Taking Children on a Magical Journey to Everywhere
Bricolage Production Company’s original, immersive production, “The Forest of Everywhere,” provided kids with a magical experience — and showed how theater can reach new communities.
“Forest of Everywhere” performer Renee Rabenold introduces explorers to her puppet character, Simon.
Inside the Forest of Everywhere, the animals need your help.
A great storm has swept across the planet, depositing a group of creatures inside a slightly magical forest. They’re new to this place; they need guidance and support to settle in. Esther, the flamboyant ostrich, is nervous about being so far from home. Don Key, an easygoing dancer, would like some assistance getting his groove back. Hops, a quiet bunny, needs help arranging her many treasures.
If you help the creatures inside the Forest of Everywhere (or if you simply pay a friendly visit) you’ll be rewarded with songs to sing, hidden places to explore and a beautiful world to inhabit. And as you leave, the Great Prince of the Forest will give you a small gift to take home — and whisper a farewell message that everyone, from the very young to the very old, should hear.
The Forest of Everywhere,” devised by Bricolage Production Company, is an original work of immersive theater. Originally mounted in slightly different form (under the name “Welcome to Here”) as part of the 2016 EQT Children’s Theater Festival, the show was expanded and given a longer run in May and June 2018.
Both iterations of the show were created not only to produce an immersive-theater experience for younger audiences, but also to design a performance specifically for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Years prior, the festival had requested an ASD-friendly installment of Bricolage’s “Midnight Radio” series; instead of adapting a show, the company decided to build a world.
“We had experienced relaxed performances, sensory-friendly accommodated performances,” says Tami Dixon, Bricolage’s principal creative and co-founder. “There’s nothing wrong with that; if you want your child to experience a Broadway show in a way that they might be able to, that’s great. But we didn’t feel like it would serve either the program or the audience to make [that] accommodation.”
Bricolage’s goal was to meet audiences with ASD where they were, Dixon says. As they began to explore the idea, the company was shifting its focus toward immersive theater. That growing movement — which has a variety of definitions, but generally refers to shows where audience members are active, rather than passive, participants — has found a foothold, and a following, in Pittsburgh since Bricolage’s groundbreaking 2012 production, “STRATA.”
“STRATA” was an unsettling examination of memory and consciousness; “The Forest of Everywhere” uses some of the same tools to instead evoke wonder, safety and belonging.
Explorers — the show’s word for the audience — are greeted at the door and directed downstairs to check in with Bricolage staff. Kids are given the opportunity to color at the Ranger’s Station, where photos of the show’s characters are hanging; this touch, and a written guidebook to what will happen in the show, are accommodations for children who may be nervous about or frightened of new or unexpected things.
The Ranger lays some gentle ground rules before explorers knock on a door to garner the attention of Simon, a quick-witted alpaca (the animal characters are puppets, played by performers in complementary costumes). Simon asks for a password and introduces Shushy, the giant tree that also serves as an entrance to the forest. Inside Shushy’s trunk (she snores gently through most of the scene), Ranger Roger, an affable camp-counselor type bearing a guitar, asks the explorers to head into the forest, one group at a time, to see if they can help the animals they meet inside.
After reciting the Oath of the Oaks — a pledge to be kind, gentle and helpful — explorers wind through a passage into the Forest itself, a cool and dim playground full of activities and characters.
“Forest of Everywhere” performer Tal Kroser introduces explorers to his puppet character, Sobi.
At the same time that Bricolage was dedicating itself more fully to immersive works, it also was becoming a regional leader in accessibility for all its productions. Managing Director Jackie Baker created the company’s Immersive Companion program, designed to meet the needs of individual audience members in productions that require much more precise adaptation than, say, an audio description of a sit-down, scripted play.
Bricolage’s pool of trained companions “go with you one-on-one,” Baker says. “The goal for them is to be as present as you want them to. They might even just be in the room … so that you can have [a] similar experience [to] other people who come through, with the ability to go where you want and do what you want and access the things that you want.”
The Immersive Companion program — which was developed with the assistance of Bricolage board vice president and past performer Ann Lapidus — debuted with “Welcome to Here.” At last year’s large-scale immersive production, “DODO,” seven different companions were brought in for seven different reasons.
“We have … people who are trained audio describers, ASL interpreters, people who are just there to be a companion if you’re nervous about some of our scarier, secretive [shows],” Baker says. “Or any degree of accommodation that you might need.
“It’s not an equal experience, but it’s an equitable experience.”
An explorer visits the dressing room of Esther, a glamorous ostrich played by Missy Moreno, to compose an original song.
More than 400 explorers attended the four-day production of “Welcome to Here”; nearly every ticket was sold.
“Our goal … was to allow people to come back to the forest,” Baker says. “That was something [audiences] wanted to do the first time around; they wanted to play the song over and over, and they wanted to be able to return.
“We were gone in a weekend.”
Dixon attributes the success of that first run to an alteration late in the production process. Many immersive productions lead audiences from one scene or encounter to the next; when “Welcome to Here” was conceived, the explorers were led from one animal’s home to the next.
That’s not a structure well-suited for the audience Bricolage was inviting, says Grayson Rumsey, an actor and autism advocate who worked with Dixon and others in developing the show. “The structure was getting in the way of individualising the experience for a community where everyone has even more diverse individual needs than the neurotypical community,” Rumsey says. “In the autistic community, you can’t generalize someone’s needs.”
With only days before “Welcome to Here” was set to debut, Dixon instituted a radical change: explorers would no longer be led from one moment to the next. They would be welcomed into the forest and — with some guidance in the form of the Oath of the Oaks — allowed to explore, play and interact in whatever way they desired.
“For a minute, it was panic,” Dixon says. “But I looked [at] Grayson’s face, and he was like, ‘Yup.’ And we did a run and everybody was happy.”
Offering an immersive experience for children — particularly children who may have never been able to experience anything of the sort before — requires a different mindset than producing theater for adults, Dixon says.
“It’s about engagement. That’s the goal. Whether it’s engagement with the words I wrote or the encounters we came up with, that matters less to me than [that] the person who walks into the space is met as they are and encountered as they are.”
The children entering the forest do so at different levels of comfort. Some tear in with abandon, dashing from one spot to the next with wide-eyed excitement. Others cling to parents, occasionally glancing up to investigate a puppet or a bit of scenery. Almost invariably, however, these explorers become more bold as time passes; those who entered with confidence become even more empowered, declaring themselves full characters in the story, while those who began sheepishly start to leave caution behind and open up to play.
Some explorers methodically move from one scene to the next, making sure they get a full round of attention from every character. Others play in the purest sense; a frequent starting point is a pile of paper leaves that sit in the middle of the forest.
Others quietly take in the sights and sounds with a sense of wonder: What is this place?
Two young explorers chat with Don Key, played by Parag S. Gohel, inside his barn. They’ll roll oversized dice to help him make up a dance.
For the performers in the forest, that variety in the audience means nothing can be certain before an explorer approaches. Sure, there are the small games and moments of creation that each character intends to offer — Don Key asks explorers to roll oversized dice to pick dance moves, Esther composes a spontaneous song based on the things that make each explorer happy — but the young audiences are in control of the scene’s direction as much, if not more, than the performers.
“Some of the biggest developments in helping people with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the past few years have just been listening to people with Autism Spectrum Disorders — not listening to, instead, their parents or their nurses or physical therapists,” Rumsey says. And if that’s true of education and care, he points out, it should be true of art created for these audiences.
“What I tried to bring to the show … is [that] it’s not only OK to give the kids agency, it’s imperative that you give them agency. Not only is that what’s going to help them have the best experience of the show, it’s also something that often children don’t get outside of this space.”
Missy Moreno, who plays Esther and helped develop the show, says interaction with the explorers is the joy of performing in the forest.
“I’ll mirror them and build on the suggestions they’re giving me,” she says. “I get the opportunity to experience life through their eyes, which is so awesome.
“I get to be led, and we fly together.”
Oisin, the Great Prince of the Forest played by Grayson Rumsey, stands at the Waters of Light, the final stop in an explorer’s journey.
After the run for “The Forest of Everywhere” was extended due to audience demand into mid-June, the production closed on June 17. (A smaller-scale immersive show aimed at adults, “The Clearing,” continued to use the set, with a planned run until July 15.) Dixon says she hopes the forest can grow anew in the future.
“We would love to do this show in other places. We would love to bring this show to other communities … This is a community we loved creating for.”
More broadly, though, the multi-year process of developing the forest has demonstrated the possibilities of immersive productions as a more regular part of children’s theater.
“I think making immersives for kids is where it’s at,” Dixon says. “Kids live in immersive worlds — unlike adult audiences, which can be snarky.”
The young audiences who rush into the forest — or approach tentatively, hidden behind a guardian’s leg — do not look at a play to be evaluated, a new theatrical form to be analyzed. They arrive to play. And they leave with memories not of seeing a show, but of being in a magical place.
When explorers are ready to leave the forest (or, as is often the case, have been told by their parents it’s time to go), they are asked to find Oisin, the Prince of the Forest. Oisin (Rumsey) is rarely out of view, usually sitting quietly and watching the explorers around him; his calming presence seems to be a nod to those children who want merely to exist in the forest, observing and enjoying its splendor.
Oisin leads explorers to the Waters of Light, thanking them for their help in making the animals in the forest feel at home. He encourages them to dip a finger into the water, which bubbles and changes color at the touch. He recites a mantra that seems to double as the show’s synthesis:
“You were here. You are enough. You will be remembered.”
After presenting explorers with a gift — a small, golden acorn — he bids them farewell.