BY Micol Berkowicz

A nightmarish descent into the strange, mesmerising and unexpected ‘Netherworld’ – underpins Australia’s first large-scale immersive theatre experience, A Midnight Visit. 

The show, a collaboration between Broad Encounters and Groundswell Productions, draws from the underground New York theatre scene and incorporates contemporary cult classics like ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Stranger Things’. The immersive play interlaces both biological details and characters from both Poe’s stories and poems into a sprawling horror house of escape room’s and intimate one-on-one experiences. A Midnight Visit takes place in over 30 rooms stretched over a two-storey abandoned warehouse in Sydney’s Newtown. It’s a bloody playground were you choose your own adventure, encountering mysterious figures who emerge from the dark.

What brought you into theatre?

KIRSTEN: From the age of three I was organising shows and performances, roping my friends and family into seeing my childish productions. Throughout high school I studied dance and theatre eventually studying a Bachelor of Music (Performance and Musicology) at the University of Queensland. At the time, through my work as a freelance musician, I realised I didn’t want a career as a musician. I discovered that producing and management was what I was passionate about and so I continued in that direction.

What drew you to Edgar Allen Poe?

KIRSTEN: It started with this desire to create an inviting piece of theatre that was multi-genre, which invited audiences to have their own agency and create their own experiences. Danielle Harvey (co-creative producer) and I found Poe’s imagination and the themes he explored to be so enticing and timeless. We wanted to create a piece that embodied the tone of his work.

Why Sydney and not Melbourne?

KIRSTEN: (LAUGHS) We felt that Sydney needed something more impactful and would respond well to it. So would Melbourne, but we felt that Melbourne was an easier choice for producing a new work of this scale.

What inspired Danielle Harvey, Simon Hayward and yourself to create something outside of the traditional theatre experience? And where do you draw your works from?

KIRSTEN: Danielle and I have worked together as colleagues curating and programming work together, constantly talking about what work we wanted to develop in Australia. We realised we had a very similar aesthetic and desire to create innovative large-scale pieces. We decided no one else is doing this and let’s do it ourselves. We felt that we had seen great work overseas that we had fallen in love with and believed it was time Australia had something quite different, and that they were ready. We also found that with the rise of escape rooms, which is not a complete divergent from immersive theatre, younger audiences want to have agency over their experience and not a passive experience.

One of the pieces internationally that is a reference is, Meow Wolf’s ‘The House of Eternal Return’ in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s an immersive art installation, where you can choose to follow a story within the installation. I loved the playfulness. I was like a kid at a new playground that has to try everything – hang off the monkey bars – delight in the newness of what you’re doing.The House of Eternal Return’ does that in an adult way and there are lots of secrets to uncover. Danielle and I wanted to bring that playfulness to ‘A Midnight Visit’.

Sleep No More a New York City site-specific theatre production created by British theatre company Punchdrunk, inspired ‘A Midnight Visit’ to have both intimate (one on one) and collective moments. The immersive theatre experience and divergence from conventional theatre tropes, enables the cast to draw somebody out and have a special experience with this individual that nobody else gets. It’s always changing and it’s always different. This is why we separate friends at the beginning of the show, so when they are reunited they have completely different journeys.

New York-based Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects, is a fully immersive, multi-sensory experience in which only 15 audience members per performance explore a Lewis Carroll inspired dreamscape. The audience members split up and share an individual experience. This too inspired ‘A Midnight Visit.’

What was your favourite room out of the 34? And which Edgar Allen Poe story was the hardest to transform?

KIRSTEN: Ooo that’s a hard one. I think… so the room I found the scariest when we were making the production was actually ‘The Artist Studio’ it’s completely white and has hundreds of portraits of Virginia (played by Bobbie-Jean Henning) So every time I would walk into that room while we were building the show I would be like ‘this is so creepy’ and so I love it for the fact that it is so creepy and obsessive.

This is so hard….I think my favourite room is the Tell-Tale Heart Room and that was actually one of the last rooms we created. It’s very 2-dimensional and we had some amazing artist’s work on the production. The room was realised by Lacey Malice a scenic artist who did the 2-dimensional painting of it. But it was always a room we talked about because the beating of the heart in that story is very omnipresent so the sound design of the heartbeat had to be quite visceral. I am happy because I feel that we have been successful in creating that tension. We have physical movement in the room so it feels like it is shuttering along with the heartbeat. The visual is 2-dimensional but then suddenly you have this thing that affects your body, because you can feel and see the room moving, closing in on your guilt.

The one Danielle has always wanted to have in there but we haven’t quite found the right way to do it is ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ but we don’t need to have it in there because we have such a great mix already.

Do you think that audience members with no prior knowledge of Poe will find themselves befuddled?

KIRSTEN: No, we are seeing that they will not. You don’t need to understand everything you just need to come with an open mind and a brave soul.

This production goes against traditional theatre, by giving the audience agency. Have you come across any difficulties since the opening?

KIRSTEN: It has definitely worked to our benefit. What we have seen is the vast 95% of people that come absolutely love it, for how it is a different experience of theatre. The other few people would rather have the work delivered to them in the traditional sense. That’s what is so exciting about it, the responsibility for your own journey. It proved to us that Sydney was waiting and needed something like this.

We’re breaking all the conventions, all the rules and behaviours that are usually required of theatre members have collapsed. It is a little Marina Abramovic in a sense that you can interact with the actors, and the experience is dependent on what you the audience member adds to it.

The Actress (inspired by Eliza Poe, Edgar’s mother) played by Megan Drury is extraordinarily brave, multiple times a night she drowns, and then she has a beautiful moment with people were she reads audience behaviour and selects people that she would be comfortable with to have an exclusive intimate reaction. (The actress strips naked in a tight dressing room, asking for dressing assistance) 

Who would be your next inspiration after Poe?

KIRSTEN: Danielle has an idea to work on something that doesn’t draw from any one particular writer but a genre that we know really really well. We’re interested in ideas and concepts within contemporary society, and we have landed on something that we would like to hit off for the next production.

Live performance has certain unpredictability towards it, what suggestions do you have for the audience to obtain the best experience possible?

KIRSTEN: When we were working with the cast that was the final piece of the puzzle. We tested a lot of things out during the previews, how different audience members will behave and what choices they would make. There’s a lot of improvisation so it will always be different. It is also quite unpredictable and dependent on how the audience interacts with the cast, which will influence how the show will roll out on any given time.

There is no one thing that I would recommend, follow this or focus on that. I think it depends on what piques your curiosity and if rummaging around in all the drawers and reading all the letters, following clues is the journey you take, then it is. My partner decided that he would just follow the black cat throughout the whole experience, there is no one way of doing this.

My favourite room was the Red Ballroom, could you tell me a little bit about the concept/design?

KIRSTEN: The mask of the red death I love because the colour is very powerful and the story uses the possibility of being overwhelmed by colour. Danielle was very persistent, and we all got on to this idea, that we remove a colour from your eyes the whole way through the experience and then saturate you with it at the end. So there is virtually no red in the play, only when you arrive at the Red Ballroom do you see the colour red. It was very deliberate. We wanted that shock of colour and to create a ballroom scene that was frenzied and surreal.

I think the Red Ballroom is a great moment. Even though there are a lot of vignettes happening, the ballroom draws everything to some resolution regardless of where your journey has gone.

You aren’t allowed to take photos during ‘A Midnight Visit’ why did you make this choice when it could have helped publicity?

KIRSTEN: It is so instagramable but it is theatre and you engage differently when you can’t take photos and you have to be present. We know it is tempting because the rooms look amazing but just enjoy them.

But you could get so much publicity because that is how people promote things these days?

KIRSTEN: I know but I think it cheapens the experience to something that isn’t theatre. Imagine if everyone was taking photos, I think it would diminish other audience member’s experience.

Thank you so much for your time Kirsten and thank you for gifting Sydney with all your passions.