By Sophie Griffin
This summer, Bay Street Theater is trying something very new. Each week, a different video artist has been taking over the courtyard for immersive art in a series called “Wonder/Wall.” Comprised of audio, projected visuals and some aspect of live performance, each show runs only 15 minutes, five times a night, for one week. The focus of each week’s show is very different: from Yee Eu Nam’s “Frankenstein,” which showed July 13 to 18, to Rasean Davonte Johnson’s “We Are In This Together, Shutdown, Crisis, Restart,” which I saw in early July on a humid, Saturday night.
After getting tickets scanned and entering the courtyard, audience members chose a place to stand, either on the “essential workers” side or the “shelter-in-place” side. Throughout the runtime, viewers remained standing on their small circles and craned necks around to see the projections on the four walls. Depending on where they stood, the view would be slightly different.
The 15-minute show was broken up into three sections: shutdown, crisis and restart. The first, shutdown, took viewers through just that — the days and weeks leading up to the complete stoppage that happened during the lockdown of the early pandemic. Undergirded by a surround-sound score, this section was mostly news footage and videos of empty streets, full hospitals, masked essential workers in subways, and other scenes from the early pandemic (remember how stressful going to the grocery store used to be?). On two of the four walls abstract staticky designs were played. Although it was interesting to relive those first months from the other side and see them as history, it felt a little bit like living in CNN after having had too much coffee. Which begs the question. Do we really want to see art about the pandemic now? Will we ever?
After a few more moments, the music and voice-over lowered to a thrum, and the projections showed a fiery wreckage: the remains of presumably a Target or similar building that was burned down last summer amidst BLM protests. This section was powerful, a sharp break from the earlier carnivalesque portion. Whereas earlier, the inclination was to spin around to see every inch of the different screens, in this section, the instinct led viewers to stand rapt and focused on one screen as the sound and visuals surrounded the courtyard completely.
At one point, a member of the audience dressed in bright colors and a George Floyd T-shirt stepped off her circle and revealed herself as a performer. Moving among and around the group, she danced a self-choreographed performance that was equal parts pantomime of pandemic-related actions and abstraction. She put on surgical gloves, she mimed the awkwardness of social distancing, she lunged in the aisle. It was a nice relief to have something live to focus on, and felt her performance gave a narrative throughline to the piece. After a few moments, she lowered her bandana, and led the audience into the final section, rebirth.
This was the strongest part of the performance. A speech by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s was piped in over speakers, distorted and slowed down somewhat. In it, he described how after a tough year-plus, New Yorkers were ready to enjoy the summer again, make up for lost time, and return to the world. On the screens there were first abstract and colorful light designs, then time-lapses of flowers blooming. The audio, visual, and live aspect in concert managed to capture the mixed feelings of reopening — joyful yet overwhelming and filled with anxiety — and the frenetic energy of this Hot Vax Summer.
Then, it was over. In a short 15 minutes, the audience had relived the entire pandemic. From the slow emergence, to the complete shutdown, from chaos to rebirth. While it wasn’t a journey that could be considered entirely enjoyable as experienced in real-time, over so many months, watching it in the rearview mirror in 15 minutes did provide a sense of closure.
The idea for “Wonder/Wall” came about as a creative solution to what seemed like an intractable problem — how was Bay Street Theater going to present live performances during the pandemic, especially with the uncertainty of how open the East End would be this summer? The solution? A socailly-distanced, outdoor show of brief duration with few live performers seemed to tick a lot of safety boxes. But it also opened up the spotlight, giving the stage to the projectionists and video artists who are usually in the background of theatrical productions. And for audiences, it offers something new — a more immersive, less expensive, and easier to drop in on theater offering. With things now returning to normal, maybe the idea of an experience like “Wonder/Wall” will go away, moving to the back of our closets along with the unopened box of surgical masks.
But maybe, just maybe, it’ll stick, and we’ll wonder what we ever did without it.
“Wonder/Wall” runs from July through 31 with a new artist and show occupying the courtyard space each week.
July 20 to 25: Mike Billings and Brian C. Staton’s “20,000,” a mashup of the Jules Verne classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and the writings of the environmentalist Rachel Carson, best known for her book “Silent Spring.”
July 27 to 30: Brittany Bland’s “Smile”.
Shows are Tuesdays through Sundays with five shows nightly, from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at half-hour intervals. Tickets are $20 and can be bought at baystreet.org.