UP CLOSE Festival is a unique sensory experience that is suitable for the entire family. Playing at the New Ohio Theater in Manhattan, the show invites audiences of five and older to navigate a 360° pre-show installation, then engage in a series of short pieces devised by some of NYC’s most adventurous theatre artists.
The show celebrates the history of the West Village neighborhood in Manhattan. This year, the program includes a life-size game of chess inspired by the ‘90s-era conflict between two local chess shops; a laboratory with sound scientists from an imagined experimental wing of the famed Bell Labs; and a historical dig into the soil of the urban sanctuary that is St. Luke’s in the Fields’ community garden.
The show’s creators dared to wonder would happen if Jane Jacobs (the famed West Village urbanist, community activist and beloved Robert Moses foe) designed a theatre festival? Whose stories would be told and how would she do it? Taking inspiration from Jacobs’ rules for a healthy community–-which included the promotion of population density, mixed uses, old buildings, and short blocks—the performers reimagined real moments from West Village’s past in a way that casts each audience member, aka “the community,” as the lead character. The artists put the history of the New Ohio Theater—which has located in a landmark building that once housed the National Archives Record Center — to effective use and ran with the idea of staging short form, immersive works that honor the neighborhood’s past. They took on the responsibility of honoring indigenous communities, a historic tree, home-grown local activists, and other voices whose histories are often excluded from collective memory into the commentary so guests leave the show feeling more of a connection to one another, and a greater appreciation of the land they call home. Through puppetry, song-making and our senses, the audience and performers will fly through 450 years of history, landing in three particular moments in the life of the garden – 1609, 1842, 1987, 1995, and some point in the near future.
From the moment you enter the theater, you’re in another world. The pre-show included a wonderfully expressive actress reading a series of children’s books with themes connected to the neighborhood. From there, guests are provided with wristbands and divided into specific color-coded groups and then brought downstairs. Arriving at the theater, they are greeted by a human personification of three famed Pizza Rat (played by an excellent actress Marisol Rosa-Shapiro who even included a tail in her costume). Entering the Archive through the backstage door, you are transported into a world where you are on stage. Essentially, the entire stage and seating has been transformed into the exploratory set, divided into different “stations” that make up a representation of the neighborhood, namely: a church, a chess store, and a laboratory.
Upon entry, the guide first takes a photo of the group and tapes it to a wall next to a map of the neighborhood’s streets. You are then invited to use white pencils on black paper to draw a self-portrait—among other subjects—and place it onto the wall beside the photos, creating a patchwork collage. You are also invited to play table games—uno, dominos, chess—in the bleachers or help zany scientists sort through labeled “sound jars” to find matching pairs in the ultimate hands-on seek-and-find game. This free-roam portion of the show lasts approximately half an hour.
The first segment of the show, conceived by the Spellbound Theatre Company, invites the guests to a historical dig into the soil of the urban sanctuary that is St. Luke’s in the Fields’ community garden. The audience nests together to follow the journey of a little sparrow who makes her home in this hidden garden on Hudson Street. They also get to crochet, handle oyster shells, count seeds/beans, and watch an actress bring the character of a historic tree to life.
At the next station, Perfect City performers (led by Marisa Blankier and Christopher-Rasheed Stevens, who also performs in the piece) transport audiences to an avant-garde city scene. Heavily inspired by the forgotten conflict that arose in 1995 when Imad Khachan opened Chess Forum directly across the street from his former employer, George Frohlinde—whose Village Chess Shop at 230 Thompson Street ruled the block for 30 years—the segment calls for audience members to traverse an epic 1990s-themed chessboard where the pieces come to life and rely on their community to sort out the rules.
The show concludes with an interactive sonic installation (conceived by Adrienne Kapstein and Bhurin Sead) that brings audience members to the fictional experimental wing of the famous Bell Laboratories – the Society of Historic Sonic Happenings, or SHSH. There, a comically zealous group of scientists reveal a secret sonic history of the city and shares their discovery that sound never dies! With the right device, at the right time, in the right place – and with some help – the scientists can tap into the eternal frequencies of the sonic past and engage with the invisible layers of history. The audience works directly with SHSH scientists to preserve these rare and forgotten sounds and preserve them in special time capsules.
The presentation lasts about an hour and forty-five minutes: upon entering the stage, there is a half an hour of free-play where the audience can explore the set and interact with the actors. The mix of acting, spoken-word/poetry, puppetry and technology is impressive and the immersive nature of the program is absorbing. While the most brilliant aspect of the production is the audience-choreographed chess game (featuring fun costumes in the form of chess-shaped hats), the entire evening is unique, unusual, and unforgettable. Children, in particular, obviously greatly enjoyed the entirety of the show. It is exciting to see what the next edition will offer.
UP CLOSE Festival at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014) ends January 4. For tickets and more information (including updates on the upcoming 2020 festival), visit https://www.upclosefestival.com/