Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Into the Rabbit Hole with Chris Hamby: Talking to one of the creators of TheaterWorks' CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

Chris Hamby
by Gil Benbrook

While live, in-person theatre performances across the Valley, and the entire nation, are virtually in an indefinite holding pattern, TheaterWorks' Artistic Director Chris Hamby has found a way to present live performances through a reinvention that combines safety with theatricality.

With multiple performances each night, and running September 10-October 18, Curiouser and Curiouser is a brand new take on the classic story of Alice in Wonderland where audiences will find themselves immersed in the fantasy world of Wonderland. This multi-sensory, intimate production will use every theatre, hallway and rehearsal area at TheaterWorks' home - the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts - and combine puppetry, theatre, dance, music and multi-media. Up to only 10 audience members per performance will find themselves following Alice's footsteps as they move in small groups throughout the world of Wonderland and encountering the colorful characters and discovering the classic moment in this beloved story.

Hamby took a few moments to sit down and answer some questions about how this 100-minute immersive arts experience came to be and how safety was always of most importance in creating this new way to experience live theater.

How did the decision to produce this type of show come about?

"After it became clear that we would not be returning to operations as normal any time soon, we started dreaming. We saw this time as an opportunity, a chance to do something. We did an asset inventory and the two things that rose to the top of that list were; an incredible facility and a huge roster of amazing artists. After talking through what it would look like to combine those things without a rulebook, the traditional theatre rules went out the window and an immersive production began to germinate. We have been presented with the challenge of pausing what we traditionally do and have turned it into an opportunity to do something different."

What made you decide to choose the story of Alice in Wonderland as the basis for this show? 

"We landed on Alice in Wonderland quickly because we needed something that could work without a linear plotline. Alice can work in almost any order you place the events. The Alice stories seemed to not only resonate with a huge demographic of ages it allowed us to explore creating a “world” that we could travel to and through. As an artistic director, I was also drawn to the story and the possibilities it presented. I, along with these amazing artists, could really sink my teeth into Wonderland."

Clara Bentz as "The White Rabbit"
Photo by Josiah Duka Photography 

Were there any other titles that you were thinking about before you landed on Alice, or was it the first story that immediately came to mind? 

"The initial immersive idea was to use a pirate theme and then we discussed Treasure Island. However, that idea severely limited us in that the story had to be told in a very specific order; Inn, to Ship, to Island. We wanted something that could eventually have multiple entry points into the story should we ever want to explore that avenue."

What can people expect from this immersive experience and how does it differ from a traditionally staged play?  

"Audiences should expect to have an 'experience'. The performances are happening all around you, sometimes you are asked to participate. In our creation, the audience is literally the missing character  - they experience Wonderland from the perspective of Alice. You do not sit in the dark and have a passive engagement. Audience members are actively engaged in the story, physically moving throughout 13 spaces in a full sensory experience of sight, sound, even taste. Curiouser & Curiouser is theatrical event, art installation and escape room all in one. "

I know there are many individuals listed who devised the show. What did that process look like and were there any issues that came up that you had to work around with so many people involved in the creative process? 

"We followed the process model used by Jim Henson and Brian Froud where we created our “world” first and then began to lay a narrative on top. Devising sessions began with a small group of designers and actors where we had all blue sky possibilities available to us and then we slowly narrowed and refined the narrative. We then invited a larger pool of designers and actors to join and see what unfolded in between the lines from their various perspectives. Our only real issue was having too many great ideas and no way to use them all. That was the hardest part. It can feel disappointing when you have a solid idea and it gets jettisoned for one reason or another."

I have to imagine that safety protocols were first and foremost in your mind - what can you tell us that went into determining what made the most sense for this type of show while also adhering to current COVID safety guidelines? 

"Our plan from the beginning was to have a piece that we could share with a small number of audience members. We have created something that allows the audience to socially distance from each other, the actors and where the actors can safely social distance from one another. It’s quite a dance at times but we feel we have created something that is safe and socially responsible in these times. Safety has been at the forefront of all decision making. We had to re-think everything we would normally do but we feel we have created something that we can confidently present in a safe and responsible way."

What has been the most exciting part of this process for you? 

"Honestly the transformations of untraditional spaces has been very exciting. How do you turn a hallway into a performance space? How do you create an experience for one audience person? Can we make the lobby windows a canvas? These are not the questions we are usually asking ourselves. The team on this project has brought their A-game and have found ways around every challenge. I’ve always felt blessed to be surrounded by amazing creatives and maybe now more than ever I know that the TheaterWorks team can do anything. "

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