As you approach the entrance to the church property, eerie noises waft out of its windows. At first, you might think what you're hearing is the native noise of the parsonage house itself—built in 1853, it sits, paint chipping and distressed, adjacent to an overgrown graveyard—but as you get closer, you realize the sound is coming from inside the building. It is the unsettling, sweeping theme from the film Psycho, played on loop.
Last Saturday night, those infamous strings were being blasted by design as the backdrop to an immersive theater performance called Houseworld. Upon entering the building, audience members of the limited-run (four weeks), limited-capacity (30 people) show were asked to put aside any thoughts, feelings, or fears that they had and simply submerge into the hazy fuzz of their subconscious. The house was the chrysalis through which audience members would emerged, a few hours later, clearheaded and wistful, as if waking up from a potent lucid dream. The primary directive for the audience at Houseworld? To interact with the dozen or so characters, who all came with their own narrative to unravel.
The performance was being staged by Andrew Hoepfner, a New York musician, in collaboration with more than twenty artists who played characters with names like The Weeping Woman and The Angel of Peace. Hoepfner currently lives in the house with two roommates, but they have been asked to move out in a month so the church can reclaim the property. Houseworld is something of a memorial to his time spent living there, but also a theatrical experiment in the vein of Sleep No More. While the church staff hasn't explicitly sanctioned performances of Houseworld, Hoepfner says that they are free of charge so as to avoid any controversy. (When I spoke to him about this, he maintained that the show is "art for art's sake.") My director friend, who dances in the play as The Wind in a cut-up blue and white dress in front of several industrial fans, invited me the show. It has no website. There is not much available information about it online. Hoepfner wants buzz to grow organically throughout the artistic communities of New York City.
There are many rooms in which to explore and engage with Houseworld's characters. "You are about to go on a personal journey," Hoepfner told visitors as they prepared to enter the house. Dressed in a black jacket with a mandarin collar and a white button-down shirt, Hoepfner was the image of the head pastor inviting new parishioners into his home.
My first encounter at Houseworld was in a pitch-black anteroom to the side of the house: a woman with her back toward me, sitting on a bench, hummed the notes from "My Favorite Things." I was asked to put yellow rubber booties over my shoes. Then the smiling woman, in singsong voice, asked if I'd like to go for a walk in the rain. Under an umbrella, she ushered me into a shower stall. As we stood with the rain hitting the umbrella but not our bodies, she sang to me "My Favorite Things" in a precious warble. This was the first stage in my lucid dream.
I carried on through the rest of the house, where very little time passed without performers interacting with me in some capacity. Other participants also walk around unguided, and while interaction with others is not prohibited, it was most exciting to engage with the play's characters. By a certain point in the night, I felt sedated. I wondered what character I was playing.
There was a man who spoke with a Southern twang, dressed in plaid and a beer helmet who discussed his distressing family life. There was a woman in a bed next to a table of crystals. She softly asked questions about what I was afraid of, if I was in love, what my future held. She asked me to put a crystal to my forehead. It felt cool against my skin. Bouncing freeform around the house like an agile ninja, a woman dressed in all black tights, shirt, and a mask obscuring her entire face was handing out silver plastic marbles. I stuffed one in my pocket and quickly forgot it was there.
In another room, a freestanding placard asked participants to take their shoes off, lie down in bed, and say "It's time." After I laid down, a woman in a black lace gown and a masquerade mask gently pulled a duvet over me, tucking me in like a mother would. She sang "Rockabye Baby" and put two heavy coins over both of my eyes. She began singing a song in Croatian while playing a tabletop accordion. This is what death will feel like, I thought.
The performance culminated in a moment of peaceful communal time between performers and participants in the attic of the house. After an hour or so of wandering around, exploring the loose storylines between characters and embracing moments of simultaneous displacement and delusion, the attic scene was potent in its ability to bring planned chaos to a climax.
Houseworld is a triumph of whimsy, expression, and freedom of feeling at a secret location in Brooklyn. It transmits exactly what it intends to: momentary respite from the outside world and a safe space in which to ignite your senses. I left feeling excited but calm, like I'd woken from a transformative dream.
[Image via Andrew Hoepfner]