The paid intimacy of immersive theater

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“Under the Big Top: Atlas”. Photos Courtesy of Model05 Productions

The invitation to “Under the Big Top: Atlas” is intentionally a little cryptic.

It’s clear it’s an immersive theater experience. It’s clear it’s $70 for a 30 minute performance. Beyond that, it invites your imagination to wander.

There’s mention of 1928, some kind of flood at the circus. A mystery, someone’s disappeared, maybe I can help locate her? And that it’s a partnership with Two Bit Circus.

That’s enough for me. I’m intrigued.

In my mind I’m headed to some circus tent downtown in the arts district. The reality is a little different.

Two Bit Circus is actually a virtual reality arcade. So instead of clowns and aerialists, there are video monitors and VR goggles.

True to their name, The Speakeasy Society performance is nestled in a back hallway and it does feel a little clandestine.

I’m told to wait outside a door and wait for the green light to come on before I enter. I walk down the hallway to what feels like a makeshift dressing room. There are circus posters on the wall and a couple of wood antiques. The lighting is a deeply moody red and blue and there’s a piped in sound score of rain and circus sounds. It’s a little weird and then a woman in a corset asks me for help undoing it (don’t worry she’s got a shirt on underneath - but you get the game). It’s not clear exactly who I am in this drama but I’m definitely there. It’s just the two of us in this tiny room and she wants me to help her. After I get her out of one corset and lace her up into another she launches into a story of how she ended up in the circus in the first place.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes she tells me about her husband. She tells me about her old circus act - a vaulting routine on top of a horse - she even holds my hand and, at one, point hugs me. It’s not too intimate but it’s definitely not sitting comfortably and anonymously in the 5th row.

This is what’s so fascinating about these small audience, immersive theater pieces. They’re playing on a different craving than the simple desire to hear a good story. This isn’t even theater as voyeuristic act where the performer is the center of the universe for an act or two. This is theater where the audience is the focus. It’s a bit like buying an intimate friend for 30 minutes. Someone is focusing only on you. Telling you their intimate secrets and looking to you for something.

In a world dominated by anonymous distracting screens at every moment, there’s something thrilling and a bit dangerous about this attention, this connection.

As immersive shows go, “Under the Big Top: Atlas” is passing at best. The story is intriguing but never really achieves the poetry or emotional impact it’s trying to achieve. But it’s fascinating and it’s sort of great to hear a 30 minute monologue in the back of a video arcade. I just can’t help but wonder where it all leads. $70 for 30 minutes of personal attention? What a world we live in.

Speakeasy Society’s “Under the Big Top: Atlas” plays at the Two Bit Circus in the Arts District downtown.