In Houseworld, the line between actor and audience is erased. There is no blueprint of where to go or what to expect. People talk to you and your responses directly effect what happens next. Unlike other immersive theater, like Sleep No More, this new show—now San Damiano Mission at in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, through Nov. 21—impossible to fade into the background and be wowed by the imagery around you. In the attic of the house, a woman lies bedridden in a well-appointed room where novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being line the shelves. In another show, she might tell you a story; here, you’re expected to tell her one.
We sat down with creator Andrew Hoepfner, a musician by trade who’s toured the world with indie band Darwin Deez and currently serves as the bassist in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, to talk about the origin of the show and what he hopes people to take away from the experience.
What was the first spark of the idea to create Houseworld?
Houseworld would not exist without me making half of my money from playing church music. It comes from me being deeply entwined as a church musician. I was raised Lutheran and am no longer practicing, but I’m good at playing hymns. The first spark was living in this historic mansion that is the parsonage of Flatbush Reformed Church. There was a change with the people who ran it, and they no longer wanted us there. So as my roommates moved out, the church would not fill the rooms. Eventually, it became me and two roommates in a 25-person mansion. I started daydreaming about what weird things could be in these rooms.
I was frustrated with the things I’d been doing musically for the last three years, and I started getting other ideas of how music could be presented. The first idea I had was a room where someone delivers a serenade to you one-on-one: They look into your eyes at the foot of your bed with a ukulele and they are singing a song for you. That got me really excited. Then I started thinking about other rooms and non-musical ideas.
How did the audience involvement evolve in your mind as you were creating the show? It feels very different than anything else out there, including Sleep No More, which is probably the inevitable comparison people are going to make. In that, you can be a spectator and walk through it, but there isn’t a way to really be a spectator in Houseworld. Nothing really happens if you don’t take the initiative to engage.
The way that it started was disconnected sensory experience stations. Then my collaborator, Michael Campbell, came up with this idea of a puzzle that has different consequences depending on how you play it. There became a divide on if we should do one, the other, or mix them. Every time I would try a Houseworld, we would survey people that came. They kept wanting these access points. People like the idea that I pick up an object in room A and take it to room B and something happens. Since then we’ve really tried to beef up the play with more stuff like that.
People enter the house through three access points and have very different experiences depending on where they wander. Is there something specific that you hope people will come away with in the end?
I’m interested in the replay value of people having different experiences. When we’re planning Houseworld, we’re always considering the conversations after Houseworld. I love the idea that two people trade their experiences. I’d love people to walk away from it feeling that they’ve got what they wanted. I want the person looking for the party to find it, and I’d like someone who’s looking for therapy to be able to find that as well. The general thing I’m hoping for everyone is to shed some inhibitions, get stretched emotionally—this thing I enjoyed, this was unpleasant, this was confusing—and I’m hoping those open people up for the sound emersion in the end, where people are a little bit tired and stimulated and are ready to surrender to something.
At the end, when you’re lying in the pews, there’s a coffin-like feeling. Was that intentional?
That was not intentional. We actually have big plans to change the ending. It’s the biggest challenge for us in this new space. Up until then, it was in an attic and everyone laid down close to each other on mats. We’re going to bring people closer together, and I think it’s going to have a big effect.