“Garden of Eden”: Interview with Theater Creators Jaclyn Atkinson and Ereka Duncan

Theater Creators Jaclyn Atkinson and Ereka Duncan. Photo credit Walter Wlodarczyk.
Theater Creators Jaclyn Atkinson and Ereka Duncan. Photo credit Walter Wlodarczyk.

“Garden of Eden” is a new immersive play that is being performed at The Cell Theater (in collaboration with Dark Matter Immersive) until October 10, 2020. Inspired by New Orleans, tarot, and the backwoods, this by-appointment-only, 50-minute, atmospheric piece allows only one or two visitors in at a time. The effect is a uniquely personal and meditative experience inside an ornately decorated indoor labyrinth that encourages introspection and reflection via visual and audio stimuli. The show features a virtual tarot reading from Melissa Madara whilst an ambient soundscape composed and engineered by Ricardo Romaneiro plays in the background.

Jaclyn Atkinson and Ereka Duncan are the minds behind the show. Ereka, a multidisciplinary artist specializing in set design, also styles wardrobes and makes furniture. Jaclyn Atkinson is an event artist and printmaker who works with several theaters in the NYC area. Erik and Jaclyn recently discussed the show via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for theater and how did you find your way to the cell theatre?

Ereka Duncan (E): My mother is a singer. I grew up around the stage and formed a love for theater when I had my first role at the age of 5 for a community theater in Miami. I stopped acting around 23 but it’s always been the root of my other pursuits.

Jaclyn Atkinson (J): My parents were generous in sharing their love of performance and art from a young age, and that gift has continued to resonate in my adult life. We found our way to the cell theatre from a participatory art group, Shadow Traffic, which the gallery manager of the cell and we all participate in.

MM: What is it about immersive theater that so interests you and how did you establish Dark Matter Immersive?

E: Working in set design helped me realize that spaces have the ability to tell a story — even without actors. Props, lighting, and atmosphere can be characters. The work I’ve pursued with Jaclyn as Dark Matter continues to be about human connection and interaction in a world where it’s harder to break the ice or find authentic relationships. The right environment can be its own ice breaker. Its own adventure. I think adults sometimes forget how to play and an immersive experience invites you to do just that.

J: Immersive experiences have always resonated with me as I love the sense of adventure and ability to interact with or participate in a performance or experience. Dark Matter grew with us as we began desiring more deep interactions from NYC parties, we wanted to create environments that allowed for different kinds of play and openness that allow for people to make friends or meet lovers in a connected way beyond the dance floor. We had been working with several others on larger projects but began hosting these small interactions within them.

MM: How did you conceive the concept for this show and how tough was it to set up?

E: The concept was inspired by the storytelling in tarot, Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and walking meditation. Most of the work we’ve done as Dark Matter focused on connection between groups of people. Some familiar and sometimes strangers. This time we were inspired to allow guests to contemplate themselves. Most of our installations are inspired by our own shadow work. Our main challenge has been navigating the pandemic. The new rules, the lack of solutions, and creating our own. We’ve learned to be flexible and creatively adapt as we go.

J: The concept was born well before Covid-Era, but we wanted to build it in a space where we could let it run for longer than a week. It’s been interesting adapting to the longevity of having a space to build in for an event that isn’t just a single night. We’ve been so accustomed to pop-up events in the past and were looking forward to having more time—but it’s a different set of expectations and a much larger build than ever before.

MM: What was it like to find all the materials?

E: We are art hoarders! Jaclyn and I have an affinity for recycled materials. We use wood pallets all the time because they’re structural, they allow us to create the spaces we need, and they are usually free. I save and store tons of items from previous projects to give them a second life. The trash gods have smiled upon us and we have had a lot of luck curb thrifting. Other than that, it’s all handcrafted with love. Jaclyn is a fabulous printmaker and artist. All the large-scale paintings are one of a kind. It’s insane the amount of paintings she’s made in this time.

J: As Erica stated, we are art hoarders. And we love to build with shipping pallets, which are usually plentiful and free. We began our build right when all the New York bars and restaurants began building their outdoor seating. We had never seen so few pallets out on the streets before.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the space?

E: It’s hard to say. Maybe the ‘Heart Room’. It’s the largest sculpture I’ve ever made and the first time I’ve ever worked with soundscaping. Luckily, our sound designer Ricardo totally gets it and has been an absolute dream collaborator! Also, because it’s full of emotion left behind by all the visitors.

J: My favorite part of the space comes from reading what others have left behind—the answers to our questions.

MM: What sorts of interactions can audiences expect to experience? For instance, what kinds of questions might participants be asked?

E: Not to give anything away, but my favorite interactions are where the audience answers the questions that we’ve left them. In some spaces we allow guests to contribute to the space and actually add on to the installations. It’s very special and is continually impactful for me as well. Some questions are based on fears or about doing away with things that hold us back.

J: The questions and interactions arose from the shadow work I feel we’ve all been working on during quarantine and protests. They are meant to build empathy and open conversation, almost like an open journal—it’s so beautiful to compare notes with strangers on how we all process fear, moving forward, and the power of empathy.

MM: What made you decide to include tarot readings and why conduct them virtually?

E: It’s honestly not a route we would have taken had 2020 panned out differently. When we were ready to install, people were barely coming out of their homes. Only for protests and essential work. The special aspect of the virtual reader is once your reading is over you (and your pod mates) are alone in the space again. I enjoy the persevered intimacy.

J: When we originally conceived this project, we planned on having more actors in the space, as well as an optional tarot reader—it seemed important to draw in an aspect of human interaction. But with the pandemic, we needed to reassess how to do that. Thus, our virtual tarot box was born.

MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged while the pandemic’s effects are still lingering?

E: What Jaclyn said. I will also add it is REALLY hard to carry heavy items up stairs with a mask on all day. But we are all aware of each other’s safety and I appreciate the shared social awareness that has come along with the pandemic.

J: We usually operate with more helpers—but when asking for volunteers we were often met with “Oh, it’s in Chelsea? I haven’t been to the city since February.” People’s risk assessment levels are all different, there’s no problem with that but it does make it harder to build out an installation of this scale. We are super grateful for the handful of close friends who did show up or drive us to and from Brooklyn on the regular.

MM: What other projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

E: We have so many ideas for this space! We are hoping with time there will be more space for collaboration and getting back to our event roots with the Covid-Era need for more intimate interactions.

J: We are hoping that this run is a success that takes us well into fall, it feels right for the witchy season. It’s an intimate experience with a pod mate or a friend you hope to reconnect with, the questions all being born from the shadow work that we’ve all been working through during the pandemic and protests. We also have a project with Gemini and Scorpio on the horizon to help expand their space.

* * * * *
Private time slots for “Garden of Eden” are available Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, and 9pm for $40. Audiences may either go in by themselves or bring an additional guest for an additional cost. It runs through October 10. Tickets are available at thecelltheatre.org.

Note: Each audience member will be required to wear a face mask throughout the experience. Hand sanitizer is available and touched surfaces will be disinfected between patrons.