Fundamentals of Immersion

May 21

Contextual Analysis – DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life

DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life

DR SILVER: A Celebration of Life is a joint production of Outside the March and The Musical Stage Co. Billed as an “immersive musical”, it is the brainchild of librettist siblings Anika and Britta Johnson who, partnered with director Mitchell Cushman, developed an ambitious musical presented in a unique way, with many feints toward total immersion. However, due perhaps to the creators’ comfort with traditional musical theatre conventions, the production falls short of achieving the kind of immersion striven for by Machon and her contributing artists.

Held at Heliconian Hall in Toronto, a small gothic building that looks and feels uncannily like the kind of hall in a small town that a small cult might rent for a gathering, DR SILVER is a musical about a family who is at the centre of a cult whose messianic patriarch figure, the titular Dr Silver, has recently passed away. It explores the grief of each of the family members and their desires for the future. Much of the drama comes from each of the family’s feelings about the absent Gordon, who forsake the cult some time ago and may or may not be dead in the present. Aside from the family, who represent the entirety of the speaking cast, a chorus of young cult members fill out the space and serve as ushers, dancers, and singers.

The space is decorated and lit in a clever fashion, allowing the production to pivot from the feel of a mundane meeting hall to the rapturous wonder of a church congregation. A projection of the late Dr Silver rendered as stained class changes subtly as the production goes on. Audience-participants, who are treated as welcomed visitors and (it is presumed) are cultists as well, are seated on pews along four walls of the space and invited to paw through a gorgeously printed chapbook that serves as the holy book of the cult.

The chapbook, like a bible, also contains hymns, and early in the production audience-participants are invited to sing along with a number.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the production are deeply immersive. From the moment the audience-participant arrives on the site (which, as mentioned, is an imposing but out-of-the-way building) are are greeted by signs advertising the funeral of the late Doctor, they are treated as guests of the cult. Ushers/chorus members are dressed in identical unsettling blue scrubs and welcome participants with euphoric words and wide smiles while led to places on the pews. The performance takes place in full light, so every audience-participant is equally present as the performers. After they are invited to sing, the audience-participants are offered a drink of what looks like blue Kool-Aid that, it is suggested, contains a hallucinogen. This is perhaps meant as an explanation for why the remainder of the play is staged as it is, but sadly it is the last feint toward immersion that the play makes.

Shortly after the Kool-Aid sequence the show pivots from immersivity into traditional musical theatre-in-the-round. The remainder of the show is rendered as a series of flashbacks featuring the family, catching us up to how and why they find themselves relating to one another as they do in the present. These flashbacks are staged under spotlights, removing them from the present/presence of the immersive space, and the audience-participants are darkened, endistancing/alienating (as Brecht would say) them from the moment being staged. All pretenses of immersivity are gone – from this point on, the audience-participants are participants no more.

It is particularly disappointing because DR SILVER had, until this point, been an exemplar of Machon’s total immersion. The greeting and setting, as well as the opportunity to chat with other audience-participants, establish a firm external form through which to experience immersion as absorption, and the book of hymns, performers, and especially the drink of Kool-Aid engage all five senses, succeeding at immersion as transportation.  Not totally realized is the social communitas discussed by Machon, though it is arguably attempted through the invitation to sing with the rest of the group.

The first act of DR SILVER delivers an embodied praesence (defined by Machon as being “at hand”) for audience-participants. The remainder is a familiar piece of musical theatre. Immersive elements remain as the chorus of cult members stalk the pews and the projections on the walls metamorphize as the plot continues, but there are no further invitations to engage – in other words, to realize one’s own praesence – and no further sense that the event possesses live(d)ness – that is, a uniqueness, and the knowledge that it will never be repeated as experienced.

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