Artist Drew Petersen (the inaugural recipient of the 2018 TYA/USA Artistic Innovation Award), in collaboration with Jae Lee and Yvonne Chang of The Wildrence, are experimenting with new answers to that question with Elgin Park. Immersive, experimental theatre is on the rise across the theatre world (including within the TYA genre) and Elgin Park aims to expand that landscape. This brand new piece, billed as a “a 70 minute immersive promenade play for an intimate audience of 20 participants” and created for ages 10 and up, will offer an exploration of the fictional world of Elgin Park from a variety of perspectives. Inspired by the life of artist and model maker Michael Paul Smith, this immersive experience officially opens June 28.
TYA Today spoke with co-creator Drew Petersen to get a behind-the-scenes look at this exciting new project aimed at multi-generational audiences.
About the Artist
Creator, ELGIN PARK
Drew Petersen is a New York City based artist and educator. As an artist, he serves as the Artistic Director for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, a theater company devoted to creating high quality, original work for young audiences and their families. He has been commissioned by and has created original work with Lincoln Center Education, The Kennedy Center, Park Avenue Armory, New Victory Theater, Cleveland Playhouse Square, Classic Stage Company, PACE University, The Tank and Curio Theater Company in Philadelphia. He is currently an educator with Park Avenue Armory and The New Victory Theater. In 2018, he was the first ever recipient of the Artistic Innovation Award from TYA/USA for progressive and emergent theater making in the field of theater for young audiences.
What is Elgin Park?
Elgin Park is a mixed scale, immersive theater piece for young audiences (10+) and their families. It was inspired by the miniature town, Elgin Park, created by the late Michael Paul Smith. He was an incredibly talented artist and model maker who built structures and buildings in 1:24 scale and then photographed them in against real backgrounds around his home town of Winchester, Massachusetts. The result was a small American mid-century fictional town called Elgin Park. The immersive story we have created is a cozy mystery, which is a genre of mystery fiction that is a bit more PG and usually has to do with a crime or event in a town where a group of regular citizens/amateur sleuths have to work together to solve the case.
Elgin Park, on the surface, is a story about Michael Smith, a model maker and dreamer, and his relationship with his brother, his town, and the people of his town. If you look a little deeper, it is a story about the journey through loneliness, bravery, and mystery. It is about how one soul grows and connects with others, and together they find who they are. Elgin Park is about power and beauty in imagination. The comfort and communities we create in the worlds we build. There is a great sentiment shared by the theater director, Peter Sellars. He says there are only three steps to making great work:
1) Imagine the world you want to live in
2) Create that world, and
3) Live in that world.
Elgin Park seems to epitomize those three things.
Without giving too much away...what will the experience be like for young audiences and their families? How is it different from a traditional piece of theatre?
Half of the show promenades and locomotes through 3 dimension fully designed spaces and the other half situates the audience around 1:48 scale miniature town. The essential effect is that the audience spends half of the show hyper-zoomed into the town of Elgin Park by literally walking through the interior spaces of it and another half zoomed way out and looking over the small town in a birds eye view kind of way. The entire experience, to me, feels like telling a ghost story in the attic by flashlight with your friends where you use you grandparents’ old toys and objects to help bring the story to life. This show is different because it basically does everything except have you sit in a seat and watch from a far distance. It is very close and the audience even gets to help shape the narrative.
"The entire experience, to me, feels like telling a ghost story in the attic by flashlight with your friends where you use you grandparents' old toys and objects to help bring the story to life. This show is different because it basically does everything except have you sit in a seat and watch from a far distance. It is very close and the audience even gets to help shape the narrative."
What has the development process for the show been like? How is it different from other productions you've worked on?
What was different and wonderful about this development process was being able to work with Michael Smith himself until his passing. One of our last phone calls together, he asked me what I thought the show was about and what the content was. What I described to him, and what he absolutely loved, was a combination of both his story and my own. It felt like some strange magic had brought us together to tell this story. Then, when I linked up with the incredible Jae and Yvonne at The Wildrence, the show and scope of it seemed to reveal itself like elements of a magic trick. The content and its connection to the space felt so concrete and while this process was actually very fast, it all made incredible sense and felt very natural. There was never really any moments of “what should we do next?” but only moments of “what’s the most magical way to tell this piece of the story?”
The main way this piece of theater is different from others I have made is that it is a real actors piece. It is theater at its most core ingredients. Actors (only 2 of them) telling a story. I was heavily inspired after seeing The Lehman Trilogy. Three actors tell the history and story of The Lehman Brothers Bank on one set with no costume changes for 3+ hours. It sounds like it would be terribly sluggish to watch but it is some of the most riveting theater I have ever seen. Actors telling a story and being asked to tell it well. A lot of immersive theater relies on the space(s) to make up for misgivings or confusions in the narrative. In Elgin Park, the space and the actors are of equal weight telling the story together.
Why do you create experimental theatre for young audiences?
It feels important to push against the walls of what we think theater for young people can be and help transport young and old minds into new chasms of creative thinking. Even if Elgin Park isn’t a theatrical experience someone gravitates towards, I think it exists to be an outlier of form, style, and content. Some stories are bright, colorful, and in major keys. Some ask you to lean into the small flickering flame, try to figure out the mystery, and keep your eyes open because the world of the show may not always be what it seems. Elgin Park is the latter and, I think I create theater pieces like this because it would have been the very thing my 10 year old self would have absolutely loved to experience.
I think people gravitate towards these types of experiences because so much information, content, images, video, culture is immediately accessible to us. I think people are seeking out unexpected experiences that might shake them out of the norm. In my heart of hearts, I think people want to walk away from cultural and social encounters. like theater, movies, music, visual art, restaurants, amusement parks, destinations, video games, etc. saying “Wow, I have never experienced something like that before!”
"It feels important to push against the walls of what we think theater for young people can be and help transport young and old minds into new chasms of creative thinking."
What else do you want your national TYA colleagues, who won't be able to experience the show in person, to know about ELGIN PARK?
The things I would want colleagues to know even if they won’t get to see the show is that the show exists. For all intents and purposes, this show shouldn’t exist. It is an intimate immersive piece of theater inspired by a model maker and the town of his dreams. It is not about a famous athlete or activist. It is not a book character you have read at home. It’s not a movie musical. It’s about regular people who dream bigger than themselves. to me that is one of the strongest sentiments we can express to our young people. The profound power and incredible depth of an individual’s mind can build worlds. Believe in those worlds and stories.
ELGIN PARK Credits
Running June 27-July 14, 2019. More info can be found HERE.
Ashley Marie Ortiz, Drew Petersen, Christopher Stevenson, Catherine Talton
Dramaturgy: Pip Gengenbach
Stage Management: Devin Fletcher, Brit Gossett
Sound design and Script written by Drew Petersen
Lighting and Scenic Design by Jae Lee and Yvonne Chang
Elgin Park is co-produced by Drew Petersen and Wildrence
Elgin Park is inspired by the models, miniatures, art, and photography by Michael Paul Smith.