Erin Mee makes multi-sensory theatre.
Her company's trilogy of immersive audio plays are available online at Brighton Fringe - and they are looking for new homes.
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For New York-based director and academic Erin Mee, theatre does not involve sitting in a darkened auditorium, watching actors perform lines on stage. It involves a lot more than that.
“Most proscenium theatre involves only two of our senses,” Mee explains. “We go, we sit in chairs, and we watch and listen, using only our eyes and ears. To me, that has always seemed like a waste of all the other senses, particularly smell. Scents evoke emotion and memory more quickly and thoroughly than either sight or sound. They can be incredibly evocative.”
“There is a Sanskrit term, rasa, which means the emotional and intellectual flavour of something,” Mee continues. “That is what I am interested in creating, a sensation that partakers can savour. I’m interested in creating multi-sensory theatre, in which an audience can see and hear, but can also smell and taste and feel.”
Over the last decade, Mee’s interest in multi-sensory theatre has led her to create some extraordinary, site-specific shows in New York – one in a swimming pool, one in a café, an audio play to be listened to on a Subway train, another for the Staten Island Ferry – under the aegis of This Is Not A Theatre Company. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, she realised that her work could keep people entertained at home.
“When lockdown first hit, people started dumping their recordings of plays onto the internet, which was wonderful, but it wasn’t live theatre,” she explains. “I started thinking, ‘What can live theatre be in this moment?’ I also started thinking, ‘What do I need right now?’ And it was the same answer to both questions. A warm bath and a glass of wine.”
The result was Play… In Your Bathtub – another site-specific audio play, but one designed to be experienced in an indulgently-drawn bath, surrounded by scented candles, with a glass of something cold to hand. It was experienced in over 34 countries, translated into Russian and Spanish, and hosted by several online festivals, including the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. “It was amazing,” says Mee. “People were listening to it in bathrooms around the world.”
Its success also inspired her to produce two more shows in what became This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Plays At Home series – Mahesh Dattani’s A Little Drape of Heaven, which audiences experience while sat in a wardrobe, and Jenny Lyn Bader’s Tree Confessions, which audiences experience while sat underneath a nearby tree, and which stars award-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant. All three – with the original Play… In Your Bathtub rerecorded as Play… In Your Bathtub 2.0 – will be available online as part of Brighton Fringe in May.
“I’m interested in creating multi-sensory theatre, in which an audience can see and hear, but can also smell and taste and feel….”
Mee grew up in New York City during the 1970s. Thanks to her father’s interest in avant-garde performing arts, she was exposed to experimental theatre from a young age, but she never seriously considered a career in theatre until she graduated from Harvard University in her early twenties.
“My dad asked me two questions,” Mee remembers. “What would I do if I didn’t have to make money doing it, and what would I do if I didn’t have to be any good at it? I had never thought like that before. It made me realise that I could be a theatre director, even if I was terrible, just because I loved doing it. If you love doing something you do it a lot, and if you do it a lot you eventually get good at it - and I really loved theatre.”
Mee worked in regional American theatre for several years, spending time in roles at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and Washington’s Arena Stage. Then, she started to fall out of love with the prevailing models of theatremaking: she craved less profit motive and more play, less capitalism and more creative freedom.
It was leaving regional theatre behind and working in India with the writer and director Kavalam Narayana Panikkar that provided her with renewed inspiration. It led to her staging more experimental work back in New York City, to her career in academia – she is now assistant arts professor in the drama department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts – and eventually to the co-founding of This Is Not A Theatre Company in 2013, alongside writer Jessie Bear.
The company’s work over the last decade reflects Mee’s interests in dramaturgical departures and immersive experiences. In-person, site-specific productions include 2014’s Pool Play, a social history of the United States told through the lens of its swimming habits and performed in a swimming pool, and 2015’s Versailles, a cocktail-party-cum-contemporary-performance about inequality, staged in individual apartments.
This Is Not A Theatre Company’s audio work, meanwhile, includes 2015’s Ferry Play, a drama designed to be listened to on the Staten Island Ferry, and 2017’s Subway Plays, a trilogy of works that are supposed to be heard between specific stops on the New York City subway, and which change shape depending on the listener’s direction of travel. And now Plays At Home.
“I think the politics of performance have changed,” reiterates Mee. “The proscenium stage demands that you sit still and be impressed, like a college lecture. It tells you what to look at, what to hear, what to think. I am not interested in that kind of theatre anymore. I am interested in something more participatory, more multi-sensory. I am interested in seminar-style theatre.”
What do you want to do?
I would like more people to experience our multi-sensory audio plays, especially communities that, for whatever reason, can’t experience live theatre at the moment.
What support do you need to get there?
I’d love to connect with other festivals and theatres who might be interested in hosting our work. It doesn’t involve much. No-one has to buy a plane ticket and travel around the world. All I do is email some links. And, of course, if anyone wants to make a donation to This Is Not A Theatre Company, that would be gratefully received.
How can people find out more about you?
People can visit our website, and they can listen to our work at the Brighton Fringe. And, if they want to, they can experience a two-minute piece of multi-sensory theatre right now, after they finish reading this!
Dance Of Chocolate was one of the scenes in our 2018 immersive production Café Play, and is available online here. Grab a piece of chocolate, close your eyes, and press play. Go on!
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