“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1841).
Carol Ward recommended that I speak with Victor Carinha of Journey Lab–she said that I’d really enjoy and appreciate his work. She generally knows what she is talking about. She is, most likely, correct, although unfortunately, I can’t experience his work during this time of crisis. The three of us took a rain check…when we have reached some state of normalcy in New York City, we have a plan to go out for drinks and have a great conversation about art and theater and creativity. Until then, we’ll rely on technology to get us through. Victor agreed to answer some questions by email.
Our Q&A with Victor Carinha, Journey Lab
Hometown: Whitehouse Station, New Jersey
Current town: I’ve had the fortune (at least that’s how I see it) to live in various types of terrain––countryside, suburban town, and cityscape. At the moment, I am back in New Jersey, but I live in Brooklyn, cause the rent’s doable.
Occupation: Artistic Director, Journey Lab
Date: June 17, 2020
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, which I really appreciate. First of all, what is your Journey Lab “elevator pitch”?
Journey Lab is a creative production studio with a portfolio of global works on the cutting-edge of narrative, design, and experience–destinations for an audience who desire a new becoming. We create playable worlds that transform passive audiences into the heroes of story-worlds. We produce content with a purpose and are committed to empowering creative expression for audiences, artists, and the communities we serve.
While “productions/experiences” are what we are known for, we also have several other channels to the company, but I’ll break down how our values/mission translate.
We’re dedicated to elevating (the world’s) consciousness through surprise and story.
A. Experiences/Productions: the story-worlds we build for adventuring audiences.
B. Bespoke: building events for brands, nonprofits (like the Historic House Trust, Riverside Park Conservancy, United Nations: HeForShe Arts week…)
C. Enrichment: arts and drama education for students and professionals (often provided for free). We are deep proponents of education, and make efforts to develop tools of creative expression through imagination and collaboration.
Okay, I understand special events and arts education…but I’m a little unclear about your letter A there—are you talking about interactive theater or live action role playing, or what exactly?
You’re not confused, you’re totally on it. A. refers to immersive and interactive theatre. (That cinematic set feel from something akin to a Punchdrunk Sleep No More, in NYC, if familiar.)
Our approach is to kind of “burn the seats” on the more traditional consumption of theatre. We seek to resonate with the senses: the stomach, not just the head. So the work is sensorial but feels entirely self-directed. You could “become the hero” actively or voyeuristically explore.
I’m happy to answer any questions! Of course, when the world settles and we’re all adequately safe from the risks of the pandemic, I will offer you a complimentary ticket to a local piece — which could help stamping a more solid sense of what’s going on.
Thanks…that sounds very interesting, and yes, I’d love to see one of your pieces when it is possible!
When you work on these immersive theatrical experiences, do you create the story and characters? Or does someone else write the scripted parts and you set up the environment? Or is it a collaborative effort?
It’s absolutely a collaborative effort–and I am involved and I also work on the alignment of the vision through a personally eclectic background. These pieces would not be able to happen without a collaborative approach. I believe that’s the point. You don’t have to go it alone, and the work can visibly lack without collaboration, because this style is for everyone–and we’re all so different anyway.
I haven’t been to much theater that can be truly described as interactive or immersive. I have attended shows in which the performers interacted in a small way with the characters (for example, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and an off Broadway production of Our Town some years back). In both of those performances I sat on stage, and the experience was terrific. Having the interaction with the actors made it more fun and special but the interaction was very slight, compared with the entirety of the show.
I had the pleasure to attend Great Comet with my playwriting professor from college, and she (Molly Rice) was actually a collaborator/writer on the project! Loved it. I have a funny story about attending that show actually. Each table had shot glasses and a bottle of Tito’s vodka, and then you were served pelmeni. My professor, myself, and Lelah (she had to be in her 90s) who drank nearly the entire bottle by herself before the start of the piece. It was incredible, the show, and her.
That sounds amazing! When I saw The Dead, 1904 with the Irish Repertory Theater, that was much more interactive…the audience members were party guests at a dinner party (a very famous dinner party in world literature), with drinks, dinner (not at all bad!), arguments, and musical performances. Again, though, it was very much scripted, we trooped in like party guests, sat to dinner when everyone else did, went upstairs to observe the final heartbreaking scene (invited up to the bedroom by a maid…at that point the two main characters were ignoring the large number of guests who had appeared in their chambers to observe them).
I haven’t seen The Dead, 1904 and I wanted to see it, because I love Irish Repertory Theater with a fervent passion.
I hope they can bring it back this winter. I haven’t been to Sleep No More, although I was intrigued by the concept when I read about it.
What do you think is gained with an interactive theatrical experience? And what, if anything, is lost? And what level of interaction/immersion works best for different stories?
There’s a lot of fog around the terms “immersive” and “interactive” given the craze. Technology and some examples of the work have resurged, but I personally break it down into simple bits. To me, “immersive” relates to environment. The feeling of being transported somewhere else. It has a natural uptick in “agency”’ because these environments are meant to be explored, not just viewed through a directed perspective, as when sitting in seats. And “interactive”’ boils down to “co-creating the story with the audience.” But when you have a set feeling/place for them to arrive to: that’s where the best of interactive comes to life.
This leads into what I think is extremely beneficial from interactive work: accessibility to individual/collaborative creative expression. It is grounds for immensely impactful work, because the art becomes a dialogue with the now-active audience-player, which makes them the author of their own experience within this story––and if it is intended that participants have access to repeat the experience, then it becomes an exploration of who they could become. Exploring through actions and choices, which exercises an innate child-like wonderment that is often lost after grade school. The main thing comes down to what people really want from “entertainment.” The more voyeuristic people would naturally hate this sort of thing––but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more voyeuristic choices that can be made. We encourage and believe ANYONE can play. Another added benefit is that it’s also physical. The left-side of the brain is active in a proscenium styled piece, but the entire brain is active in something that also requires them to be on their feet. (And I love traditional theatre, not a ‘hater!”)
I see a lot of possibility for this kind of work, and it’s not meant to replace anything that already exists, but to give agency to anyone who is willing to answer the call–that they can become any hero, and find community in cheering creative expression. The big thing that gets in the way is fear. I think our fear in more traditional senses is developed emphatically through character and narrative but doesn’t involve any particular investment from us. So, in some way comfort is lost. But it’s rewarding. And it often attracts non-theatre goers to the work because their love of cinema, gaming, mystery, environmental installation, whatnot–it means they are often doing things traditional audience members would never have imagined doing (out of fear, or disinterest), but because this might be one of their first arts-based event experiences, they end up being braver and bolder than some of the characters on “stage.” Mind you, believability is critical for everyone in this context, so there’s usually a base of promenade theatre that gives opportunities for agency and serious-play––but it’s not a demanding aspect that makes your subjective experience suffer because you hadn’t chosen that path.
The narrative drives everything, equally actually with space. It’s quite contradictory, but I can get into that if need be. The level of interaction or immersion is only required if that’s the best form of the argument for the story and the highest attained reflection of the idea that sparked the entire project coming to life. In this case though, I would say interactive (and maybe immersive) are best utilized when you’re dealing with narratives that are audience-centric. That it is imperative the audience be a catalyst to the work.
I just remembered another interactive performance I went to–The Donkey Show, back many years ago, which took A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a disco. It was completely ridiculous and very fun. At least, I thought so. (Some of the people I was with were baffled by the entire thing!)
I haven’t seen The Donkey Show, but I’ve heard plenty about it! Randy Weiner was one of the producers behind that (and the pick up of The Great Comet of 1812) – and the group he’s a part of, Emursive, is the body that brought Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More to the US, as referenced above. But that becomes an anecdote, like a lot of novel and adventurous art.
Let me know if you have more questions, or if you need me to elaborate on anything. I’m tossing up threads in case any of this is of interest. I love your questions!
Thanks, your answers are great…really interesting and there’s a lot to think about here!
How has the double crisis of COVID-19 and the current police brutality and racism protests impacted your work (besides the obvious, closing theaters)? With the concerns currently being voiced re structural inequality in the arts (and of course these are not new concerns, but they are now getting more attention and prominence) do you have any thoughts regarding how the arts, and theater particularly, can be more diverse, and more inclusive?
As we’ve heard, COVID-19 presents unique challenges, as well as dire consequences with exposure, and has the potential to create a tidal shift through this industry. I think, being a naïve optimist, this is a setting that we experience on a collectively-global level with sensitivity, with an almost uncomfortable intimacy. Reaching people, now, on what is really important is grounds for rethinking how to reach those audiences, and their relationship to stories. As a result, I hope audiences might be more open to those experiments and find this community waiting for them with virtual-open arms until we have a real handle on this pandemic.
First, as a white, gay male I am compelled to admit that I will never fully understand the POC experience (though I will always listen and fight with you). With structural inequality, I hope theatre does what it’s made to do best: reflect the truth to inspire change. When we sought out to create a studio that not only makes novel work, it should also make it differently. Our leadership and team is predominantly women and persons of color–always has been. It just worked out that way, not to meet a quota or to make a statement because this feels more relevant than ever. I just know we’re better off for it. Plus, I personally always want to collaborate with everyone; so if you know someone who digs this kind of work as much as we do, put us in touch!
I have one other thing I would like to say about this as well, and it has also been voiced among other creatives I’ve spoken with these past weeks. Many of us may just be getting used to the impact of COVID-19 and slowing down to build something in response for audiences, some project that has just been figured out and basically ready to go. But, the conversation has changed and releasing work that does little to nothing to address the reality that is being voiced with #BlackLivesMatter will seem insensitive and myopic, if not blind. Several of these creators are white, and deeply empathetic, going after establishing a feeling with their work… I believe that if you’re confused about what to make in response and support, or that it’s not your place of truth to comment on right now––offer your platform to those voices. I heard a line some time ago that I adored, but I am unsure who to credit: “There is not a single person that, once you learn their story, you can’t help but fall in love with them.” It’s the perfect time to listen, learn, move the needle and vote. While I am obsessed with getting audiences into their creative expression, that means nothing if there’s fear of being who they are and a boot on their neck. The culture of theatre has always had the power to be prolific and make social change, I believe with all the creativity in this industry, we could lead by example and discover how rich it can be.
I would love to see the arts doing what they do best to lead to social change. Can you tell us about any projects currently in development (to be performed when possible)? And, if you had an unlimited budget and could cast anyone you wanted and open a show anyplace you would like–what would be your dream story to tell, actors to work with, and setting? (They don’t all have to be together–with an unlimited budget you could do several dream productions!)
A few months before COVID-19 hit, we were working on an adaptation of José Saramago’s Blindness. It seems now it might be even more fitting as source material (relevant to a pandemic and how low our prejudices can drag us); but with proximity fears and our attachment to environment design/spaces, we’re going to continue to develop it for a more appropriate time.
There’s another project we’ve been working on for several years, that is more durational and permeates a blend of reality with theatre across a city. Individual audiences become more of players (active-roles on an interactive level), in a shared story-world narrative, but each participant has a bespoke journey that is curated off a wish we generate for you. It’s a bit of a wild blend. I don’t want to spoil anything, but to get started there’s a survey (which will be on the website) which we draw from, and this really is where I hope we can solidify our experiments from making work for one person per show, to 350. This lines up with what I would love to do given an “unlimited” budget and resources, but making it sustainable. The issue is, I liken the receptivity that goes with being given a gift. When you don’t have a personal financial investment, your expectations can really break some of those surface-level taboos and dive into the deeper experiential work. I would also run more free workshops for students and professionals, and possibly audience, to increase access to this multi-disciplinary approach––delivering on “anything is possible with imagination.”
There’s also a screenplay I might be writing and directing that a friend is pushing––a story that has an interesting relationship with the Savoy Hotel in Detroit. Bunch of stuff… There’s a creative barrier I am hell-bent on breaking through, and what that impact would have on audiences for the future cannon of work. It involves shattering an ultimate taboo. After we’ve broken all the chains, I believe we could really soar.
Oddly enough, I am also a classicist. I have a deep love of Shakespeare and contemporary work. If I could shadow and learn from Robert Wilson, Romeo Castellucci, Pina Bausch, Akram Khan, David Lynch–I’d be over the moon. I have quite a list of idols.
Well, that all certainly sounds intriguing! What is your favorite “traditional” play or other performing art piece?
I genuinely hate picking favorites because I find myself moved through a lot of different work, but Mark Rylance playing Richard II at the Globe in London always hits a spot for me.
I saw him on Broadway…playing Olivia in Twelfth Night. It was an excellent show.
What is a book everyone should read? (About theater or otherwise.)
My favorite children’s book: Harold and the Purple Crayon. Highly recommended!
We love that one at our house–my husband and I and both of my daughters are fans.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Stop talking and just do it.
What’s the best or the worst thing that has happened to you this week?
The best thing to happen to me this week has been the moments my husband and I can reach each other (he’s in the US Army at the moment). I would say the worst was seeing that my grandmother’s health has been declining (not due to COVID) and she’s pretty vocal about “it’s been fun, but I’m ready to die.”
I’m very sorry to hear about your grandmother. I hope you are able to spend some time with her, over Zoom if there’s no other way to see her safely now.
Last but not least, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
If this kind of work resonates with you, or if you want more information, even to start any kind of conversation – we’re in the process of revamping the Journey Lab website and there will be a “starting point.” (I can follow up with you when it’s live.) Stay safe!
You too! Thank you again!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images Courtesy of Victor Carinha
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
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