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August 16, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A Tuesday night rehearsal of Fuddy Meers, a play at The Berlin Theatre, jumps into the middle of the story: A woman with amnesia has been kidnapped by some odd and wacky characters.
The evening begins with warm-up exercises. The actors get in a circle and loosen their limbs as if preparing for a race and repeat tongue twisters shouted by director Brad Stephenson. Then they get to work, and Stephenson plans stage directions and how the actors will exit for intermission. The performance run-through turns the empty theater into a space filled with colorful characters.
The heroine, Claire, has a medical condition that wipes her memory clean each time she wakes up. The audience will experience things for the first time along with her through director Stephenson’s sensory immersion. Sensory immersion is the concept of viewers experience.
“In most plays you just sit back and watch,” Stephenson says. “In this play, you have to engage. You can’t say ‘entertain me’ and check out.”
As Claire smells popcorn and bacon, those smells will waft through the theater, as the foods will be cooked in the space beforehand. Although interesting visuals have been used in previous plays, Stephenson says it’s not common for production crews to create smells within the theater.
The set design is abstract and off-kilter because Claire is seeing her surroundings for the first time. Also, as characters enter different settings, the natural sounds of their environment will fill the space in a way that Stephenson describes as cinematic. For example, as characters go down into the basement, the audience will hear the sound of dripping; upstairs, they’ll hear chirping birds.
DeeDee Folkerts, the actress playing Claire, says the smaller theater will work well for sensory immersion.
A large theater might overload the senses, but the Berlin Theatre creates an intimate environment. This experience is led by her character, who has a childlike wonder about the world, and encourages the audience to think about just how precious functional long-term memory is.