Each audience member who attended the week of previews for Here in February had a distinct story experience in a single Lower Manhattan space. Although the groups of five started together, all descending a dark staircase to a basement apartment and carrying funeral cards for a stranger, they were quickly broken into twos and then ones as a narrative of grief, nostalgia, and the complications of childhood memory grew increasingly fragmented and surreal.
“I’m interested in exploring really relatable material. The shows that I love are the family dramas,” Kelly Bartnik, the director and creator of Here, told Hyperallergic. “It’s people, it’s life, and it’s so tangible.”
Bartnik is a dancer and choreographer with a background in immersive theater; she played the original “Bald Witch” in Sleep No More. Bartnik’s collaborators are also veterans of immersive theater and site-specific performance, including dancers Donna Costello, Zach Martens, Jeff Lyon, and Tori Sparks, who did Here’s atmospheric art direction. All of the performers are credited as co-writers of Here, which, unlike the nearly wordless Sleep No More, features fleeting dialogue alongside dance movement.
“The process is highly collaborative, so everybody’s character is coming from real life,” Bartnik said. “We are all in the same relative age range, so there’s that element where — as I’m almost 40 — you start to understand what death means, you start to understand what family means. Everybody is bringing their reality into this, and because we are all of this same generation, there is an understanding of how these things come up differently now than if I was 25 or my cast was 25.”
Here is planned to be episodic, so this “pilot” episode at the Mist space is only the beginning of an evolving theatrical journey. “People binge-watch things on HBO and Netflix, and you get attached to characters, you get attached to stories, and want to see them unfold over time,” Bartnik explained. “Being in something like Sleep No More, people were coming back again and again. But what if you could offer a new storyline or new characters every time?”
Over the course of an hour, the audience encounters two siblings and a childhood friend coming to terms with an absent father’s death, his remains making a sort of Chekov’s ashes appearance that punctuates a chaotic confrontation in a forest. Domestic environments like a living room devolve into narrow paths with ivy creeping along the wallpaper, and wardrobes become doorways. There’s an impressive depth in the texture of the space, with different smells in each room and subtle sound designed by John Glover that adds to the increasing tension. Bartnik said some audience members have left in tears, others in terror (one woman in my group seemed to flee immediately), but overall, what people want to do afterwards is try to fit together the story pieces they witnessed. “It was interesting how people would get shot onto the street, and then they would stand there for 20 minutes and just talk to each other,” she said.
Currently, her plan is to open Here at the end of April or in early May. While the show is still in its initial stages, she’s considering ideas for complementary programming such as digital recaps for new audience members and maybe even a podcast to support conversation. “There’s a level of mystery, and we do want to get people talking to each other so that they have the level of community on top of seeing something,” Bartnik said.
This first tumultuous portal into the lives of Here’s characters is incredibly intimate and emotional due to its tiny audience, yet Bartnik expects that each episode of the production will be unique. For instance, a future edition could be a grand wedding scene between two key characters for an audience of hundreds. And, appropriately for episodic theater, the Here pilot ends in a tantalizing cliff-hanger with the sudden introduction of a new character.
“I’m leaving it open in that way, so that the next time we can totally switch it up,” Bartnik said. “I want the audience to show up never knowing what they’re going to get.”
The opening of Here will be announced on its website.