The basement of the Soap Factory is best known as one of the Twin Cities’ most popular haunted houses. Today, if not for the eerie white masks worn by half the room’s inhabitants, it could be confused for the foyer in any of Minneapolis’s more traditional theaters. Of course I tend to think theater foyers look like Purgatory. There are couches and tables and gaudy red paint across the walls, all candlelit like a funhouse rendition of high society. Someone is serving tea on a cart in the corner. A warbled old radio plays lounge music.
“Hey Polar,” Tyler greets me.
I’ve spent less than a few hours in this space over the last two weeks and already I have a nickname. I’m not sure why Polar. It could be my bearlike frame and tendency to wear light grey sweaters. It doesn’t feel cheap or condescending though. If anything, it feels like an invitation to join in without reservation, like we’re kids and I stumbled on their game of hide and seek. Of course this is one of the biggest, most elaborate games of hide and seek I’ve ever seen.
The whole team has been in the Twin Cities theater scene for a long time—their resumes include the Guthrie, professional film work, and even Cirque du Soleil — but they have a youthful glow that belies their experience. I mention the screening of Furious 7 I just attended. Tyler and Joanna perk up and start asking me questions. Before I know it I’ve inadvertently wasted five minutes talking about myself. I’m a tad embarrassed at first. It’s not the most professional way to start an interview.
And yet I start to appreciate the group’s genuine desire to connect with their audience rather than simply insist on communicating their own ideas. They have a trove of ideas, definitely, but where most plays feel like an interview, this production feels like a conversation.
Ryan: Tell me a little bit about the show.
Noah: Crime and Punishment is an on-your-feet, choose your own adventure, performance experience. We’ve taken the classic text of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and turned it on its head and laid out all the storylines so the audience can go anywhere and everywhere and encounter whatever they choose and dig into the lives of those characters.
Tyler: It’s a different experience for everyone who watches it. You will never see the same show, ever. You could see every performance for twenty performances and you’ll never see the same thing.
Joanna: It’s probably impossible to see every single thing.
Tyler: Yeah, I saw twenty new things last night.
Joanna: So in that way you rely heavily upon the creativity and proposals of our actors and designers.
Tyler: And our audience.
The experience begins before you enter the theater. Audience members are asked to pay $25, $40, or $100 for tickets. Nobody is told specifically what they receive for the different price levels.
Joanna: Your ticket level is sort of commensurate with your level of curiosity or desire to engage intimately.
Tyler: And so once you get here you will be introduced into this tea room atmosphere where you will wait until you are allowed into the experience. You will be given a mask that you are required to wear the entire time. And there are really only two rules, so to speak, and those are you have to wear your mask the whole time and you have to stay silent. Those two things, we think, are really key to the entire experience being a fun one for you.
Joanna: The idea of the mask isn’t something we invented, but the purpose of wearing the mask, like any sort of costume, is to become something other than you are in your everyday life and hopefully you’re inspired or given more permission to be bold and curious and to maybe act on impulses you maybe want to do but stop yourself from.
Noah: Also the reason the mask has a very specific face to it is that’s the face of torment and anguish, and so you unwittingly play a character when you put on the mask. That character is Raskolnokov.
A young woman in a checkered apron and frilly white bonnet enters the tea room. This, I’m told, is Nastya. She encourages the masked audience members, myself and subjects included, through a mysterious passageway at the back of the room.
It’s a dark, surreal rabbit hole, with only a distant blue light and the echo of voices guiding us forward. When we emerge into the lit space, it’s more the haunted house I remembered: shattered brick walls, chains dangling from the ceiling, graffiti and ragged curtains. It looks like the Roman catacombs repurposed into a post-apocalyptic underground city. The blue light emanating through the tunnel turns out to be coming from blank TV monitors in a Kafkaesque bunker.
Somewhere in the distance a phone rings. I continue with the line of questioning.
Ryan: What about immersive theater appeals to you?
Joanna: I think immersive theater harnesses the unique vest of live theater; what it can do that no other medium can do, what it can do the best, which is this live aspect. So what does that mean? A movie screen makes you feel as if you’re there, but you’re not there. I guess often times I feel like — and I’m answering the question in the negative — but I often feel like with a proscenium style play, and really proscenium is essential for certain kinds of theater and I’ve done a lot of that; but often times I feel like it might as well be a movie. There might as well be a screen there. I’m not truly interacted with. I’m not truly there sharing this space with the actors. Whereas in immersive theater it’s exactly what it says. It’s 3D. You don’t have to put goggles on. It’s right there. I think that people want to have different experiences in their life. I think that’s something that people crave. So whether that’s taking a vacation to the Bahamas where they can be surrounded by a totally different environment, or they want to go to a cool restaurant or bar, or a concert, you want to be surrounded in a new environment that isn’t your living room. So I think that’s what immersive theater does more than just being in the space.
Noah: And that creates this really unique unity for people who had the same but completely different experiences. And that’s something that you don’t get from any other medium. Did you see the woman in the white dress? Yeah but I didn’t really interact with her. Oh well I had this long interaction with her and it was amazing. So I think that’s really special with the community that’s built after the experience.
Tyler: I think too from a philosophical standpoint the thing I like about it is that so much of entertainment today is really passive. You sit back and watch things happen. And so this experience, definitely you’re not in charge of the story but you have to make decisions the entire time. And even if the decision is to stay where you are, that’s still a decision. Whereas it’s different from just sitting in a chair and saying, “Okay, show me.” But it’s forcing you to really engage it.
At first the whole scene is genuinely overwhelming. Characters are running back and forth, dressed in various costumes. There’s a bearded man dragging an ax on the ground behind him. In a lavish apartment seemingly dug like a cave into the wall, a young girl in a white blouse and blue skirt is berated by frumpy old woman dressed in fur. A man in a suit is drug back to the bunker by what seems to be a Russian police officer. Nastya emerges from the shadows and takes one of the masked audience members by the hand, drawing them with her into the shadows. It’s like a nightmare Disneyland kingdom.
I’m told that there are almost forty actors populating the Soap Factory’s twelve thousand square foot basement. That’s almost an actor to every two audience members moving within dozens of rooms and neighborhoods like a small, only slightly more organized city.
Ryan: There’s something I was reading recently on theater that was comparing it to sculpting; that the marble of theater, so to speak, is the emotions you feel when another person is interacting with you. That’s why Greek theater is framed like a conversation with the audience, because it’s all about feeling like you’re right there with these people. And I think you guys are trying to make that more intimate and trying to build upon it in a way that’s, like you said, less like movies. So what about Crime and Punishment specifically as source material made you want to do it this way?
Joanna: Our first inspiration was the basement itself. Noah and I have spent a lot of time in the basement the last few years because Noah has directed the haunted basement; and even though the first two years it wasn’t an official Live Action Set thing, we were sort of a close artistic partner. We felt like “Ah, here’s a place to do something really cool! It’s like the world of Crime and Punishment. That feeling and tone would fit really well down here.
Tyler: And then from a literary standpoint, one of the comments about Crime and Punishment is that you spend so much time in the head of Raskolnokov, the main character, that it begins to feel like a novel written in the first person even though it’s not. It’s definitely third person. That’s kind of the audience experience here.
Joanna: Because we don’t have anyone playing the main character of the book. The audience is the main character.
Noah: [In the book] Raskolnokov feels like if he kills this woman who is a leech to society he’ll better society. Someone should do it and it should be him. He will prove his worth to himself, to the universe, to humanity whether they know it or not. I think it’s a drastic choice to make, but it’s putting things in a bigger context so we can see them.
Tyler: Definitely the theme of alienation is one that plays in big time. You’re wearing a mask but you’re such a faceless, kind of nameless person, you really experience that alienation that Raskolnokov feels through ninety nine percent of the book. It really kind of hits home and I think allows for a strange kind of empathy for that feeling.
The atmosphere becomes littered with shrill organ music and distant cackling. We begin circling through the whole environment. There is a market area, a strip club, numerous houses and back alleys — too many to explore in a single hour. Some characters address me directly. Others merely look at me as they pass by. It’s a strange dynamic, feeling both isolated from this world of activity and also free to do as I please. It feels like I’m looking through aquarium glass, but I can’t tell if I’m the human or the fish.
Noah: Also there are what we’re calling Easter Eggs planted all around the space. Sometimes it’s a journal that a character wrote. Sometimes it’s a key that unlocks a door.
Ryan: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the way Wes Anderson, when he writes his movies, will draw pictures or create dioramas about the world in which his character lives. That tangible world is as much an element of the art as the characters or story. How does picking up a journal a character wrote enhance the show in your opinion?
Joanna: For me it’s all about the handmade quality to it. That it was made by a person with specific handwriting with real paper that isn’t copy paper. And from a philosophical standpoint what I want to do with theater and this show is to inspire boldness, not just to be bold and jump off a building, but be bold and curious about the world and see those little beautiful things. Lot of artists do that. I think Wes Anderson’s movies certainly do that. And we want to do that too.
Tyler: For me it’s about really engaging people on every level we can. That’s not just about me connecting to text. It’s not just about me finding this little thing. Every piece of this from the sets to the action to the actors are really the sum of a whole, and the more things you discover the richer this experience gets.
As I turn a corner I recognize the man from the bunker. He is shouting at someone in the distance. I follow him into a field thick with hanging white sheets. A ghostly white glow gives the whole scene an ominous quality. I’m drawn, mothlike, to the light. Through the sheets I see the shadow of someone else moving, cautiously, secretively. She peeks from behind a curtain and we make eye contact. I recognize her as the young woman from before.
I know she’s an actress. I know the entire scenario has been arranged meticulously by some very smart people. Yet still I’m struck by that greatest fallacy of the mind: the illusion of fate. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky wrote, “There are chance meetings with strangers that interest us from the first moment, before a word is spoken.” With every story and actor in this space, with every detour I took across every room, how was I drawn to this, the intersection of the two people with whom I first became acquainted?
Even more incredible, this moment and feeling is identical to one experienced by Raskolnokov in the book. I only realize this after the fact. In the moment it feels like something discovered, personal to me and my experience alone. The commitment of so many actors and artisans required to pull off this singular illusion is rare. I almost feel a duty to make the most of the opportunity.
Ryan: When you’re an audience member how do you choose to engage the show?
Noah: I like to bop around. I go all over. I like to get taken to different places and see where that leads.
Tyler: And I’m very peculiar. It depends on the day how I experience it. Some days I just sit in one place and just watch and see what happens. Some days I just go where people take me.
Joanna: I really like following one character as best as I can. I usually lose that person somehow. To me I feel like philosophically when I follow one character I am more satisfied than if I bop around. And if I were going to say what that means for life, I guess it means you can’t do it all. You’re never gonna see it all. But you will be more satisfied if you commit to one thing, to invest in that one thing that you’re gonna do and then you will have the most meaningful relationship possible.
Crime and Punishment runs from Friday April 10 – April 27 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis.
Click here for ticket information.
Photos by: Ryan Sanderson