Empire Travel Agency starts with four strangers waiting for a call at a Lower Manhattan phone booth. What follows is a two-hour immersive theater experience that weaves through the streets, subway, and behind unexpected doors into sleek and disused spaces, all on the trail of a mysterious substance called ambrose that may alter the future of New York City.
The production is by the nonprofit Woodshed Collective, which stages free, site-specific theater experiences, such as 2011’s The Tenant, a tale of escalating paranoia in an apartment complex that unfolded in a vacant Upper West Side church, and 2009’s The Confidence Man, based on a riverboat-set Herman Melville novel and staged on a decommissioned ship. Last year, the first edition of Empire Travel Agency invited audience members on adventures that included a subway ride to Coney Island, where actors entered and exited the train in a journey that culminated at the beach. The 2015 production, currently running through September 27, was written by Jason Gray Platt and directed by Teddy Bergman with a focus on the anxiety and adventure offered by the city.
Rereading my notes from Empire Travel Agency is like scanning Rorschach’s journal, with scattered fragments revealing the scope of experience and characters: “Talked to Rhonda at the phone booth […] Met a professor type, had a drink, was serenaded by the Avant-Gardesmen […] Hear about Ambrose and we’re going to bid on it […] Betsy found us, she told us about her mother […] We escaped the conspiracy meeting […] This city is immense.”
It’s a show that’s difficult to review without spoilers, and the surprise of what’s next is part of its magic. So I talked to its director, Woodshed Collective co-founder Teddy Bergman, to get some insight into Empire Travel Agency, the challenges of staging immersive theater in public places, and the Collective’s mission to provide these free experiences.
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Allison Meier: How did the Woodshed Collective start and was the intent always to focus on immersive theater?
Teddy Bergman: The company started as a student organization at Vassar College in 2002. We worked on established texts in a very intensely collaborative way, in that everybody sort of did everything. We all built the sets together. We all designed and decided on a concept for the show together, and we all to some degree collectively directed and executed the shows.
Once we graduated and reestablished the company in New York and grew over time, the company came to focus on a range of work that was centered around site-specific, site-responsive immersive theater.
I think that grew out of wanting really tangible environments for our audiences to enter into, so the specific concern or interest in each show has grown out of a perpetual desire to situate an audience within the world of a play. I think that is the common link behind all the work the company has done, especially in the last seven years.
AM: In comparison to The Tenant or The Confidence Man, Empire Travel Agency is more a guided journey. How did you decide to switch to that kind of experience?
TB: We were interested in exploring Empire Travel Agency as a multi-locational, site-specific experience that is engaged in questions about New York, and is an attempt to have you re-imagine and re-engage with the city.
There are certainly other shows that have been multi-locational, but oftentimes I think they take on a little bit more the vibe of a scavenger hunt, in which the audience is left up to its own devices. But this is attempting to create a cohesive world spread out over multiple locations. Rather than having it be just a large web that people could find their way through, we wanted this experience to be very interactive and very performer-driven to sustain dramatic tension over literally large pieces of geography.
AM: I was impressed with the diversity of experiences for the audience — you’re in a car, or the subway, you’re walking on the street. It was also great you were able to use buildings at the South Street Seaport. Did you start looking at the Financial District as a whole and narrow it into these places to discover? What was the creative process?
TB: As we were discussing and developing the play and thinking about physical pathways that we could go down in the city, that was where the show became site-responsive. The Financial District at night is a very particular character, and I don’t think many people in New York really experience that area at night with any degree of regularity. And part of that was the spaces of the show that we were able to have access to through a partnership with the Economic Development Council of New York, who’s been extraordinarily generous and wonderful for us to work with.
At those spaces themselves [in the South Street Seaport], they’ve been pretty much dormant since Hurricane Sandy. As they are considering what the redevelopment plan is, and as they’re doing a tremendous amount of redevelopment in the South Street Seaport right now, they were really lovely and quite amenable to us having the kind of performance that we are having. And then that just went from there in terms of the other locations and partnerships that flowed out from that main tent pole.
AM: Each group is only four people. At least from my night, none of us knew each other. Is that part of the experience as well?
TB: The max reservation for one person is two tickets. We are trying to encourage a collectivizing experience for the four people on the trip. And also, in a show in which we play upon the questions of who is a performer and who is just somebody on the streets of New York, it’s fun to introduce a little bit of that question or variable to the audience itself, just to give anybody any seeds of suspicion about their fellow audience members at any point, which I think is a sort of fun dimension to add.
AM: You’re creating a world that’s alongside the existing reality. How much is it getting permission, or is it that the city is more publicly accessible than we realize?
TB: I think it’s a balance of those things. There are a lot crazier things happening on the streets of New York all the time than what we’re doing. There are certain aspects of what we’re doing that are within the public domain of being a group of four or five people who have elected to be together on the streets of New York. In other cases, there certainly is a fair amount of permitting and paperwork behind it.
AM: Something that distinguishes Woodshed Collective shows is they’re all free. Why is that decision part of every single show that you do?
TB: I think accessibility for us as a nonprofit is very big in terms of allowing people access to these experiences so they’re not luxury nights, that they’re also vital experiences that we think many and all people should be able to have. These rabbit holes of the imagination.
It also allows us to increase the scope of what we do, as a smaller company making quite large shows. So it’s first and foremost an ideological facet of the company, and then part of the practical way we actually make the things.
AM: You said you think that everyone should have these “rabbit holes of the imagination.” Why do you think that’s important?
TB: I think good artistic experiences are ones that have the ability to open your eyes and refresh your attention and attunement to your world, and look at your surroundings anew and imagine them differently. I think that is a vital thing for people emotionally, psychologically, politically, all those things. And I think that is an experience that everybody should have.
AM: Why do you think theater in particular is a good way to do that?
TB: To me it’s like, whatever kind of live performance, it’s an unmediated, really direct interaction with a group of people whose only claim to changing things is what they’re saying to you. There’s very little manipulation other than your own suspension of disbelief. You’re extremely front-footed, you’re extremely alert, you are in a very active place of participation. I think that’s why theater of this kind has a particular ability to put an audience in that driver’s seat.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.