Connected \\ September 30, 2019
Smoke & Mirrors
Every Friday and Saturday night at 8pm from October 4 through November 2, the stage will be set for Daemonologie: Smoke & Mirrors at the Cotting-Smith Assembly House – where audience input and decisions take center stage.
The premise: October 1849. Nathaniel Hawthorne recently lost his job at the Salem Custom House, compelling him to pen a novel about hypocrisy and adultery in Salem. The book, The Scarlet Letter, will go to publication in the spring. For now, however, there is still a bite in the autumnal air as the spirits of Salem walk in the wind. Nathaniel places his writing instrument on his desk and pulls his coat from the hook on the door. His wife Sophia has been patiently waiting to begin their journey to the home of a young Creole emigré, thrilled for an invitation to participate in an experience of pure phenomena. Nathaniel, not one for superstition, is skeptical about what exactly their night holds.
Charles Osgood, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1840. Oil on canvas. Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning. © Peabody Essex Museum.
Sophia is entranced by the prospect of communicating with the dead. Nathaniel reluctantly joins her for a séance amongst an eclectic gathering of local society. Federal Street never felt so unnerved. Anxious to witness proof of spirits and learn the mysteries of what lies in the afterlife, the group marvels as spiritual manifestations come through a young Irish immigrant refugee, the servant of their host. The convergence of realms is happening before their eyes. Is she truly making contact with the departed? Are the spirits actually speaking? Or is it all simply smoke and mirrors...
Chester Harding, Portrait of Sophia Peabody, 1830. Oil on canvas Gift of the Estate of Rosamond Mikkelsen. © Peabody Essex Museum.
“Nobody has any conscience about adding to the improbabilities of a marvelous tale.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne | © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.
First thing is first: How do you define game-based LARP theatre? And how is this theatre that everyone can enjoy?
Carly: We define LARP Theatre as an immersive experience that the audience has as much agency to impact that story and its outcome as any of the actors. The personalities are universal and the themes are relevant to us today so we often have people come in reluctant to talk to our actors who quickly find themselves fully engaged because they connect with our characters as people. That’s one of the most exciting parts, our audience stops seeing our characters as Puritans or Victorians but as people they identify with and can empathize with.
Diana: It’s a form of theatre that is both interactive and immersive – you’re interacting with the characters as a free agent AND you’re fully immersed in another world- that allows audience members to do what actors do for their job: inhabit a fictional world and make choices within it. Just as traditional theatre has created structures and systems that help actors safely find character motivation and make choices onstage to tell a story, we’ve developed new techniques and systems that enable audiences to explore and make decisions without becoming overwhelmed or endangered.
Where did you come up with the idea for this installment of Daemonologie?
Carly: We knew we wanted to leave the 17th century. There are many stories left to tell about the intersections of the supernatural and vulnerable populations in that time but we wanted to play in a new space. We saw Evan perform his seance show last October and the idea stayed with me. It isn’t witch trials or hysteria, but it is another point in American cultural history where society was facing the unknown. In 1849 the young country is struggling to define itself culturally, facing waves of immigration, political instability, economic turmoil and is only about 15 year away from civil war. This is also when interest in spiritualism begins to take hold. I had heard about the Fox Sisters and numerous other mediums who had risen to fame and fortune, most being exposed as frauds, while others were able to hold on to people’s imaginations. It seemed like the next great chapter where American identity was influenced by the supernatural and I wanted to dig into why and what it meant.
Diana: Carly and I both have scholarly backgrounds in Irish history and folklore, which led to the immigration story that is really at the heart of Smoke and Mirrors. The history of Irish immigrant women working as domestics in the Northeast is now more widely told in museums, but we still need to talk about it more. I worked at the House of the Seven Gables for three seasons when I first moved to Salem and spent a good amount of time tangling with Hawthorne and his contemporaries. I’m really an early modernist- I study the period between the Renaissance and Reformation and the French Revolution- but I have a fascination with America’s turgid antebellum decades, so I wanted a story that bit into that period and showed what Hawthorne was really like. I didn’t tell Carly until later that one of the characters she devised is actually a Hawthorne archetype, nor did we know until later that the Hawthornes did attend one of the Fox sisters’ séances. Once we had decided to set the story in 1849, connecting the birth of spiritualism and Irish Famine immigration to a particular moment in Hawthorne’s life, the story naturally slipped into context: Salem is a left-behind seaport in a troubled young republic that has just won the Mexican War- a crucial moment in the shaping of both the United States and Mexico that haunts us to the present day – and is about to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s a country in the throes of multiple reform movements – abolitionism, the earliest days of the women’s suffrage movement, prison reform, and mental health reform. Meanwhile, Europe was erupting in a series of revolutions, Romanticism has peaked, the California Gold Rush is ongoing, and… I could go on and on. It’s an incredibly complex, divisive historical moment.
Match box. Object M14369. Gift of Mr. Amory H. Waite, Jr.. © Peabody Essex Museum.
How do you go about bringing history to life and incorporate fact into a fictional story? What is the process like?
Diana: There’s always far more relevant material than we can incorporate into a single story. Our dramaturg/historical adviser, Kristin Harris, has expertise in 19th century American culture that Carly and I don’t, so she guides our decisions and ensures we have a depth of background information from which to draw. The audience won’t see most of that, but the depth of her research and her ability to answer ours and the cast’s questions makes the show infinitely richer; it’s all underpinned by the complexity of real human cultures to a degree that’s difficult to invent,unless you have years to work with the same material. So again, having lots of historical facts to work with is a gift. The characters and their back-stories also determine a lot of the themes we focus on, but it also runs the other way, because the characters are shaped by certain themes and concepts. This kind of work demands extremely intelligent, flexible actors who are capable of immense vulnerability. It’s highly demanding and requires a discipline that most of them have learned through doing other kinds of audience-interactive performance, including historic interpretation and classroom teaching. A hefty proportion of our current cast and crew are also educators, which I think is interesting.
Daemonolgie: Smoke & Mirrors | © Creative Collective. Photography by Joey Phoenix.
This is your first time including characters that were real people. What are the challenges of using real historical figures as inspiration?
Diana: At this point, including Hawthorne and the Peabody sisters feels more like including my next door neighbors than anything else. I’ve spent a lot of my working life portraying real historical figures and working with other actors who are doing the same. It just means you have to make more discrete choices about the characters’ motives and interactions, and the actors actually have more to work with because they can read their personal letters, look at their portraits, and visit their houses. There’s a misconception that “sticking to the facts” is restrictive. It’s not. It does some of your work for you and frees you to focus on thornier problems.
Carly: We also intentionally avoided using historical characters in previous shows because we are not a dedicated history company, we specialize in speculative history. The last thing we wanted to do was further muddy the waters of what people believe to be true about the Witch Trials, it’s victims and major players. In this show however, it felt more natural to include the Hawthornes and Peabodys. Hawthorne is one of Salem’s most celebrated figures yet beyond his writing most people don’t know much about him and he’s an intensely interesting, complex and often troubling personality. As for Sophia and Mary their stories are (in my opinion) more interesting than Hawthorne’s and frankly, their real stories are more sensational than the fiction we have put them in Smoke and Mirrors. We didn’t feel like adding these characters to this story would detract from historical understanding of the time or the people themselves.
Are there certain things you take into consideration before releasing one of the Daemonologie anthologies into the world?
Carly: Yes, we do consider things like is there enough general cultural knowledge for an audience to walk into? We also take into consideration the possible ways the themes of the show and the ideas of the historical character will intersect with where we are in the present. Last year in Blood and Bone, Diana had written the show back in March of 2018 with themes about sexual violence and the vulnerability of women who come forward but by the time we were playing it with audiences in October we were in the middle of the Kavanaugh confirmation the mood was very different. It worked because our audiences were very motivated to find a way to bring justice to our characters but we do try to consider how an audience might react to themes we bring up. There is one show we have drafted but we will take more time to develop it because we want to make sure we are ready for the questions it brings up.
Diana: When I wrote last year’s Blood and Bone, which was set in Essex County in 1690 during King William’s War, I didn’t expect most of the audience to believe the story of sexual violence that emerges within it, and I somehow tripped upon writing it at a particular moment when that cultural conversation was taking a decisive shift. I’d spent years thinking about the question of abuse, PTSD and witchcraft and finally got to write about it at this particularly explosive moment that I couldn't have predicted. This shaped the audience’s tendency to condemn a certain unlikeable character for magical, rather than physical, crimes that they may not actually have committed. We also tend to make choices that challenge the audience’s preconceptions or stereotypes about a time period and its people. One attendee at Blood and Bone was astonished to discover that 17th century Englishwomen were not chattel (for the record, they weren’t). I suspect audiences will respond strongly to the issues of social class, immigration, mental health, race and gender in Smoke and Mirrors, but it's hard to know exactly what to expect.
What led you to partnering with PEM for this production? And what does having the museum’s support mean to you?
Carly: Partnering with PEM has been something we have been wanting to do for a while. PEM has so many storied properties and artifacts in their collection and over the years PEM has become an innovator in how audiences interact with art, history and the interconnections between the two. We knew PEM was exploring ways to interact with and interpret the houses and knowing how creative and imaginative the other engagements had been, we thought this might be the right time and right show. Having the museums support has been a boon for our process. Having all these curators, artifacts and collections at our disposal has allowed us to develop a more complex world for our story. It’s also been invigorating to have museum experts, historians, artists and curators at the PEM to play with us in the realm of speculative history as we seek to interpret this home and the characters who fill it.
Diana: I knew that PEM had previously produced theatrical programming in its historic properties and I’ve longed to “activate” some of the properties so that the public can interact with them more. I belong firmly to the active use, anti-velvet-rope school of historic house interpretation, and I started working with Intramersive in part to test the boundaries of museum theatre. PEM’s support for us as a local company telling local stories validates our experience as a community, and it enables Intramersive to produce our best work by lifting financial and promotional burdens from the shoulders of a very young and small but rapidly growing business. Like most working artists, our three-person staff all have multiple jobs. By supporting us, PEM is making it possible for local artists to produce new work on national themes and tie arts and humanities disciplines together.
Glass bottle with nail, pin, and bone from the mid-nineteenth century. Object 108406. Gift of the Estate of Harriet P. Fowler. © Peabody Essex Museum.
October in Salem is unlike anything else. How do you skirt the line between the hype and the authentic?
Carly: We don’t! A lot of the hype about Salem is rooted in poorly interpreted or misunderstood history and folklore. People come here because they are looking for something otherworldly, something magical, proof of the world beyond. They are here for many of the same reasons people gathered around seance tables, looking into mirrors, hovering fingers on planchettes or counting knocks. By presenting a show that strives to create the most accurate scenario we can of a fictional seance night in Salem we can’t help but appeal to people who are here because of the hype but we hope our audience leaves with a deeper sense of connection, not to spirits, but to our cultural predecessors and to what drives them to want to seek out the unknown. Our shows aren’t here to answer if there are spirits or demons, but our shows always look question an audience as to what drives a story to be told.
Diana: By being genuine, both in the questions we ask and the answers we give (or encourage the audience to find for themselves). I think that much of the poorly interpreted history in Salem has actually evolved to fill emotional needs and provide narratives that help individuals to make sense of their own society by contrasting it with the past. We push audiences to question both the distance between us and people in the past (they’re all just as real and complex as we are!) and to engage with the cultural differences that do exist rather than dismissing them. I also think that much of Salem’s Halloween frenzy is driven by our culture’s workaholism and disregard for death. Modern American culture has hidden death behind closed and sanitized doors and provides few occasions to release tension or to confront the terror of our own mortality. Bearing all that in mind, this is a chance to engage audiences with questions about death, the supernatural, and our cultural experience.
Daemonolgie: Smoke & Mirrors | © Creative Collective. Photography by Joey Phoenix.
Were there any audience moments in prior iterations of Daemonologie that stand out to you?
Carly: Yes! Our first year doing Daemonologie, the driving ambition was to provide Halloween tourists to try their hand justice but doing it only knowing what the Puritans knew. Could they bring forward better justice? One night the audience pretty much unanimously convicted an innocent women of witchcraft and murder. Instead of revealing the truth that night, we decided to let them not learn they were wrong. As the audience was walking out one of the most vocal guests asked “So you gonna tell us who did it?” I responded “Didn’t you just arrest the woman who did it?” He said “No! We just didn’t like her, but who actually killed the kid?” And I turned around on this crowd of 40 people at 11:30 on a Friday night and we had our first big talk back. We spent about 40 minutes unpacking the audiences choices, the character motives etc. Everyone stayed, it was cold, we were outside, on a sea wall in the wind and everyone stayed to discuss how they basically had just done what so many people had done in 1692 and why. That was really the moment I knew the work was doing something right and we needed to keep going. That’s also when we realized talkbacks needed to be a thing.
Diana: I distinctly remember an audience member who was so enthused they attempted to follow a demon and its victim as it was leading them away to hell at the end of the show. We can only take you so far… there were also audience members who wanted to perform an autopsy on a dead character, forgetting that the actor playing him was of course not dead, and that he might object to being dissected for theatrical purposes. Blood and Bone is also the only show I’ve ever worked on that incurred repeat ticket sales and talkbacks after ever show for which the majority of the audience stayed every time.
What makes an Intramersive event different than other theatrical productions?
Carly: In more traditional theater production the audience is passive, they sit in the audience and watch actors in a world that only exists on stage. In immersive theatre you are, to poorly paraphrase Robert Oppenheimer “in the world but not of it,” the audience can access the world but not impact the world of the story. In an Intramersive event you are in the world and you can impact it, characters depend on you to stand by them, secrets may or may not get told. Everyone in one of our events has a different experience from anyone else, even in the same show.
Diana: All audiences influence the performance of live theatre, whether they know it or not, and no two performances are ever alike. This is much easier to see and feel at Intramersive events because the illusion of the proscenium is gone; you’re actively suspending your disbelief in order to participate. You're doing a lot of the same things that actors do when they're onstage, but with far less pressure, because there’s no right way of doing it, no director and no script, and you’re not alone; the actors are there to help you, and the other audience members are part of your team. It’s the ultimate collaborative storytelling, and it’s unique and unrepeatable.
Daemonolgie: Smoke & Mirrors |© Creative Collective. Photography by Joey Phoenix.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, ca. 1850. Paper; book. Call Number: Clark A16.1 Courtesy of the Phillips Library. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.
Describe Daemonologie: Smoke & Mirrors in three words.
Diana: Exile, death, wonder.
Carly: Outsider, upheaval, desire.
And lastly, any thoughts or suggestions for those attending Smoke & Mirrors?
Carly: Remember, what is real or fake isn’t what’s important. It’s what happens next that matters.
Diana: Dead men do tell tales. In fact, the dead are a noisy bunch of people.
Courtesy of Intramerive Media.
Daemonologie: Smoke & Mirrors
Monsieur René Edouard Philipe Levesque, cordially requests your attendance at his home to explore what lies beyond…will you accept? Indulge yourself in the early Victorian period with a night of secrets, spirits, seances, and scandals. While you roam this historic house, uniquely converted by Samuel McIntire, you will get to know the intimate secrets of some of Salem’s most interesting and famous residents, how will you use your information to help some and harm others? There are infinite paths in a house of Smoke and Mirrors.
Fridays and Saturdays, October 4 through November 2 | 8PM | Cotting-Smith Assembly House, 138 Federal Street, Salem | Pre-sale through September: $30 general, $20 museum and Creative Collective members, $15 students, seniors, and veterans | Tickets available at: pem.org/intramersive and intramersive.com.