Zoetrope: Lives Turning, On Stage

Take yourself back to the spring of 2020, if you dare, and peek inside a couple’s Brooklyn apartment as the world came to a stop outside their windows. 

One year’s perspective is a gift, and into this liminal space walks the Exquisite Corpse Company’s new adventure in immersive theater, “Zoetrope,” coming to Guild Hall in East Hampton for its premiere April 23 and 24.

The set, built atop a cargo trailer, serves as a kind of peep show and living diorama of a hellish year for the limited, outdoor, Covid-safe audience, which gets to chose one of three directions the story will take.

Guild Hall video

The word Zoetrope means “life turning,” and a Zoetrope was one of the original live animation devices developed in the 19th Century. The show is a peek into the life of a biracial couple and their pet fish during the Covid lockdown.

The three stories are constructed by three different playwrights, with two sets of actors who take turns in the 35 minute performance, which will be held six times on April 23 and eight times on April 24.

“So much happened in that one year, and we’re still processing everything,” said Tess Howsam, the creator and co-director of “Zoetrope” and Artistic Director of the Exquisite Corpse Company, which is based in Brooklyn. “There’s so much that our country is coming up against and still needs to talk about.”

“We traditionally create work that is immersive and interdisciplinary,” said Ms. Howsam. “This is an experiment for us, as immersive theater designers. Usually an actor would come and take an audience member along through the experience, but we can’t do that because of Covid. That’s part of the technical quandary and exploration for us. We’re used to creating intimate moments with audience members. There are still going to be intense moments, but you will be protected.”

All audience seats will be six feet apart, and the audience will view the action through Plexiglas or glass windows — actors will be miked and audience members will hear the production through headphones.

“Everybody is protected from everybody. There’s no sharing of air between the audience and the actors. There’s also an intimacy to this,” said Ms. Howsam.

Ms. Howsam was an artist-in-residence at Guild Hall two years ago, and she drew on her relationships with the Guild Hall community to bring this production here.

“Being able to stay in a house where we can create our own bubble is really a gift. Nobody has to take the subway to rehearsal. We’re all in this house and we can work together. It’s been so incredibly huge,” said Ms. Howsam. “And you can’t really build a set on a utility trailer in the city. We are eternally grateful to Guild Hall.”

The Zoetrope, under construction in East Hampton

Being in the city for the past year continues to be an unnerving experience.

“I definitely took for granted how, even getting on the subway you’re never isolated. You’re always with community,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”

“It’s not easy being a theater artist in regular times, but to have our entire industry disappear just added to the fear and anxiety — how are we going to make ends meet?” she added. “And this thing you’re passionate about, you don’t have access to anymore. A lot of smaller venues honestly did not survive the pandemic. Reopening is going to be a reshaping for New York. There’s been so many losses, and hopefully there will be some rebirths and new births of new spaces.”

“Being immersive creators, for us it was a little different — we don’t have a physical venue we’re tied to,” she added. “We’ve done most of our work on Governor’s Island, with installations inside of old Victorian houses.”

Post pandemic, “I really hope we learn to be more aware of each other and how we each play an active role in the world around us,” she said. “This show is looking at the micro inside of the macro. I hope we examine our roles inside our own micro relationships with each other and our communities and think about how the micro affects the macro.”

Tickets to “Zoetrope” are $30 per one-person skybox and $50 per two-person skybox and are available at guildhall.org or by calling 631.324.0806.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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