Dream Gig: Houseworld by Andrew Hoepfner and Friends

by Zay Amsbury for No Proscenium

Houseworld’s website tells us “Houseworld is a new surrealist immersive theater performance. One by one, our guests enter an historic mansion and step into a dreamworld.” On the evening my friends and I participated in Houseworld we did indeed find ourselves in a dreamworld, but it wasn’t what we expected. But what do we expect with dreams? What is a dream anyway? And what does it mean to create a dreamworld? The phrase “liminal space” and “dreamlike” have been used a lot when trying to talk about immersive theater. Is is appropriate?

Of course for some folks Houseworld didn’t seem like a dreamworld at all. While roaming through the house and exploring its rooms, some audience members never quite left the mundane world. Some reviewers of Houseworld took issue with its homespun craft, its saturation of one-on-ones, the therapy-esque requests to delve into audience member’s personal content, the seeming lack of connection between one room and another, the tension between the performer’s invitation to engage in the story and the story’s refusal to move forward, its wrenching shifts from silly to heavy, and its willful sincerity. In fact Houseworld’s regular demands for credulity from its participants left some cold, seeing the piece as a hipster best-parts version of immersive theater or recapitulation of college-age yearning for meaningful moments.

But for those who opted in, Houseworld pulled off a magic trick that none of the A ticket immersive rides in New York have managed: the dreamworld was perfectly consistent. It had no flat zones, no areas where we felt as if we’d fallen out of the dream. Managing the ebb and flow of meaning is one of the challenges of immersive work. When the audience needs to be surrounded by an imagined space, and when the choreography flags or the design holds no clear thematic content or the exit sign takes us out of the era we’re left in flat zones where the dream has turned into a set, and we’re left in this plastic present.

In the early days of a piece like The Grand Paradise flat zones can be disturbingly obvious. These are transitions that took years to smooth out of Then She Fell. The layered thematic journey its audience members take developed over a long period of time, incorporating audience feedback, new experiments, fundamental restructuring, and more feedback. What Third Rail Projects achieved through choreography Sleep No More or Artangel’s H.G. achieved through design. For these pieces the seams must remain hidden and the transitions must be smooth. That’s what coheres the dream.

But dreams don’t really work that way. Dreams aren’t smooth or self-consistent and the technique of a mis en scene so perfect its metaphysic overwhelms the sensory is not the technique of dreams. The technique of dreams is to rework latent content with the nighttime labors of condensation, displacement, symbolization, and visualization so that we can let loose with our secret desires without permanently destabilizing whoever it is we think we really are. These forms can jump from sublime to hilarious to sexy to ridiculous. Only after reflection, or inspiration, or talking sessions, or never, do we make sense of what we went through the night before.

Which brings us back to Houseworld.

Houseworld didn’t evoke the feeling of a dream, it looked like the seamless manifestation of a dream. There are no flat zones in Houseworld because it didn’t attempt to make every scene and every transition fuse into a smooth plane. The seams, the gaps, the leaps of logic, the radical juxtaposition of discordant experiences, all felt consistent. Houseworld was in pieces, and it was in pieces because of the art form its creators are most familiar with.

Immersive theater is a convergent form, and how the creators got there goes into the effect of the piece. Andrew Hoepfner is a musician. If Then She Fell is something like a dance piece, and WR is something like installation art, and Woodshed Collective’s The Tenant is something like a play, then Houseworld is something like a music show. Each room is a concert. And the piece itself if Hoepfner’s festival.

Hoepfner invited folks he wanted to work with in for gigs. In most cases they were given one directive: come up with a performance between you and one other person for an intimate space. In rare cases the friend was cast into a predetermined roles: Joe Crow Ryan as the Guru in the Bathtub or Salvatore Musumeci or as The Cook, one of the rare narrative components in the piece. In some cases folks were brought in to gig for a weekend. Hoepfner himself hadn’t experienced many of these gigs. They weren’t designed into the piece as a conscious attempt at coherence. They had a gig.

A sequence of events in Houseworld might go like this: I was tasked with getting an object from one character in one room and giving it to another character in another room, with the heavy implication that this is the thing that will be driving the evening. While I was trying to find this object I went from room to room and what happened in these rooms seemed to have nothing to do with each other, except for this: in each one, in some way, the performer drew out my own content. My hopes and dreams, my questions and confusions. Along the way there were explosions of absurdity, moments of fear, blindfolds, dancing, songs played, photographs taken, and pizza eaten, and while none of it made sense all together, all of it seemed as if it belonged. There were no transitions, no moments between scenes, because the hallways and stairwells were just as much a part of the house — a part of the dream — as the rooms. The entire space had been activated.

The notion of a transition space or flat zone or place outside the dream was played with in the form of Charlie’s room, which was bizarre because it was a room where nothing strange happened. A room where Charlie, a kind of Millennial Dude would give you pizza and talk about movies and hang out. In other words, a room with zero strangeness or dream content or thematic content — to the extent that Houseworld had thematic content, but we’ll get to that — and yet it didn’t take me out of it. It was liminal space by some strange kind of Aikido move. This is normal. There is no normal. This is not the dream. This is all the dream.

By the time I found the object and was about to grab it another character appeared, a woman in black, and she asked me if I wanted a drink. It felt like in intervention, a side-quest of some kind. But did I want a drink? I wanted a drink

She led me through various misadventures until finally we ended up in a pitch black twisting hallway where she disappeared and I was only following a flashlight cone of light. Maybe that’s what happened. Memory never works well with the these things. Anyway the flashlight was moving fast, frantically fast, and at the very end of the passage, lit only by a frantic cone of light, what I saw was this: the woman who had offered me a drink, on her knees, head between the legs of a thing that was so disruptive to my ability to cohere meaning that I went into some kind of shock. There was no reference for this thing in my head. Later, much later, when I saw it in better light, it seemed like an awful, gigantic moth, but also bit like a large, rutting man in a furry costume, and also like a monster made of eyes and hair and ridiculously bright colors. In that corner in semi-darkness its head was thrown back in ecstasy and maybe fear at whatever the woman was doing between its legs. I was aghast, I was terrified, and I was laughing so hard I thought my stomach would rupture. It was so funny. It was so sad. It was so awful.

This creature in the basement was not a design arrived at through long deliberation by a group of collaborators guided by a collectively agreed upon set of thematic relationships. In true Houseworld fashion, Hoepfner didn’t direct the look of the thing in the basement, and as of my viewing he didn’t know about that particular scene I’d been confronted with. This could be a flaw, or the homespun work of some folks who just wants to be inside a one on one for the rest of his lives, but it is also a kind o letting go, a mass abjection of intention and content that opened up the evening for synchronicity. That’s a good Jungian word, and Jungian experiences abound in Houseworld: latent content, monsters in the basement, memories intruding, frustrated wishes, unearthed repressions, excavated histories. Through letting creators roam free within the form and logic of a dream, Houseworld achieves things absolute aesthetic control would be hard-pressed to replicate.

Later that night, when we managed to grab the object and take it to to where it was supposed to go so the story could progress, we we were told it’s not time yet, we had to wait, and were sent back to explore the house. It frustrated the offer of interactivity and contradicted the notion that we had any kind of input over how Houseworld progressed. But even this delay somehow folded into the meaning of the piece. It created in us that sense of trying to run but being stuck, even when you know there’s a monster in the basement.

One of the reasons the experience Houseworld can overwhelm what might be deadly in another piece of immersive theater is that it had almost no content. Yes, there was a monster in the basement, and a woman in a black dress, and various characters and gigs, but these were symbols. There was no specific theme or thematic progression. But there was certainly content.

At one point, underneath an enormous umbrella, with an endless showering of rain beating down, a woman with a delicate accent asked me my earliest memory. At that point I had no more resistance, so I told her the truth. It’s an intensely personal moment, a primal scene that I’ve only told three people. Beneath the umbrella I told the woman, and she understood, and and was kind, and then we laughed, and it was good. It was an unearthing of content. Hoepfner’s clear about his intent for Houseworld to open people in this way. As wonderful as one on ones can be, it’s a different experience when you’re the primary source for content.

There are so many one on ones in Houseworld and so many intimate exchanges that with all these strange forms and scenes and images, haphazardly juxtaposed and without clear relationships, I eventually it felt as if, just like in the most psychoactive of dreams, whatever happened to the environment was happening to me.

In Then She Fell it is as if everything is happening for you, like some kind of intimate gift given to you by a loved one whose romantic entanglement you yearn for even as it wounds you. In Houseworld it is as if something is happening to you, and by the time we got to the climax the house was operating on me like a Jungian alchemical transformation.

Houseworld isn’t something a theater director or choreographer is likely to invent. It is immersive theater as gig, a group riff, a creation of individual experiences where everything will be trusted to the guest artists pursuing their own intimate concert. It’s midnight to 3am at an all night music festival where the warm-up band, the opening act, that fiddler you meet in the woods, and the headliner tell a story just for you in unlikely, absolute synchronicity.

Much later, when the object is allowed to enact its transformation, the monster is released from the dark cave in the very basement of the house. Even at the time it felt like a tender, celebratory release of that which is repressed, and it felt like an apt climax. But Houseworld had one more trick up its sleeve.

Endings operate strangely in immersive theater. Many pieces begin before you get to the space. Sleep No More begins the moment you’re told it’s happening at the McKittrick hotel — because you’re told it’s happening in the space the set creates, not the theater in which the set is built, bringing you in at that moment to the imaginary world of the piece. And if that’s the beginning, what do you do at the end? Will there be a curtain call? Will the lights go up, and the illusion break, and you wait for your friends in the lobby? Immersive theater pieces tend to avoid breaking the illusion when the piece is over.

The ending of Houseworld takes place in a different space. Characters took us to our spot, helped us to the floor. The sky was there. And then a soundscape. No language, no dialogue, no direction except for the sound. I don’t know how long it lasted. That was the reflection. The analysis. The sitting with what just happened. It was here that the piece came together, or didn’t, and if it did it was your own work. This ending was so personal, so brave in its lack of directed content that it allowed the process of dream logic to resolve itself. The moment of dream interpretation, simultaneously psychoanalytic and sensuous. The only moment experienced by every participant in Houseworld and the most absolutely individual. Alone together, dreaming singularly in the collective.

Hoepfner and his friends created a dream gig, and like most dreams, Houseworld can seem ridiculous or sublime, sincere or ironic, plastic or divine, depending on how you take it, how you remember it, and how deep you’re willing to go. As an immersive theater experience it was uniquely consistent, lacking any of the flat zones or areas where meaning was at a low ebb. Through pulling back from content or theme and replicating the form of dream logic using content from the participants, Houseworld took a new approach to what it means to be “dreamlike.” Hoepfner and friends made something that could only become complete when we allowed it to be our dream.