Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec Comes to NYC

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“Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec” is a new immersive theatrical experience that will be running in New York City starting September 30, 2020 courtesy of Bated Breath Theatre Company. Designed as a walk-through experience that is mindful of pandemic restrictions, this open-air experience was directly inspired by “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec,” a show that was hailed by Time Out magazine.

In “Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec” eight audience members at a time (note: wearing a mask throughout the performance is required as is consistent six-feet social distancing) are walked through an open-air Greenwich Village space and guided through the dreams of artist Toulouse-Lautrec as he recalls his last absinthe-laced years when he was living and working in Montmartre. Doorways, windows, and sidewalks become dreamscapes with the soundtrack of the city blending into the background. The effect is surreal and dreamy and aims to transport attendees back to the bohemian scene in 1899 Paris. During the performance, audience members are led to iconic locations within the Village, including Judson Church, The Duplex and Chashama — with other secret stops along the way.

“Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec” was written and directed by Mara Lieberman and it includes puppets that were constructed and designed by James Ortiz. Hand sanitizing stations will be available at stops throughout the tour. A flexible ticket exchange policy is in effect so anyone who feels ill can forfeit their ticket. The show will run in rain or shine and will only be canceled in cases of extreme weather such as torrential rain, thunder storms that produce dangerous lightening, hail, or heavy snowfall.

Prior to the pandemic, the immersive performance creators at Bated Breath Theatre Company has just run over 100 performances of “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” at Madame X. This is their first foray into live theater since March.

Mara recently discussed the show via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for theater?

Mara Lieberman (ML): I’ve been mesmerized by theater since I can remember. But when I was in college, I went to London and saw Theatre de Complicité’s “Street of Crocodiles.” All of a sudden, actors were using their bodies and everyday objects in such expressive ways: an old book became a bird and flew towards the sky, bodies became trees and those trees became Jews at a concentration camp and collapsed abruptly to the ground. The actors used their bodies to simulate being on a train. There was very little text. After the show, I was riveted to my seat. I literally couldn’t get up. At that moment I thought, “I have no idea what I just saw, but I’m going to do it for the rest of my life.”  Back then, physical theatre didn’t have much of a life in the States and we are so text based that it has been a challenge to work in that manner. As a theater maker, I’m still always trying to push against the norms here and I’m still grappling with a form that hasn’t quite developed a palate in theatergoers in the U.S.

MM: How did you get involved with Bated Breath Theatre Company?

ML: I was living in Hartford, Connecticut and joined Bated Breath as an actor. I was so excited to find a theatre company in Hartford that was philosophically in line with my work. So, I joined the board. The former Artistic Director, Helene Kvale, knew that I directed and devised theater and at the first board meeting I attended she announced she was stepping down and suggested I take over the company. So, I did. That was in 2012. I knew I wanted to be part of a company and the moment was right and here we are.

MM: What is it about immersive theater that so draws you to it?

ML: As a director and theatre maker, I find myself asking, “What is the most alive choice right now?”.  Many times, my answer comes in the form of a participatory or immersive theatre experience for the audience. I am not interested in immersive theater because it’s a trend or cool. I am interested in it because it feels so alive. I love the feeling of danger, of anything can happen, of intimacy, of being ripped from my everyday life and flung far from my moorings.  I love to see artists and audiences take risks that activates content in a new way. I care deeply about the future of American theatre and I think that if people feel excited about immersive theatre, that’s a great way to ensure a robust future for our field. People spend so much time behind their screens and I believe our bodies are yearning for visceral experiences that happen in an unrepeatable present moment, that teach us things without realizing we’re learning, that honors how smart the audience is and invites them to step out of the position of sitting in the dark anonymously and into a world full of life and possibility.

MM: What inspired you to create a play based on the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and what inspired the dream sequences?

ML: I like to say that I make boring things sexy. A while back, I came up with the idea to approach museums to make custom theater inspired by their exhibitions. I met with the Wadsworth Antheneum in Connecticut as they were premiering their exhibit “French Painting: from Medieval to Monet.”  I had always loved Toulouse-Lautrec’s work (particularly his posters). The museum and Bated Breath partnered to make a short site-specific piece among the winding marble staircases and balcony of the museum. I fell in love with the artist and his life story while researching the play. I find his life and work have so many metaphorical levels that the dream sequences work very well in showing how this sad man’s art catapulted him into immortal glory. Also, he was fascinated with the grotesque and some speculate that his tortured relationship with his own body stoked this fascination. The way that can be expressed in the form of physical theatre is really interesting to me.

MM: How tough was it to move this from the Madame X venue to the street?

ML: This is a completely different show that essentially picks up close to where our previous long-running hit show, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec ends. Voyeur starts as Henri has a breakdown and the rest of the show is his absinthe-laced memories as he’s languishing in the hospital. But trying to make theater on the street during a pandemic is quite a challenge! I have to be on my phone talking to the stage managers inside the building in order to direct the actors. The street sounds (which I mostly like) often make directing difficult –especially through a mask. It’s hilarious when we’re in the middle of a scene and an MTA bus gets stopped at the light between us and the Duplex. We just laugh and say, “Oh those buses in 1899!” Truthfully, making theater during this time is the directorial challenge of my life.

MM:
What’s your favorite segment of this play and why?

ML: One of the things I love the most is just walking through the Village with the Tour Guides cranking their old-fashioned music box and a violinist playing a special soundtrack just for our group. It transports you and makes you fall in love with New York even more. Otherwise, my favorite scenes change on a nightly basis as I am watching the show come together. There is this amazing scene in the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle where there is a shadow puppet show inside of a giant, lit up 1800’s hoop skirt. You’ll have to come to the show to find out more.

MM: How do you envision the theater industry changing due to Covid?

ML: The industry has done some really great work remotely on Zoom but truthfully it tends to leave me a bit cold.  Live theater makes me feel alive and I just don’t get that remotely. During quarantine so many people told me to write my next play. It was hard to explain that I write with bodies in space and time. So, I decided to imagine what might be possible as a live experience and try it. I figured actors behind windows and a small, masked audience might work. I even wanted the live musicians because we need live experiences so much right now. While I am in distress about the state of our industry, I do think we have a creative opportunity to explore how we can still be together safely and push us outside the walls of traditional theatre spaces.

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?

ML: I hope this play is like an artistic balm after so many months with people in quarantine and so much suffering.  It is artistically and sonically so beautiful, it showcases New York in a new way, and it draws a parallel between a once golden era in Paris and our pre-Covid lives. I want this to play to rain down the beauty and aliveness that we have been doing without for the last 6 months. Anne Bogart says something like “making a piece of theatre is like making a surprise party for someone you really love.” I hope it’s an amazing surprise party during such a difficult time.

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

ML: I’m excited about the next year. In addition to “Voyeur,” we are revisiting our award-winning “Freedom: In 3 Acts” which explores several chapters in the civil rights struggle for racial justice through the Negro Spiritual. We are expanding it to “Freedom: In 4 Acts” so that we can add current events to weave in the urgency of the current moment in terms of uprooting system racism amidst the murders of George Flloyd, Breeona Taylor, Abrad Amndauh and so many other black people. And when we are allowed back into theaters, Bated Breath has a very sexy, immersive show waiting in the wings about the soft-core porn writers of the 60’s. Can’t wait for that one!

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For more information, about the show, visit www.batedbreaththeatre.org.