by Brittany Crowell
Dim the lights.
Have your computer plugged in.
Pour Yourself a Drink.
In Eschaton, the introduction video coyly encourages, “You just never know where a night on the town will take you. Where a drink will take you.” Fresh off of my conversation with the CEO and Artistic Director of Chorus Productions (Brittany Blum and Tessa Whitehead, respectively) and director, Taylor Myers, I sat on my bed, headphones in, anticipating my visit.
My computer was perched on my filing cabinet, candle lit next to it, gin and tonic poured. I wore a dress, lipstick, and earrings for the first time in over a month. Myer’s words from our conversation the day before were ringing in my ears, “If we’re able to encourage you to believe that it’s a little bit special, even if that only means putting on clothes to go out when you can’t go out these days, and putting on some lipstick, and having a drink and lighting a candle; these are all pretty basic activities, but you aren’t doing them on a daily basis, so when you do them it feels special.”
Due to the national shelter-in-place order, and the shutdown of Broadway and all other theaters and non-essential businesses, Chorus Productions was similarly forced to cancel the reading of their upcoming immersive nightclub, which had been in development for seven months. “It didn’t feel right, being an artist-centered company, to ask artists to come into a space and start having a reading.” Brittany Blum, producer and co-creator, told me, “but then we thought, what does it look like if we don’t just stop in our tracks, but if we say, ‘Hey, what does immersive theater look like in this post-pandemic world? How do we make those experiments? Can we play with this idea?’”
And thus Eschaton, in its current form, was built. Blum and writer / co-creator, Tessa Whitehead, called up director Myers, and the three of them decided to set off on an experiment, giving themselves two weeks to build, staff, and present an immersive nightclub experience over Zoom. “The first conversation we had was how,” Myers told me. “How do we rehearse it? How do we build a story that makes any semblance of sense? How do we get audience members to engage with it? How can it be more than a static Zoom room for an hour?”
After playing with many forms, including Youtube, Twitch, Instagram Live, and experimenting with all of them together, the team landed on Zoom calls for the performance. “Hosts,” or virtual stage managers, provide codes to attendees through the zoom chat function, and audiences are encouraged to type the codes into a key on the show’s home site, which send them to different rooms and allow them to interact with different performers.
The Eschaton team encourages audiences to keep their zoom settings in live mode – camera and microphone on. They found that people who engage with the form and performers and commit to the full user experience (said lipstick, candle, gin and tonic) have a more fulfilling experience. By holding audience accountable to attending with video, the Eschaton team found that people were more likely to find vulnerability and connection. Many guests who received one-on-one experiences with their performers reported being significantly emotionally affected by their experience. Guests also made new friends, were asked out on dates by fellow attendees, and connected with folks over international borders through the Eschaton virtual show. Audience members have joined the broadcast from the East Coast (10 pm Saturday), Ireland (3 am Sunday), and even a large group from Tokyo, Japan (12pm Sunday). The virtual medium has created an opportunity for national and international performers and audience alike to meet on the virtual stage.
Myers lauded the efforts to which Blum and Whitehead have gone to take care of their performers. “Every single time I turn around, people are actually taken care of. It is refreshing and it is beautiful. It matters.” For much of live theater, rent is the largest budget line. The team was looking into various nightclub spaces for Eschaton’s home when the pandemic caused the production to shift gears. The day this happened, Whitehead explained, 99% of the budget could be allocated to hiring and paying performers, “To me, there isn’t a better way to spend a dollar.”
Today, Eschaton employs 23 weekly performers, a feat that would have been unachievable had the team needed to rent a space. Whitehead continues to develop the script, seeing this growth in cast as an opportunity to create an incredibly sprawling world, which, even after enough content is created to fill it, continues to grow and sees new mysteries arise, new characters introduced, and character arcs deepened.
“The world is deep already. You’re not going to hit the bottom by coming back once,” Blum tells me. “You’re never going to hit the bottom; as long as people keep coming back, we’ll keep creating it.”
When looking towards the future, the Eschaton team is leaving their options open. “I think we’ve stumbled into a new genre of live entertainment,” Blum said.
“This is potentially the most viable version of immersive theater,” Myers added. In this virtual landscape, audience numbers are no longer limited to physical space; they can continue to build and expand (as long as servers can accommodate).
The next night at 10 pm, I log in. I explore the rooms of Eschaton. I watch a gentleman cut an orange with a knife between his toes, a mentalist perform impressive tricks over camera, a pole dancer in an empty studio, and a guitar-clad singer crooning in a boiler room. I roam from room to room through the denizen variety show and participate in the bashful and brazen teasing occurring in the zoom chats.
At the close of the hour, the host’s final words echo through the screen: “Really, what are they without you? A bunch of manic loons trapped in a nightclub.” We are in an unusual time, trapped in our homes with limited ability to see, touch, connect. Eschaton works to transcend the virtual theatrical form and reach newfound connection and vulnerability with and within its audience. After all, what is theater without those of us who witness it?
To learn more about Eschaton and purchase tickets, visit: https://www.chorusproductions.com/