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LOS ANGELES — I’ve had a lot of would-be harrowing experiences while exploring the immersive theater scene. Haunts and horror shows are its most popular genre, after all. A demon once pissed on me (pretty sure it was only water). A raving woman sat on my chest and bellowed directly into my face. A cult member had me post a Facebook update claiming I was somewhere I wasn’t, i.e. establishing an alibi for them in the event of my disappearance. One show had me remove a blindfold to discover I was sitting in a bathroom next to a “dead” naked woman in a tub whom I had apparently murdered. I once went through a simulation of being buried alive.
I wasn’t alone. Discussing the show with other audience members afterward, some of them expressed similar feelings. A friend of mine outright said she’d been triggered by it. Not everyone had that reaction, and the reason for this is less a matter of personal taste than it is one of personal history. Those of us who were hit hard by the story were the ones who had been raised Christian.
A collaboration between Capital W and DryCraeft Los Angeles, Rochester, 1996 has been extended through October after selling out its initial run. The show follows Philippa Shoemaker, a teenage preacher’s kid whose parents are working to build a small new church in the eponymous place and time. As she confides to the audience in the opening scene, Philippa has resolved to deal with her burgeoning homosexuality by tamping down on such sinful feelings and concentrating on school and church. However, an eventful Sunday morning brings family secrets to the fore, challenging the way she sees her pastor father, Daniel, and her relationship to her faith.
Sometimes the “immersive” part of immersive theater is a matter of close attention to production design, like Sleep No More‘s famous sprawling hotel set. There are aspects of that in Rochester, 1996 as well. The period costuming is on point, as is Philippa’s pastel cassette tape player and Ani DiFranco poster in her room. Anyone who actually attended church in the ’90s will marvel at the paper worship service program for the “Tree of Love” church, perfectly accurate down to the summary of recent tithing and the kitschy homemade logo. But there’s more to it than that.
Music is a big factor. Music is tied intimately to memory, to a sense of time and place. At the beginning of the show, Philippa’s soliloquy slowly blends with the rising tones of a small congregation singing Chris Tomlin’”We Fall Down,” a hugely popular worship song when I was growing up. It came out in 2001, five years after when the play is set, but that doesn’t really matter. Any one song from my childhood brings me back. I’m continually surprised, though I shouldn’t be, when I hear the opening notes of any of them and find I still know all the words. I hadn’t thought about songs like “We Fall Down” or “Breathe” in years before this show. But I hadn’t lost any of it; it was still a part of me. It probably always will be.
Growing up religious and then breaking from the church in adulthood is rough. While some Christian traditions have evolved to be more progressive in the new century, Rochester, 1996 captures with discomfiting specificity the world that millennials within conservative evangelicalism grew up in. Non-fundamentalists can understand certain aspects of this upbringing, particularly if it has to do with being a woman and/or queer. But there are myriad other details of this culture that they have no idea about. I can talk to other people who grew up religious about them, but to outsiders it’s almost a different language. One time I showed some friends my abstinence vow from my Passport2Purity program. I thought it was funny; they were horrified. Despite being fully agnostic for years now, my acclimatization to the real world can still surprise me at times.
And so, when I and the other ex-Christians in my audience walked into the space standing in for a church in Rochester, 1996, it wasn’t just theater for us. The first part of the play is an entire Sunday service, complete with praise music, announcements, time for fellowship, and a sermon. It unfolds in real time. This is immersion on an entirely different plane than what aficionados of the form are used to. Exposition on the characters and setting are cleverly interspersed, as are the beginnings of various story threads, but more vitally, it informs us on the kind of worldview Philippa is living in.
But those analytical concerns of form were secondary for me. I was back. I was at church again, for the first time in years. I didn’t like it. I was wary and anxious not to be there. To be in the midst of sunny worship was, for me, to return to a realm of intolerance and repression — and yet simultaneously the good parts of community, a warmth I sometimes still miss, a feeling with no secular equivalent. It’s not as though these characters bellow about sin or damnation. They are all cheer. It’s only in little moments that a darker edge peeks out —when a drug-addicted single mother can’t get the help she needs, when the air chills at the mention of homosexuality. That kind of emotional frisson is a whirlwind. For some, this sequence merely sets the stage for what is to follow; for others, it is a reset to when they were a child or teenager.
And this is only the first part of the play. There are still two more acts to go — one which crams participants into a van with the characters, and another which takes place in and around the Shoemaker house, with audience members able to follow whichever characters they see fit to.
Sometimes immersive shows make their participants the main characters, other times bit players. Here, the audience is Philippa’s collective secret confidant. They are invited to reflect on her past with her, and in doing this you may yourself return. For certain people, this is their own memory play. There really isn’t any comparable experience in the arts. This is the emotionally fraught potential of immersive theater, and future productions would do well to take notes.
Rochester, 1996 is playing in Los Angeles through October 21.