sunday, November 7th. The experience, free to all visitors, is a timely production. Artistic Directors Ursula Marcum and Glenn Ricci both talked about the upcoming “rECHOllection" experience, as well as why art is more important than ever as Charm City awakens from their pandemic slumber.
The company’s first future-fiction piece, “rECHOllection" invites audience members into the year 2032 as the earth is beginning to push back against humankind in fuller force. A virus has evolved to cross between computers and humans, rendering digital technology unusable and has greatly reduced our population. Personal and shared memories are eroding. Air and atmospheric quality make it difficult to spend time outside without full-body protection. The practice of physical distancing has only increased. And yet, through these conditions, community members of Baltimore strive to find new ways to connect, express themselves, and attempt to heal from our collective loss of memory and companionship.
Frankie Kujawa: In your own words, can you explain what audiences can expect from “rECHOllection”?
We’ve made what we believe to be the most relaxed, low-pressure, and covid-safe immersive theatre experience possible. The audience will be greeted at Latrobe Pavilion in Druid Hill Park and pointed towards the temporal rift. Within the rift, Baltimore residents from 2032 have mysteriously begun to appear in our space and time. We invite the audience to exercise their curiosity, explore the area, and interact if they wish. You can start at any time that the rift is open (noon-3pm) and stay for a few minutes or the full three hours, if you like. Come and go as you want — the event is free. Watching from a distance and exploring up close both have their own rewards.
We at Submersive have been spending time in the rift for the past few months and can now share what we know about our friends from 2032. From what we can tell, future atmospheric quality has made it difficult to spend time outside without full-body protection. Due to a virus that can jump between computers and humans, the practice of physical distancing has only increased and people shun anything digital. Nonetheless, they appear to be harmless and unconcerned by the fact that they are visiting us from another time. This may be a common experience for them. We have added some set pieces and sound installations that seem to comfort our visitors and keep the rift stable. Each person we encounter seems to have their own way of dealing with their present situation, so it is difficult to generalize beyond that.
FK: Could you describe the process that went into creating this work?
Submersive’s works are always devised from the ground up through a collaborative process. “rECHOllection” is the result of contributions from a team of over thirty performers and contributing artists. Rather than focus our work around a single author or director, the process is guided and shaped by a Core Creative Team who stay in conversation with the larger group. For this project, the core team is Mika Nakano, Glenn Ricci, Trustina Sabah, and Susan Stroupe.
While we always like to make art that is engaging and challenging, this time around we’ve taken great care to make the experience feel as open, relaxed and safe as possible. This is not a compromise so much as what feels right to us right now. The past couple of years changed us a lot as people, as well as how we engage with the world as a company. We are trying our best to take care of each other as we make this work and we want the audience to feel cared for as well. We started the process late last year over Zoom (of course) and did not even plan for a public showing until the time felt right.
The story we are telling is actually a prologue to an indoor experience that we initially planned to make this year. Believe it or not, in late 2019 we started working on a project based on the idea that a pandemic had forced people into living solitary lives. Then, well, you know what happened next. We still hope to do a version of that show next year when we can figure out how to create an indoor experience that is safe for everyone.
The fact that we experienced an actual pandemic in the middle of creating a show about one altered our approach to it in very deep ways. Obviously, we no longer need to research what that might be like, nor do we need to explain it to the audience. Much of our work is meant to be embodied and felt in the moment. The experience we are having with our bodies now, individually and socially, became a part of the work as well.
We like to stay nimble as a company and our plans changed many times over the past year until we landed on the concept for “rECHOllection.” So, this show takes place in the near future and the follow-up story, “Katalepsis,” will be a much different experience taking place in the very far future. What makes “rECHOllection” fun for us is that it is not nearly as structured or planned out as our past shows. No flowchart or story “arc” for this one. The performers have a sense of their characters and what they might do and the audience will do what they do and we’ll see what happens!
FK: As audiences slowly awaken from their “pandemic slumber”, why is art more important than ever right now in Baltimore?
Great question! We’ve all been through a lot. And we’re now in this very strange in-between time full of pressures to return to “normal,” but that comforting sense of normalcy does not seem to be showing up. Maybe normal is broken or maybe normal never really was and we’re seeing a different world now. It is scary but also an opportunity to see things anew. Art is here to help us process that world.
There are messages in this piece about social isolation, climate change, grief, loss, and future dystopia. But we do not see it as our role to raise an alarm about these things. That alarm has been raised in many ways already. We’re more interested in the basic question of how to be human in a time when our basic dignity and worth are constantly challenged by huge factors that feel fully out of our control. Our personal perception and the actions we take (today, tomorrow, this very minute) are fully within our own control, which is where art can step in.
Art plays a unique role in our culture by helping us imagine other ways of being, other ways of connecting with each other. The ways that we now interact online have become so efficiently shaped by algorithms and market forces that we end up getting put into boxes without even realizing it. Every idea appears to arrive with it’s own prepackaged counter-argument, meant to leave us feeling incomplete. The more we push against it, the better this machine gets at leaving us with a sense of wanting — either to keep clicking and scrolling or to buy something. As we build our identities and sense of self increasingly through online interaction, this can leave us feeling stuck. Sometimes we need art to help us transcend this, to break it up a little, and point us to other ways to be. Art can help us create our own space to define what it means to be beautiful, human, and complete just as we are.
At the heart of our collaborative approach is the relationships we are forming with each other and our audience. We hope and believe that this shows itself in the art we create. We are not expecting to actually change the world with our work, but if we help anyone create new pathways in their mind, and free up some space to see themselves and their world differently, then we consider that a success.
FK: Could you talk a little bit about the background of Submersive Productions?
We call ourselves a collaborative artworks company that creates original, site-specific immersive works where artists and audiences engage together at the intersection of histories, mythologies and the immediate experience. Based in Baltimore, we devise works that make the audience essential to the journey of the narrative.
We started back in 2015 with “The Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe” which, after 62 showings over six months, became the longest-running immersive theatre piece in Baltimore history. That show, presented at the Enoch Pratt House, let us hone our own approach to creating theatrical worlds that audiences could explore in their own way. Since then, we’ve mounted over twenty productions including “H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum” at the Peale Center, “MASS/RABBLE” at the Baltimore War Memorial, and “See Also” at the George Peabody Library early last year.
Established by Co-Artistic Directors Ursula Marcum and Glenn Ricci, our planning and programming is steered by Creative Partners Josh Aterovis, Tina Canady, Marissa O’Guinn Dahl, Kim Le, Michele Minnick, Mika Nakano, Trustina Sabah, Lisi Stoessel and Susan Stroupe. We stay in relationship with a Collective of roughly fifty artists who share our values and approach to making this work. The artists for “rECHOllection” were all drawn from the Collective, plus a couple of new people we were happy to meet along the way.
Because we are an independent company without the pressures of a board or a season, we were able to spend last year taking stock and looking inward. We have always strived to include a wide range of voices in our work and encourage our collaborators to bring their full selves to the process. We continue to explore what that means and where it can lead us.
Coming up next will be an experience and documentary film project called “Breathing Black; Or How We Heal” led by Creative Partners Tina Canady and Marissa Dahl. It will focus on the healing powers of Black Joy. Kim Le is leading a project called “The Boundary” that we’re shaping as a kind of choose-your-own afterlife experience. “Vital Matters: Baltimore” will be a performative, community-based, multidisciplinary response to climate change led by Michele Minnick. And we will start work on “Katalepsis” shortly after we wrap “rECHOllection.” Parts of “rECHOllection” may resurface again in the future if it feels right to us.
Trailer Video: https://vimeo.com/638511276
Admission is free, but all the artists involved with the project are paid for their work. Grants and donations make it all possible. Any amount you can give helps greatly.