Christmas is for joy; Valentine's Day for affection. And as the veil between the worlds thins, Halloween becomes the time to indulge in a pure hedonistic, adrenaline rush of fear. Let go of control. Walk through that door.
Is your heart beating faster? SB Dance sure hopes so.
The Salt Lake City-based performing company has built quite a reputation with its sexy, naughty, acrobatic, gender-bending, playful productions. With All Saints Salon—artistic and executive director Stephen Brown prefers to use the performance's titillating acronym ASS—SB Dance drags their audience to hell and back, through a world filled with dancing lost souls, sirens (performed by the electro-pop duo MINX), video installation (by filmmaker Anson Fogel) and perhaps even the Devil herself.
It's not the first time the company has taken their audience to the underworld, but this time it won't be metaphorical, and don't expect a cozy seat. All Saints Salon joins a long theatrical tradition of immersive theater. "Mixing it up with theater-goers is an old device that you can trace from commedia dell'arte to the French enlightenment salons to '60s protest theater," Brown says on his company website. "Once labeled 'screwing around with the audience,' this contrivance has been re-branded as 'immersive' theater."
Whether it's Halloween or not, immersive theater has a bit of a haunted-house vibe. There's no safe place or auditorium seat. Instead, the viewer enters a space—a warehouse or, in this case, a theater including the lobby, rehearsal rooms, halls and stairways—and travels through the various corners of the building, not knowing what they will find around the next corner, or when or how the experience will end. It's unsettling, out-of-control—and totally fun.
Luckily, for those who love SB Dance but can't stomach a haunted house's terror of the unknown, ASS strikes a balance between a total chose-your-own-adventure and a curated journey. Visitors, with drink in hand (bring your ID), enter the salon with three guides, Persephone and her two sisters—for those mythology nerds out there who say Persephone never had siblings, it's a reference to a Sylvia Plath poem—who take the audience from room to room. Brown says it's less of a museum, where you get to decide where you go and when, but each experience is unique. "There may be multiple things happening in a room at a single time. Where you stand and what you're facing will determine the kind of experience you're having," he says.
The Salon experience is intimate. Only 80 people go through at a time—the audience capacity for a normal sit-down performance in the theater auditorium is closer to 500—and, to keep everything running smoothly, each patron must agree to a strict code of conduct. "All Saints Salon surrounds, surprises and erupts within the audience. All patrons must agree to our Rules of Engagement," reads the SB Dance website. As you might already suspect, these are not simply typical theater rules—like turning off your cell phones and not taking photos—though those exist as well. The first rule states that check-in begins 30 minutes prior to the performance, which begins promptly at the scheduled time. And don't bother showing up late. Once the ship to Hades has sailed, no one will be admitted. There are explicit instructions to "refrain from physically touching performers unless they specifically ask you to do so" and to "please not speak." And finally, there is the dress code. All patrons must wear black, along with the mask that will be provided at check-in.
Brown admits there's something a little Eyes Wide Shut about a group of strangers standing anonymously and silently together in a room, their faces covered by masks, watching the bodies of dancers in a state of half dress (if that). As for the nudity, how could it be considered an SB Dance production without showing a little skin? And the masks are essential. It turns out the covering the audience members' faces is a common element in modern immersive theater. It's one way for everyone to know who is an audience member and who is a performer, in a place where it's potentially easy to blur those lines.
For Brown, the anonymity—and, yes, even the sexual tension—of the masks is an important element. By covering one's face, he explains, the audience has permission to look without feeling self-conscious, or worrying more about who is standing next to you than what is happening in front of you.
In the Greek myth, Persephone comes out of Hades alive and returns to Earth every spring. Brown isn't saying who will come out alive at the end of his version, but at All Saints Salon no penance will save you—so you might as well put on that mask and enjoy the ride. CW