A new theater venture in Lexington proposes to transform the way audiences experience theater by inviting them to participate in the work as equals rather than spectators.
Afterculture Theatre will debut its first show this weekend, an immersive, site-specific production of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential after-life drama No Exit. The audience is asked to attend the show in funeral attire, and everyone will be given funeral veils to wear during the production, in a sense becoming characters themselves. They will be free to touch and rifle through props; they might have a one-on-one moment with a character; and they will have a chance to shape the evening's experience as opposed to passively digesting it.
"We create tangible, living experiences for our audiences," founders Taylor Schultz and Samuel Lockridge wrote on Afterculture's website. "We do not grant them permission to be passive observers. They are not meant to sit, look away, fall asleep, flip through programs, look at phones or daydream. They are placed in the thick of the action, allowed to touch, explore and choose what and whom to follow. We reacquaint audiences with their inherent freedom as willful agents in the universe — a freedom crucial to them both within and outside the walls of our productions."
Schultz, 23, and Lockridge, 25, are Kentucky natives who met in 2013 as resident advisers for the Governor's School for the Arts. Both are alumni of the program themselves.
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They cite a disillusionment with the traditional theater establishment, and both talk of transformative experiences with professional theater groups, including British theater company Punchdrunk's immersive New York City production of Sleep No More, which reimagines Macbeth in a 1930s hotel setting, spanning five floors of converted warehouse space. Audience members, who are masked, may explore the floors in any order, dig through drawers and diaries, and ultimately create their own unique experiences.
"There are companies all over the world that are already experimenting quite successfully with the immersive format of theater," says Lockridge, who has a philosophy degree from Northern Kentucky University and is the group's creative director, "but there's no reason why New York or Los Angeles or London should get to be the only hot spots for this sort of innovation. We figured, why not bring it home?"
"The typical process of a conservatory acting is to go to a big city and do commercial work, but for me that wasn't the dream," says Schultz, a graduate of Point Park University's BFA program and Afterculture's artistic director. "I have so many other interests along the lines of social justice and community.
"Even though we love these big companies so much, they're not doing the work with a deeper purpose in mind, necessarily. They are still big commercial companies there to entertain audiences, and we thought, how can we bring that level of entertainment but also serve our community by offering them bigger ideas? So any of the shows that we create through this company are going to be connected to larger goals like sustainability, social justice and giving voice to the marginalized."
Schultz, who directs No Exit, says it's a kind of call to action to face difficult truths and make changes while you have the chance.
"There are a lot of themes of facing the lies that we tell ourselves, leaving behind the stories that we tell ourselves to keep us from facing maybe a darker reality that maybe we need to face in order to grow," Schultz says.
Schultz and Lockridge say that it's important to begin making social change directly in your own community, and that sentiment is woven into the theater's name and agenda.
"The name implies a kind of impetus toward a better, different kind of culture, and historically, that really has been the primary purpose of theater, to propel a culture forward," Lockridge says.
"We want to use theater as a vehicle for change to create the culture that we want to take root in the world, and specifically in our own community."
Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct the spelling of the playwright's name.