by Lillian Meredith · August 13, 2014
I saw three shows on Friday – two in the afternoon and one, The Photo Album, late in the evening. I was tired and a little wary of returning to another dark theater to consume another narrative. What a delight, then, to come back to Venue #3 (aka Abrazo Interno) and find not rows of chairs but pictures tacked to the walls. Instead of a program, I was handed a pamphlet with dates and names and an empty circle, and instructions on downloading and using the Layar app on my phone or tablet.
The play, or piece or theatrical event, begins with a construction foreman entering the room and telling us all to leave. He is answered by an aggressive pseudo-hipster who says we’re all there to save the building. Aha! Now we know our role. The foreman replies that the building has to be torn down, it’s just a decrepit old space and not worth anyone’s time, which riles our leader up. She responds that it should be on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s list of historically and architecturally significant homes in Ditmas Park. Aha again! Now we know where we are. Besides, she continues, we found all these pictures when we broke in last night (backstory) and there must be some story behind them all. A bell rings! Lunchtime! The foreman says, fine, if you can piece together a story good enough for the Commission, then he’ll hold off on knocking the place down.
The hour begins. We each take off in our separate directions, scanning photos on the walls and tables. Each photo, once scanned, will reveal an article of clothing worn by the character connected to the picture, and an introductory question or sentence to say to get them to talk to you. Once they’re done, they give you a sticker under their name.
Over the course of the evening, I heard over thirteen stories from characters living in seven different eras. Little 1950s Suzy “Q” taught me how to play cats cradle. A struggling vaudevillian actress from Coney Island had me translate her impenetrable 1920s slang. The World War II Japanese-American soldier Henry told me offensive jokes about the Japanese before giving me his death telegram to give to his father. Zach, in typical 1980s NYC style, taught me how to tag the wall. Each story was scripted while still allowing for conversation and deviation; it was truly enjoyable, easy, and interactive. It was totally immersive without feeling precious or uncomfortable, and it provided a sense, albeit fictional, of what the ultimate expense of all those glossy new high-rises really is.
When the hour was up, we all gathered, clutching our sticker-covered pamphlets in hand, waiting to see what would happen next. The foreman returned, we were asked how many stickers we each received, and were told that seemed like enough to save the building. Then the actors took their bows. It was an unexpectedly anticlimactic finale to an otherwise terrific theatrical experience. I hope they find a way to make the audience’s work feel more vital in the future.