‘Wonder/Wall’ Brings Immersive Theater to Bay Street

A mock-up of Bay Street Theater's "Wonder/Wall" outdoor courtyard theater.

By Sophie Griffin

How many famous actors can you name off the top of your head? Probably a bunch. And directors? Maybe fewer, but still a good number. How about projection designers? Most people would be left scratching their heads at that one. That’s because in theater, actors tend to literally and figuratively take up most of the spotlight. But what about the person who programmed the lights in the first place?

Bay Street’s new immersive video performance series “Wonder/Wall,” which opens July 6, shifts the focus by high-

lighting the artistry of five video artists from around the country, putting those who are usually behind the scenes front and center.

“[It’s] a really great opportunity for designers to be storytellers, because we never really think of them that way. We think of them as supporting players, but they are leading artists, too,” said Josh Wilder, the Bay Street Theater artistic associate who conceived and curated the show.

Bay Street Theater’s creative team: From left, associate artistic director Will Pomerantz, artistic director Scott Schwartz, artistic associate and curator of “Wonder/Wall” Josh Wilder, and two of the participating artists lighting supervisor Brian Staton and production manager Mike Billings. Annette Hinkle photo.

The performances will take place in Bay Street’s entrance courtyard which has been converted specifically for the shows. There are 20 audience members per performance and each is given a set of headphones (which are cleaned after every show) and invited to stand socially distanced in the outdoor space. Projections will cover the four walls of the courtyard, and all shows will also include some aspect of live performance. The running time of the projected theatrical piece is short — only about 15 minutes — and the show runs five times per night, so there are plenty of chances to check it out, more than once if you choose. And it’s only $20 a pop.

Each of the five video artists is bringing his or her unique vision to “Wonder/Wall” for one week. From July 6-11, Rasean Davonte Johnson’s “We Are In This Together, As Well As The Stages: Shutdown, Crisis, Restart,” which speaks to different experiences of the pandemic, will run. Next up, from July 13-18, is Yee Eun Nam with her version of “Frankenstein.” The week of July 20-25, the duo of Bay Street’s production manager Mike Billings and projection designer Brian C. Staton will present “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.” From July 27-30, Brittany Bland’s “Smile” will finish out the program.

Projection designers Brian Staton and Mike Billings working on their theater piece “20,000.” Courtesy Bay Street Theater.

When the staff of Bay Street Theater initially set out to plan the 2021 season, things were still very much up in the air. How bad would the COVID-19 situation be by summer? How widely available would vaccinations be? What would the state allow in terms of performance spaces? And, perhaps most importantly, how comfortable would audience members be returning to the shared experience that is the very embodiment of live theater? “Wonder/Wall,” which takes place outdoors with a limited audience and relatively quick duration, was one creative way to design a COVID-19 safe theater experience.

“We felt at Bay Street it was really important to be doing programming that brought people together and that still could do what live theater does — which is bring people into a space to share an ephemeral event that only happens once because it’s live and always different,” said Scott Schwartz, Bay Street Theater’s artistic director. “But how do we do that in a way that suited our time?”

In this moment of reimagining, the organizers wanted to bring those who are usually in the background to the fore and showcase them as leading artists. Projection design is a growing field, but is too often under-appreciated. Usually, the projection designer’s aim is to support the actors and the words of the playwright, elevating the performances of others. But “Wonder/Wall” flips that script on its head.

“This is the time to be experimental, this is the time to be bold, this is the time to be innovative with storytelling,” Wilder said. “We’ll always get back to the traditional getting butts in seats and watching actors perform. Right now, [for] this little window in time, we need the other storytellers we don’t invest enough in.”

In creating “Wonder/Wall,” Bay Street posed a simple question to each of the participating artists: what does wonder mean to you? For Rasean Davonte Johnson, it led him to reflect on the different experiences that people have had during the pandemic, and that reflection led to “We Are In This Together, As Well As The Stages: Shutdown, Crisis, Restart.” Johnson is a Chicago-based video artist and projection designer for theater, film, and installation.

“The idea, at first, was just thinking conceptually about what were the different perspectives of our global experience,” he said. “I think that in some ways we have this kind of title to help unify all of us, you know, we’re all in this together. I think what the year has taught us is that in some ways we’re not, and so my piece was in some ways inspired by that concept.”

Johnson spoke to the combination of political, social and spiritual themes he wanted the piece to address.

“One of the other big things that I’m also really interested in and what I was so excited about at the beginning of the pandemic was this idea of whether or not we as a collective people — and I’m not necessarily just talking about America, I’m talking about the globe — can we obtain a sense of transcendence beyond our circumstances?” Johnson said. “We have so many things that are going on that are global situations, and what is that experience moving beyond those things, understanding our common ground and becoming a part of a global conversation where we all know that we actually are all in this together, that it’s not just about this one pandemic, but it’s about everything.”

Although these are performances that really need to be seen and heard and experienced to get, Johnson described his, which will also include a dancer and composer.

“One of the things that’s part of my piece is the idea of seeing across from your own perspective,” Johnson explained. “People are in a particular spot for social distancing. There’s the essential worker side and there’s the stay at home side and we get a chance to see the different perspectives from those two different sides. At a certain moment, they merge and we all experience the same thing again.

“And so from that perspective, there is music, there are different types of visuals — whether they’re from the news or they’re generated from some work that I’ve created — and there is a live component, and that component in a way is the spiritual component that I’m super excited to explore further,” he added.

Johnson has definitely had a unique pandemic experience: his daughter was born during it.

“The components of my work oftentimes have me traveling everywhere,” he said. “I can say that despite the fact that me and my wife had been together as a couple for almost seven years, we’ve been traveling for work all the time. So it was the first time we had a chance to just be at home together all the time. And not only that, but also raise a daughter together. That was a very special thing for me. I wouldn’t have had that without the pandemic.

“Everyone has a different perspective,” he added, “and that’s really kind of the biggest thing that I wanted to accentuate with the project.”

Bay Street Theater is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. “Wonder/Wall” runs July 6 through July 31. Performances are offered Tuesday through Sunday, with five shows nightly on the half hour from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. A different show runs each week. For more information and to buy tickets, visit baystreet.org/shows-and-events.