"With Your Name on My Lips" brings immersive theater to Norfolk
The Virginian-Pilot: Pulse
One of the main CHARACTERS in the play is a house. Scenes occur in random order. The audience walks through the house to view the actors. Hampton Roads hasn’t seen anything like “With Your Name Upon My Lips,” a theater piece that has its world premiere Saturday.
Audience members are cordially invited to a homecoming party for Jim, a soldier returning from the Great War. When they arrive at the party (the performance), they will be invited into the house at Hermitage Museum & Gardens. Inside, scenes will play out as they move around the rooms, loosely guided by cast and crew, who also are attending the party.
What, exactly, is going on? “In the larger sense, the show is about reality and memory, and dreams, and what is real,” says Kat Martin, the director and writer of “With Your Name.” Scenes don’t need to be in a particular order, and “some are reality, some are dreams; it’s up to the audience to interpret.” Martin hopes that the audience walks away “with a really long car conversation. I want them to have to piece things together.”
Martin has long been intrigued by the early 1920s, when soldiers tried to pick up their pre-war lives, many suffering from what was then called shell shock and is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. The women who were left behind had tried to keep everything at home exactly the same, so that their men could pick up as if nothing had happened.
This story is based on a real letter written by a soldier the night before a big battle when he thought he wasn’t coming home, but he survived. “What the hell does that do to you?” Martin asks. The show explores what happens when you have changed significantly but your surroundings have not.
The Hermitage Museum & Gardens contacted the Virginia Stage Company about making an immersive, site-specific piece that featured its house.
“The Hermitage wanted to show the house in a new way,” says Martin, resident theatre artist, assistant director and resident dramaturg for VSC. “No one has experienced the house this way before. They want to show that they can be more than a museum.” The theme of being “more than” fits very well with the concept of “With Your Name.”
As Martin and Patrick Mullins, producer for the performance and associate producer for the VSC, talked about the play, they thought of an obvious choice for the collaboration: CORE Theater Ensemble, the Hampton Roads-based progressive theater company.
“CORE are incredible storytellers, and in all of their work there is a bit of an angle, something is a bit askew,” Martin says. “They have really helped me a lot with that storytelling, with the physical. I’m a words person, and this needs both.” She adds, “They speak the language of experiential theater.”
CORE’s players will be joined by a slightly unconventional actor, the house itself.
“The house is basically a character. It’s going to dictate how people behave,” Martin says.
It also has made for some nervous moments in rehearsals as they try to predict how the audience will behave in relation to the house, moving up and down the stairs and from room to room. The size of the house limits the number of people who can attend a performance to 30.
Similar projects have attracted attention in New York. “Sleep No More” is a take on a 1930s film-noir version of “Macbeth” staged in a warehouse set up to look like a hotel. Audience members must wear a mask and remain silent during the three-hour performance. “Then She Fell” is Third Rail Projects’ dance-theater presentation of Lewis Carroll’s works, taking place in The Kingsland Ward at St. John’s, which is an old institution. Only 15 people can attend a given performance and wander through the old hospital.
Martin pointed out some differences: “Unlike ‘Sleep No More,’ it is very much voyeuristic.” The cast will not be grabbing anyone out of the audience to dance with them, and the audience won’t be expected to talk to the actors.
The distinct boundary between audience and cast originally came out of necessity, because the scenes happen on so many different planes of reality, but it also will be a good way for Hampton Roads theatergoers to be introduced to immersive theater.
A set of simple rules will be given to the audience to help everyone move around the space in conjunction with the performance in a safe manner.
“It’s exciting, because nothing like this has ever happened here before, and it’s another way that community arts pieces are coming together,” says Martin.
All performances are sold out, but there is a waiting list for those who still want to try to get tickets. Martin also hopes this performance opens the door to more collaborations similar to this one, and more opportunities for performances like this in the future.
Photos by David B. Hollingsworth for the Virginian-Pilot; Actors and creator/director Kathren Martin in rehearsals at the Hermitage.