It likely is no surprise that for Graham Brown, co-founder of the experimental theater group SONDERimmersive, the biggest challenge of creating his company’s latest production was the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has certainly hampered traditional acting. And, Brown said, it might be worse for his type of immersive theater “because the whole point is intimacy and proximity.”
But with “The Carousel,” he seems to have created something that actually plays off of the limitations.
The show, which runs Mondays and Tuesdays starting Nov. 9, is SONDERimmersive’s second attempt at creating live theater during the pandemic. In June, the troupe performed “Through Yonder Window,” an adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet” in a parking garage — with the audience watching the action from their cars.
Now, for “The Carousel,” the themes of the production and the logistics of presenting it safely are again tied to the location. It will be held in the Dreamscapes museum in downtown Salt Lake City, a sprawling walk-through art installation in The Gateway in what once was a clothing store.
“We went through the exhibit and basically created characters inspired by the rooms, and over time, that molded into a story,” Brown said.
Fittingly for the venue, the story is a dream — “a sort of bad dream a mother has about her child,” Brown said. The dream ends up, he said, “coming to a point of reconciliation. What begins as a manifestation of her greatest worries ultimately becomes a manifestation of her hopes, and her surprises about her child.”
Three actors play the child, Brandy, at different phases. Other actors play parts of the mother’s and child’s personalities. And while the audience meets the mother to start the story, for the most part the audience is in the mother’s role.
“You’re kind of moving through the dream through her eyes,” Brown said.
The production is designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. The audience moves through the rooms of Dreamscapes in groups of four.
Visitors are assigned a number when they enter, and must stand in a space with that number when they enter each room. The character they meet will stay 6 feet away from the audience, and there are never more than six people — actors and audience — in a room at the same time. Everyone, including the crew, wears a face mask.
The original plan, Brown said, was more complicated. He originally wanted to follow the techniques SONDERimmersive used in its 2019 production “The Chocolatier” — which let audience members wander around a candy factory to meet the characters inside.
With that, he said, it “just became impossible to maintain social distance."
Because of COVID-19, Brown said the production was “pared down to a single, simpler story.” Audience groups, who enter at five-minute intervals between 5:30 and 7:45 p.m. for the hourlong narrative, “will never even see each other, let alone cross paths,” he said. That alone is a strange, new experience for most theatergoers.
But, again, immersive theater isn’t meant to follow the molds.
“I think on a larger scale the whole point of this work is out-of-the-box creative thinking and response to parameters,” Brown said.
Unlike “Through Yonder Window,” “The Carousel” doesn’t offer as much commentary about our coronavirus-impacted lives. The structure and presentation follow the limitations. The story, though, is meant to be an escape.
And that’s something theater has always offered.
“This is more of a diving away from the present,” Brown said. “It’s like this liminal dream world, where these things that occupy us and stress us so constantly don’t exist.”
The experimental theater group SONDERimmersive returns, teaming with Utah Arts Alliance’s Dreamscapes for an immersive and socially distanced performance.
Where • Dreamscapes, 110 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City.
When • Mondays and Tuesdays, Nov. 9-10, 16-17, and 23-24. Starting times are at five-minute intervals from 5:30 to 7:45 p.m.
Admission • $35 for adults; $25 for students and artists; $100 to buy all four spaces in a single time slot. Tickets available online at sonderimmersive.com.
COVID-19 guidelines • Maximum of four per group. Actors will stay at least 6 feet away from audience members. Actors and audience members must all wear face masks.