Picture this: You take the exit 34 ramp on I-91 in Hartford, park in an area behind a chain-link fence, then approach a small box-office tent. After walking down a gravel path as the skyline, highway and the area’s industrial buildings disappear from view, you enter the woods. Minutes later as you hear the nearby river, you encounter a clearing, where you take a seat, put on the wireless headset you were given and start to take in a play happening all around you.
Welcome to Walden, a site-specific, immersive, outdoor production from TheaterWorks Hartford, in partnership with Riverfront Recapture. It will be the theater’s first in-person show since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as its first outdoor show in its 35th season.
It may not be its last. The three-actor play by Amy Berryman, which will be making its North American premiere after its bow in May in London’s West End, will run July 23 to Aug. 22. The show will also be filmed and streamed Aug. 15-29.
The production will be presented among a limited audience of about 50 who will be seated around the natural, undeveloped site as they watch the play, starting at sunset. The show will take place among several locations, including a cabin, which is being built especially for the production, and other parts of the characters’ property, which is planned for sustainable living, such as a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, beehives and rain barrels.
The actors will be heard via the headsets as they move around the locations, even inside the ad hoc cabin. To add to its sense of naturalism, there will be no traditional theatrical light grids, just illumination from existing sources. “TheaterWorks has always been a theater about hyper-realism,” says TheaterWorks artistic producer Taneisha Duggan, who is heading the project. “This is like that idea — taken to its extreme.”
The production’s setting reflects the ecological and cosmic themes of the play, which is set in the not-too-distant future. As described on the theater’s website: “After returning from a year-long Moon mission, Cassie, a NASA botanist, finds herself in a remote cabin in the woods, where her estranged twin sister, Stella, a former NASA architect, has found a new life with climate activist Bryan. Old wounds resurface as the sisters attempt to pick up the pieces of the rivalry that broke them apart.”
Duggan says the director she chose, Mei Ann Teo, is well matched for the project in terms of style, mindset and work with on-site and experiential forms of theater and film. “I love working immersively and I love working about stories that are wrestling with our future and what we should do in order to have a future,” Teo says.
“We’ll transport the audience more deeply into the experience that surrounds them that’s not just about the woods but the imagination of the NASA characters who are actively thinking about what it means to be on another planet and about the sustainability of our own.”
Teo remembers walking the site with producing artistic director Rob Ruggiero months ago and saying: “Here we go: TheaterWorks Hartford Summers!
“I see so many possibilities for the theater here as well as other performance makers,” she says of the outdoor location if the site is further developed.
That was the point when Mike Zaleski, president and CEO of Riverfront Recapture, reached out to arts leaders before the pandemic began for their input for the new soon-to-be-developed park. TheaterWorks, one of the few theaters nationwide that has continuously produced throughout the pandemic, was the first to launch its proposal. “We’ve talked about doing site specific-work for some time,” says Ruggiero, and the 10th production in the 2020-21 season “seemed like the perfect choice to literally think outside the box.
“There are so many unknowns but we’re so excited about it,” he says. “This has been a year of obstacles but we have turned the obstacles into opportunity. It’s all about new adventures, elevated partnerships and being bold.”
July 23 to Aug. 22
Presented by TheaterWorks Hartford at Riverfront Recapture on the Hartford waterfront
Available to stream Aug. 15-29