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Putting the audience in the midst of the action, Windy City Playhouse dives into immersive theater

It started with the Jeff Award-winning hit ‘Southern Gothic,’ now continues with playwright Jonathan Caren’s drama ‘The Recommendation,’ putting the audience amid the actors.

Julian Hester (right) as Aaron Feldman and Michael Aaron Pogue (left) as Iskinder Iodouku discussing the scene with creative team member during rehearsal for “The Recommendation” at the Windy City Playhouse.
Julian Hester (right) as Aaron Feldman and Michael Aaron Pogue (left) as Iskinder Iodouku discussing the scene with creative team member during rehearsal for “The Recommendation” at the Windy City Playhouse.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

Amy Rubenstein has discovered that immersive theater can mean many things. As co-founder and artistic director of Windy City Playhouse, she’s made it her theater’s mission to introduce her “immersivevision” to Chicago audiences.

Founded in 2015, Windy City pretty much stayed true to traditional theater its first few seasons.

“We wanted to get the audience as close to the action as possible,” says Rubenstein, who researched the idea for years “trying to figure out how to do it our way.”

What Rubenstein realized was that most immersive theater wasn’t plot-driven but often dance-based or focused on the environment it was set in.

“I had never seen immersive theater that was focused on the play itself,” she says. “It took us years to discover what direction we wanted to take, and we knew it was risky. Would audiences take to new immersive experiences?”

Early last year, Rubenstein took a big step to fulfilling this vision with the debut of “Southern Gothic,” a new play directed by David H. Bell. It won rave reviews, Jeff Awards, an extended run and is still playing at Windy City’s second stage at 2229 S. Michigan Ave.

Leslie Liautaud wrote the play with the immersive experience front and center. Set at a 1960s cocktail party at which four couples reveal tense, dark secrets, it lets the audience (only 28 tickets per show) wander from room to room, taking in the action as scenes unfold simultaneously — a true fly-on-the-wall experience.

“I think what people now crave are experiences and events they can live inside of and not watch from a distance,” Rubenstein says. “We take these intimate, high-stakes moments and put you right in the center of the action.”

Rubenstein knows that creating a new play every time isn’t possible. So she also focuses on taking traditional plays and adding immersive elements. For “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s story of a ragtag theater company, audiences experienced a traditional first act, then for the second act moved backstage, where they mingled with the actors as the story unfolded.

Now playing at Windy City is Jonathan Caren’s drama “The Recommendation,” a tale with many twists and turns about friends Iskinder Iodouku (Michael Aaron Pogue) and Aaron Feldman (Julian Hester), who are from vastly different backgrounds and facing ethical dilemmas in their lives and careers.

Amy Rubenstein, artistic director and co-founder of Windy City Playhouse.
Amy Rubenstein, artistic director and co-founder of Windy City Playhouse.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

Rubenstein approached Caren with the idea of reworking the play to include immersive elements.

“I was terrified and completely titillated by the idea,” says Caren, a Los Angeles writer for the USA Network series “The Sinner.” “I was reenergized to reexamine the play because it was always meant to be visceral. It’s about the socioeconomic divide in this country, and I felt the immersive experience was only going to amplify that.”

This also is director Jonathan Wilson’s first foray into an immersive experiment. He says it was scary at first but exciting.

“Once I realized the principles of how the actors play believable relationships,” Wilson says, “there’s still the unique problem of putting them in spatial configurations that allow the audience to get close to the action by going into the world of the play.”

Director Jonathan Wilson.
Director Jonathan Wilson.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

For actors, immersive theater requires a whole other level of focus. While the presence of audience members is never acknowledged, it’s still an element of each performance.

“The audience will have such a wide range of reactions because it’s such a foreign experience for them,” says Victor Holstein, a former “Southern Gothic” cast member. “It’s really a dance with the audience. Sometimes, they are lousy partners, and you have to be quick to navigate them. I find this element to be exhilarating.”

In “The Recommendation,” Pogue’s character serves as a narrator, breaking the “fourth wall,” speaking directly to the audience while also moving back into immersive scenes.

“The concentration in this play is greater than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Pogue says. “I’m constantly switching in and out of scenes. It’s a tremendous challenge.”

Upcoming at Windy City are Duncan MacMillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” and Mart Crowley’s pre-Pride era “The Boys in the Band,” which takes place at a birthday party and which Rubenstein says promises to be another interesting immersive experience.

As for original works, the same team that wrote “Southern Gothic” is writing a piece set in a 1920s Chicago speakeasy. There’s also an immersive restaurant piece in the works.

“I don’t see us ever going back to what our first season looked like,” Rubenstein says. “We’re creating, reformatting and dreaming up new ways to stage theater. It’s not always one formula. It keeps changing. There are just so many ways to play with immersive theater. We’re shaking things up.”

Mary Houlihan is a freelance writer.