At a run-through of The NOLA Project's newest original play, Exterior. Pool-Night, there's more to work out than nailing lines and figuring out blocking. Much of it is set in the Aloft New Orleans Downtown hotel, but for Act 2, we followed two characters on a voyeuristic trek through the CBD with radios in hand to listen to their conversation from across the street. The cast and crew got a taste of what a play partially performed in the city streets would encounter: confused — and vocal — onlookers, traffic issues ("Are we having [the audience] jaywalk?" a crew member asked) and construction hazards.
The NOLA Project has presented immersive theater experiences before, including 2014's Adventures in Wonderland, performed in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. This production happens in and around a hotel in the CBD.
NOLA Project veteran Alex Martinez Wallace, who plays actor/celebrity Shia LaBeouf, considers the unknowns part of the fun.
"The streetscape in the CBD is constantly changing because of construction," he says. "I think there's going to be a lot of 'we show up this weekend and we can no longer use this street.' So we'll see what happens in that sense. Hopefully there will be some improv involved because that's what I like anyway."
In the play, written and directed by NOLA Project founder Andrew Larimer, LaBeouf is directing a biopic of Jonas Salk, the researcher who developed the polio vaccine. The screenwriter is the granddaughter of Salk (played by Natalie Boyd), who drops by the set and learns that LaBeouf has given the script a Hollywood makeover, complete with a CGI "polio monster."
The play takes place on a film set, which in Acts 1 and 3 is the Aloft hotel pool. For Act 2, the audience follows characters on one of three tracks — assigned to them based on surveys they take upon arrival which ask how comfortable they are with walking or "sexual-ish situations."
The path I followed at rehearsal was the most challenging, a brisk and lengthy trek with LaBeouf and an Assistant Director (Maggie Blaeser). There's another outside track that is shorter, and a track that takes place in a hotel room.
"We encourage people who come to the show together to see different second acts so they can tell each other about what they saw afterward, but you don't need to see multiple ones to get the full story," Larimer says.
Larimer, who directed Adventures in Wonderland, has always been interested in immersive theater, his favorite production being a version of Sleep No More in New York.
"To me, it's theater at the height of what theater is, which is an event that brings a bunch people together to go on a journey," he says. "I like that immersive theater addresses the differences between film and theater in a strong way. Film can beat theater when it comes to seeing different locations and stuff like that, but it can't actually move you through a space with a group of other people."
Further blurring the lines between the audience and actors is a pool party at the Aloft pool following each performance.
"The show is partially about what a seductive world the entertainment industry can be, and inviting the audience into this beautiful rooftop pool after the show is meant to feel like you're stepping into the lifestyle of the characters you just met," Larimer says.