By Anna Feldman
The side door of Taylor Theater slams behind you; abruptly, you realize that you are not alone. A figure, backlit in blue, lurches up the dark staircase towards you, breathing labored, movements slow and erratic. You have plenty of time to move before they make it to the top of the stairs, but your uneasy fascination keeps you fixed in place. Then they are upon you, gripping you in an unexpected embrace before a damp hand pulls you roughly down the way they came.
So begins “Drip,” an immersive horror piece created and executed by Ankita Sharma ’21, Blaize Adler-Ivanbrook ’21, and Soren Kodak ’21. Over 50 people signed the waiver and braved the experience on of Oct. 25 and 26. The showrunners advised participants to come to Taylor barefoot, in clothes they didn’t mind getting wet or dirty.
“We were thinking about how to create psychological horror,” Sharma said. “So, thinking about how to set up space so that we’re building on relationships, so that we have characters, a story — and creating audience participation. We didn’t want it to be a haunted house.”
To ground its audience in its self-contained world of tension and violence, “Drip” employed a spare, smartly-lit set designed to unsettle and engage the senses. The only way to enter was to crawl through a mulch-lined tunnel, which emerged into a space cordoned off with black plastic, where one of the actors floated, seemingly lifeless, in a bathtub. As the narrative progressed, the audience was continually placed in environments with similarly unfamiliar sensory cues — total darkness, wet carpet, a dog whistle contrasted with a harsh bass tone.
“It wasn’t necessarily to disorient, I would say; it was more to immerse,” Adler-Ivanbrook said. “Because when you go into a theater, you don’t expect to feel things — it wasn’t like we were just taking away expectations, we were filling the space with things they could actually experience … rather than just visual, because that’s what we were trying to break down.”
This system of shock and readjustment worked to suspend disbelief and, in its place, instill an understanding of the responses and actions expected of the audience as they were brought into the plot. The three characters took turns leading participants from scene to scene, crafting a view of the fraught relationship between the three that could change at a moment’s notice.
“Drip” set its stakes high. After Adler-Ivanbrook guided the participant to Sharma, her character fled from the volatile and possessive persona he played, taking the participant with her into another confined space. There, she exhorted them, weeping, to help her tend to Kodak’s initially unresponsive character, who guided them to the next component of the narrative. One extremely tense dinner party later, the first two characters collaborated in an unsuccessful attempt to drown the third, involving the participant in the process. The show’s climactic moment followed as the participant hid, as instructed, in a pitch-black closet, while the actors screamed and hit the closed door — after an excruciating silence, the participant opened the door to discover exactly what goings-on they just heard.
When you make up one-fourth (or one-fifth, if you were part of a pair) of the people in the room, it becomes uncomfortably evident that you have at least the hypothetical power to change the course of events. Paralysis, and the complicity it implied, felt really bad — but action in any one direction had similarly grim implications because of the characters’ shifting motives.
“I think the storyline engaged your mind and your emotional triggers in a way that’s a lot stronger than just engaging your adrenaline rush,” Charlotte Schwebel ’21, who was part of the Saturday audience said. “In a typical haunted house, you’re just focused on, ‘what am I gonna be scared of next?’ But in this one, it was really like, ‘I’m scared, but oh my god, what is happening right now, and should I be doing something about it? And where do I stand morally in relation to this? And then you get pulled out of it with this scream, this adrenaline rush. It kept you moving, and it made sure that all aspects of horror were explored fully.”
Each participant interacted differently with the space and narrative they encountered. Because the piece was so driven by audience immersion, the various responses it provoked altered the way that people — both the audience and the performers — experienced each 10- to 15-minute time slot.
“We obviously had our screamers, we had people who were talking to their friends who would be freaking out,” Sharma said. “We had some people who would interact with us back. Some people forcibly tried to drown Soren, or someone tried to push us away from Soren and drown us … someone pulled a knife on us from our prop set! So those were really intriguing.”
Prop knives notwithstanding, the showrunners consider “Drip” a success.
“It was a very valuable performance experience, in learning how to go about doing multiple shows a night and delivering the same character over and over again,” Sharma said. “It was very cool. But I have no way of perceiving what we did. I think the people that went through really, really liked it … it seemed like we got a really positive response out of it.”
“We were all happy it was done when it was done,” she continued, “because we were just very cold and now we’re sick.”