When Sleep No More, loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first opened in New York City in 2011, it popularized the concept of immersive theatre, which throws audiences into the midst of a play and places them among the immediate actions of the characters (even to the point of interacting with them). Mara Lieberman, artistic director of Bated Breath Theatre Company in Hartford, Conn., recalls that when she saw Sleep No More for the first time, she came out feeling completely detached from reality, knowing she’d experienced something unique. “What I love is the suspension of time and space and wanting them to go on this journey in a visceral way, not just as a spectator,” she explains.
Lieberman hopes to create something similar for audiences who come to Bated Breath’s newest show Beneath the Gavel, which places audience members in the midst of an art auction, creating a unique environment in which spectators can physically bid on art and directly influence the course of the play. They can potentially even take home an original piece of art.
Created and directed by Lieberman, Beneath the Gavel plays at 59E59 Theaters in New York, March 15-April 9. This marks the play’s Off-Broadway debut after its debut a year ago in partnership with Connecticut’s New Britain Museum of American Art.
Bated Breath’s mission is to bring devised works to “nontraditional” venues. They often partner with museums and create pieces based on a current exhibition, which are then performed in the museum space. “I have been very concerned about the declining audiences in the theatre and in museum spaces, and I thought the cross-pollination might revive that decline in some small way,” says Lieberman. “It’s been really interesting because when we do an event at a museum, we really pack the house. It becomes not just a performance. It becomes this kind of event where people have this feeling of coveting getting in. It’s really exciting to watch.”
Lieberman has wanted to do a piece involving the art market for a long time, as it is an evergreen topic and not site-and-time specific like an exhibition. She laments that even though the art market occasionally makes the front page of daily newspapers, it is the least-noticed market, compared to the stock market and real estate. That may be why, Lieberman posits, many people “view art as an asset rather than an aesthetic experience. We thought we would take a closer look at the art market and how works come to markets, how are they valued, and how are they branded.”
For research, Lieberman spoke extensively with insiders from the auction world and learned about the inner workings of high art auctions, including why auctioneers are important. One auctioneer who had worked in the auction world for 36 years had “these crazy stories about the collision of the artists and their dealers and their collectors, and this venerated auction house, Christie’s,” recalls Lieberman, including the time one patron asked the the auctioneer to “drill a hole in the brand new marble floor that a particular very famous sculpture can go into.”
Lieberman sensed that the best way to present this to audiences was via a simulated auction experience. “We really love this idea of people being able to embody or experience the kind of adrenaline rush of being in an auction, of coveting something, of wanting something of figuring out how to value it, and then going for it,” she explains.
Beneath the Gavel tells the story of a renowned collector named Haddie Weisenberg, and her relationship with an artist named Daniel Zeigler. It follows Zeigler’s paintings from conception to auction. This is where the audience interaction begins: The audience plays the crucial role of the auction attendees, getting to bid on these paintings as if in a real auction house. But the immersive experience begins long before that. Upon entrance, audience members are greeted by staff and given auction booklets and funky glasses to wear (a nod to Sleep No More‘s identity-obscuring masks). If you register online beforehand, you are sent materials in preparation for the auction. There are websites detailing the biographies of Weisenberg and Zeigler, bringing the world of the play before and beyond the physical theatre building.
“We really want to push into the idea of, When does the performance start?” Lieberman explains. “I love the idea of this ‘meta-performance.’ I love that these characters that exist in my mind have this whole life outside of me and outside of the written script.” If you bid high enough, you can even take home a Daniel Ziegler print, several of which were created for the show (though Lieberman was mum on the name of the real-life artist who made the paintings).
That means theatregoers are interacting with characters in the play, which can be novel and thrilling. For performers, though, interacting with audiences can be nerve-wracking. How do the actors prepare for the unexpected?
Lieberman first has to ensure that the scripted parts of the play are clear. As for the auction scene, during rehearsals “we have to bring people in sometimes to play audience members,” Lieberman explains. “The crew is always grabbing paddles and playing, but it’s tricky.” Together the cast and crew game out the different responses that could occur during the auction. “What are the range of possibilities of things that could happen?” she muses. “Then we try to simulate them, but we will not know what happens in that room. Every group is different—it’s a balancing act.”
If the piece works, audiences should leave with more appreciation of the art world, and even a painting under their arm. “This piece is a love song to artists, to the artistic process, and to museums,” enthuses Lieberman. It’s also a showcase for how dynamic and unpredictable theatre can be. “I love theatre where it feels like anything can happen—it feels dangerous.”