The Speakeasy Society’s immersive ‘Wild Party’ envisions F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald interacting with Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Gloria Swanson … and the audience
By Bliss Bowen
Immersive theater upends expectations by moving audiences around with the actors in unconventional venues.
Adding bold twists to that unpredictable setup, the Speakeasy Society is recreating an imagined launch party celebrating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s latest book, hosted by his glamorous wife Zelda. Commissioned by The Broad Stage, “Wild Party: A Jazz Age Immersive Experience” springs to life at the Masonic Center across the street Saturday night.
Listening to Speakeasy Society co-founders Julianne Just and Genevieve Gearhart describe the framework for the performance, one gets the sense that it’s more like witnessing a novel’s multiple narrative threads leap to life than viewing a scripted play.
“We like to think of it as choose your own adventure,” Just explains, “where you’re maybe not always getting to make the direct choice, but there are a lot of paths existing at the same time. So if you went with another audience member you might have two very different experiences of the same evening. But even though there are all these different characters and storylines, we do try to create unifying themes and threads. Emotionally and thematically, at the end of the night hopefully everyone has had a similar journey.”
“It’s completely and fully scripted with options for actors,” Gearhart adds. “So an actor might say something to an audience member, and depending on how that audience member responds, they might have several different answers they could give them.”
As one would expect at a soiree hosted by the Fitzgeralds, there will be music — from a three-piece jazz trio — and dancing. The glittery guest list includes Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson.
Attendees are welcome to show up in their snazziest Jazz Age attire, but don’t expect to fade into the wallpaper, unobserved.
“From the beginning of the night you are welcomed in as if you have been invited to this party,” Gearhart says. “Every character is very aware that you are present in that room, and you are part of the story.”
Logistically, the company’s collaborative process of conceiving the intersecting stories of 22 fully developed characters and then making them all lock together for the 90-minute show is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle before the pieces have been cut out for you.
With as many as 10 scenes happening concurrently in different rooms, Gearhart acknowledges they have an abundance of material to play around with.
It’s a dynamically fluid setup for the actors. Like musicians, they need to read the audience to figure out how to shape each performance. Just and Gearhart, who are co-directing, acknowledge that it requires a unique skill set outside traditional acting norms.
“You’re not only aware of the scene and what’s happening with your scene partner, but now all the audience members are also your scene partner,” notes Gearhart, who is also choreographing and performing in “Wild Party.” “You have to be aware of what’s happening in the room with them as well, and who’s really present, and who maybe looks like they don’t want to go in that room by themselves with you.”
Gearhart and Just started working together 12 years ago in an experimental theater company in New York. Eventually, both wound up attending grad school at CalArts in Valencia. As part of an assignment in a directing class Just was teaching, Gearhart recreated the witches’ scene from “Macbeth” as an immersive piece. The two developed it, using all the witches content from Shakespeare’s play, and eventually presented it in a women’s bathroom at the school. Thus was the Speakeasy Society born.
They’ve since transferred their “Macbeth” redo (“Suffering Fools — The Weird Sisters”) to a Moose Lodge, performed an immersive interpretation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (“Ebenezer”) at Golden Road Brewery, and staged intimate adaptations of August Strindberg and María Irene Fornés in churches and private homes.
Most intriguingly, they transformed Dalton Trumbo’s Depression-era novel “Johnny Got His Gun” into a theatrical trilogy examining the landmark book’s themes more than its specifics. After “Wild Party,” they intend to focus on “The Kansas Collection,” an episodic series inspired by “The Wizard of Oz” books and comprised of 20- to 30-minute performances for audiences of only one, two or four people.
As a company, the Speakeasy Society has also explored “live action-based experiences” in partnership with Two Bit Circus and the IndieCade independent game festival. But they remain “very passionate and committed” to theater.
“Immersive is particularly vital right now,” Just says. “Today, we spend so much time sitting, whether it’s at our desk or in our car, staring at screens, staring at our cellphones in this very focused way. I think people are hungry — to get up, to interact with each other, to interact with situations, with different emotional spaces than they’re being confronted with in their day-to-day life. … That’s a lot of what immersive is offering: new opportunities and new ways to engage outside your day-to-day ritual.”
Speakeasy Society presents “Wild Party: A Jazz Age Immersive Performance” at 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 3) at the Masonic Center of Santa Monica, 926 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets start at $150. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit speakeasysociety.com.