Take a Closer LookInside the UP CLOSE Festival of Immersive Theatre for Young Audiences

There’s magic brewing in a tucked away spot in the West Village of Manhattan, conjured by some of the most exciting downtown artists creating immersive short-form pieces of theatre for kids and families.

For the second year in a row, the UP CLOSE Festival will offer families an alternative to the more traditional holiday fare uptown. Drawing inspiration from the writings of author and activist Jane Jacobs, as well as the rich and forgotten history of the neighborhood, the artists of UP CLOSE will create “hyperlocal” original pieces that bring the New Ohio’s basement theater to life in surprising ways. Part installation, part interactive performance, these experimental works provide an exciting format at the intersection of community engagement, locally-inspired art, immersive theater practice, and family entertainment.

With the festival prep in full swing, TYA Today spoke with the UP CLOSE Festival team to learn more about this intriguing new format in immersive performance for young people.

What inspired you to create the UP CLOSE Festival?

  • UP CLOSE began as a series of conversations with my longtime collaborator Summer Shapiro. Having each made work for young people in a variety of contexts and continuing to be both frustrated and inspired by our respective arts ed communities, we found ourselves on opposite sides of the country dreaming up a different type of theater experience for families. Without knowing much else, we knew we wanted to eliminate the distance of the more traditional forms of theater we’d experienced, and bring in the sense of immediacy and warmth we loved about our teaching practices.  Serendipitously, around that time, New Ohio Theatre reached out to me about their Theatre for Young Minds programming initiative, and soon our conversations had a focus.

    My research began, as it usually does, with a look into the history of the area surrounding the theater, in this case Greenwich Village, which led us to Jane Jacobs. Once we discovered the rich history of the building  – New Ohio is in the basement a landmark building that once housed the National Archives Record Center  – we ran with the idea of creating an interactive neighborhood archive where we’d stage short form, immersive works honoring the area’s past. From there, we leaned into Jacobs’ principles for a healthy community (short blocks, mixed-use space) and it evolved into an experiment in using immersive theater to engage young people with the histories of the spaces they inhabit, which is basically how it exists today.

Photo by Buatti-Ramos Photography

What excites you about creating experimental art for young audiences? Why do you think short-form immersive theatre is a good match for young audiences?

  • In my work with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company I’ve found that using a young person’s POV to develop ideas that reinvent space actually brings adult audiences into fully satisfying new types of experiences. Kids often have no preconceptions about what theatre should be, so we allow ourselves to be driven with that same sense of curiosity and agency.

    Also, I think there’s a great opportunity for discussion with our kids about what happens when untold stories of Greenwich Village history are unearthed. I think it’s important for kids and families engage themselves in the idea that when we ask, “what is the history of this place?”, we take on the responsibility of honoring indigenous communities and other voices whose histories are often excluded from collective memory.

  • I am excited by experimental art for young audiences because there are little boundaries in the experience. The young people are invited to find their own innovative way into the piece; whether it is by picking up and exploring a found object in the space, connecting with a cast member face to face, or just sitting back and watching from the corner—they experience the art on their own terms. They are not being told to sit and watch—they are being invited to explore with wonder! Immersive theatre is the best way to engage young people because it gives them something that they lack in so many other areas of the rest of their lives—agency! By creating short-form theatre, every interaction is immediate and important. The young audiences are engaging in the storytelling moment to moment.

  • Young people learn and live through play, exploration, and experimentation.  Immersive theater offers them the chance to have a multi-sensory, tactile experience in which they have agency and the freedom to choose their own adventures.  It’s exciting, as a cast member and creator of the work, to devise our structures so that they are malleable and responsive to who shows up in the room, and how they show up.  There is nothing more thrilling for me as an artist than the immediacy of the direct, one-on-one encounter with an audience member—especially a young audience member. Young audiences are honest, curious, and adventurous, and typically don’t come to the theater experience with a lot of immovable, preconceived notions of what art and theater can or should be.

Photo by Mia Isabelle Aguirre

"Young people learn and live through play, exploration, and experimentation.  Immersive theater offers them the chance to have a multi-sensory, tactile experience in which they have agency and the freedom to choose their own adventures."

—  Marisol Rosa-Shapiro

What are you particularly excited about as you enter the second year of the festival? Can you give us a sense of what the pieces for this year's festival will be like?

  • In 2018, I had the pleasure of acting as an audience member for the UP CLOSE festival! I so enjoyed my experience at the show, so when Peter called over the summer and asked if I wanted to co-produce, I jumped on the opportunity. Peter and I had had a couple of shared artistic experiences over the years, including the Artistic Professional Development Program at Lincoln Center’s Big Umbrella Festival, and I knew that we both shared the same beliefs about TYA: the art has to be elevated, professional, and innovative. We have had a fantastic time working together and curating the artistic teams. It is an amazing mix of folks—TYA experts, experimental theatre innovators who have very little experience in TYA, and everyone in between. But our common goal as a team is our pursuit of uncovering untold West Village history and curating unique ways for the audience to interact with it.

    From the moment the audience members walk into the space, they are cast as important characters in a story which cannot continue without them. After a pre-show experience of exploring the underground Archive, they are whisked through space and time to three different sites of the West Village to learn about the untold stories of those places. Audience members will learn about these sites through all of their senses—by feeling the dirt of the garden, listening to a sound stored away in a jar, and watching a tense chess game play out onstage. They will experience these histories through a full-body experience!

    The addition that I’m thrilled about this year is our artistic choice to cast young people in the festival. As Young Archivists, the young people will be the centerpiece of the festival: inviting audience members into the space, and ushering them from one piece to the next. As an educator and director who really enjoys having young people in the room during the devising process, I know that their points of view and input will make our show that much stronger. As the producer of a festival that is created FOR young people, it only made sense for us to include young people in the creation of it as well.

  • I am tremendously excited for Up Close 2019’s engagement with our whip-smart, enthusiastic, imaginative young devising team who are helping us build the container for the experience, and who come to the work with a variety of creative backgrounds and interests.  I am jazzed to learn from them about what this work could be. I’ve gotta say that I am also SO excited for the return of Pizza Rat, custodian-come-archivist. Get ready for more putrid beat poetry and crumby incantations.

Photo by Buatti-Ramos Photography

What are your hopes for the future of the UP CLOSE Festival?

  • As the word “annual” implies, we plan to become a fixture at New Ohio for NYC-based family audiences every holiday season, while also growing to other communities. I love the idea of working with the artists of another US city and finding inspiration from one of their community organizers (like Cesar Chavez in my hometown of San Francisco), in the way Jane Jacobs worked for NYC. We’d love to partner with communities all over and use the recipe we discovered to see what sorts of local history we can dig up!

  • I’m looking forward to continuing to explore more and more uncovered pockets of West Village history. By creating art that is powered by our curiosity for these hyperlocal stories, and connecting family audiences together through the power of theatre, we hope to make Jane Jacobs proud.

  • I’d love to see the UP CLOSE Festival sprout up in other neighborhoods around NYC, the country and the world.  It’s such a brilliant concept–this hyper-local celebration of the history and spirit of a neighborhood. I hope that we bring it everywhere and engage with artists and family audiences deeply connected to a plethora of communities across the globe.


Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, who delighted 2018 UP CLOSE audiences as Beat Poet-obsessed Pizza Rat, reprises her beloved character as our local expert host and will be joined by a team of Archive Apprentices – four NYC teenagers recruited from local public high schools and Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company’s Young Devisers initiative. This new team will perform as uniquely engaging stewards of the Archive building basement on Christopher Street, developing their characters under the guidance of Trusty Sidekick’s Brit Gossett and Esteban Rodriguez-Alverio. Together, they will invite the audience to discover the artifacts and lore of the festival’s three featured Greenwich Village stories:

Photo by Biviana Sanchez

CHESS ’95: Experimental artists Marisa Blankier and Christopher-Rashee Stevenson, who met as instructors at The Wooster Group Summer Institute, join forces with Perfect City members Jahmorei Snipes, Jaime Maitin, and Tiffany Zorrilla for CHESS‘95 – a story inspired by the forgotten conflict that arose in 1995 when Imad Khachchan opened Chess Forum directly across the street from his former employer, George Frohlinde, whose Village Chess Shop at 230 Thompson Street ruled the block for 30 years. The New York Times reported: “Not since Bobby Fischer declared his last checkmate in 1972 has the downtown chess world been so torn asunder.” In the piece, audiences traverse an epic 1990s-themed chessboard where the pieces come to life and rely on their community to sort out the rules. Project advisors on this piece are Oye Group’s Modesto Flako Jimenez and Perfect City’s Aaron Landsman.

Photo by Biviana Sanchez

SANCTUARY/GARDEN: Spellbound Theatre presents Sanctuary/Garden, a historical dig into the soil of the urban sanctuary that is St. Luke’s in the Fields’ community garden. The audience nests together to follow the journey of a little sparrow who makes her home in this hidden garden on Hudson Street. Through puppetry, song-making and our senses, the audience and performers will fly through 450 years of history, landing in three particular moments in the life of the garden. This project is led by Spellbound’s longtime company member Lauren Sharpe and is co-created with Robert Thaxton-Stevenson and Ben Weber.

Photo by Biviana Sanchez

THE SOCIETY OF HISTORIC SONIC HAPPENINGS (SHSH): Theatremaker Adrienne Kapstein and musician/sound designer Bhurin Sead (Blue Man Group) team up with visual designer Hillary Verni and researcher Paul Parkhill (co-founder of public art non-profit Place in History) to present a participatory sound-based installation that invites us to listen closely as The Society of Historic Sonic Happenings (SHSH) – an imagined experimental wing of the famous Bell Laboratories – reveals a secret sonic history of our surroundings. In 1920, as Bell Labs microphones ushered in the Golden Age of Radio, SHSH discovered that sound never dies and that the world is filled with the sounds of the past. But with the right device, at the right time, in the right place – and with some help – we can tap into these eternal frequencies and engage with the invisible layers of history around us.

Our family audiences will work directly with SHSH scientists to preserve these rare and forgotten sounds – from the crunch of dried tobacco leaves in Sapokanikan, the earliest known name for the area now called Greenwich Village (September 23, 1447) to the squeak of a pigeon squab on the window ledge of the 10th floor of the Archive Building (April 14th, 2017) – and work to preserve them in special sonic time capsules.

The 2nd Annual UP CLOSE Festival will be presented Dec 27-Jan 4. For more information and tickets, visit upclosefestival.com.