Musical As Immersive Ritual
By: Mitchell Cushman
Director, Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life
At the heart of Anika and Britta Johnson’s DR. SILVER is an exploration of music as an organizing principle for life. Can the tenets, the structures and the beauty of music offer the same kind of solace and clarity that people have traditionally found in spiritual texts and belief systems? Can immersing yourself in music become a truly ritualistic experience?
This jumping off point is exactly the kind we are looking for to fuel the immersive theatre projects we create at Outside the March. As a company that predominantly creates work outside of traditional theatre spaces, we are always looking to offer our audiences an active experience—to cast the viewer in a role within the story. With DR. SILVER, and in our co-producing collaboration with The Musical Stage Company, we are for the first time using music as the key element in this equation.
From the first time audience members interact with the production’s marketing materials, right through the culmination of the performance, audience members will be greeted, and engage with, as though they are the congregation of Dr. Leonard P. Silver—a spiritual leader and musical teacher, who has unexpectedly passed away. As an immersive theatre director, a big part of my job is working to create the context in which the audience’s role within the world feels genuinely earned, rather than phoney. And so the daunting proposition on DR. SILVER is that the audience must have a truly religious experience through the music we present. They need to develop a kind of faith in the master who created the sound. In that sense, Anika and Britta are the real Dr. Silver(s)—and I have every faith in the world in their ability to offer a transportive experience through their music.
The audience is always the missing ingredient within a theatre creation process—but especially so in an immersive experience like DR. SILVER. And so, in order to bring this all-important component in conversation with the other aspects of the production, we devised a unique workshop presentation model for the show’s development, in collaboration with the Luminato Festival, with support from the National Fund for New Musicals (National Alliance for Musical Theatre). Throughout June, we presented five “open rehearsal run-throughs” of the piece, staged in our eventual performance venue, Heliconian Hall in Yorkville. During these sessions, audiences were given the opportunity to watch a part of the process that normally happens behind closed doors—and, just as importantly, all of us creative team members on the project were able to experiment with how to genuinely place the viewer at the centre of this ritualistic experience.
Each night we modified aspects of the piece, and its relationship with the viewer, based on what had come to light the previous evening. We learned an incredible amount during these first encounters between audiences and the world of DR. SILVER. My sincere hope is that both the world we are working to create with this show, and the audience’s negotiation of their place within it, will be all the thanks to this exploration.