A city with little professional theater, Quincy is about to dive into the unconventional.
The Pariah Theatre Company’s inaugural production this month, an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play,” will break down the so-called fourth wall and bring an experimental performance style to the city.
In conventional theater productions, the fourth wall is an invisible divide between the performers and the audience, keeping the simulated world and the real world separate. Actors speak to each other, and the audience sits comfortably in their seats, never a part of the play themselves.
There will be no metaphorical wall at the Pariah’s production of “. . . Or Dreaming,” which falls into the genre of immersive theater. Instead of sitting in chairs, audience members will walk through the performance. They’ll choose which story lines and characters to follow, how long to watch different acts, and which rooms to enter.
“It’s exciting and daunting,” said Boston actor Julie Dauber, who is starring in the play. “It feels kind of empowering.”
The leading force behind the avant-garde theater group is Quincy resident and acting teacher Tara Brooke Watkins. After years of working on conventional plays, Watkins, 33, chose to forge her own way for two reasons: her love for Strindberg and what she describes as a reluctance among Boston theaters to do unconventional work.
Strindberg was a bold writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who is considered by some to be the founder of modern and expressionist theater, but his plays are rarely produced, especially “A Dream Play,” which is Watkins’s favorite.
“Here’s a writer who just nails it,” she said. “He says what no other writer says.”
This year marks the centennial of the playwright’s death, and Watkins was eager to use the anniversary to celebrate Strindberg. She went to a few companies in Boston to seek support for a Strindberg festival. At the first three companies she talked to, Watkins said, people were supportive of her ambitions, but every conversation was a gentle rejection.
“I started the company to do this play,” Watkins explained at a recent rehearsal. “Part of what I miss in Boston is it’s lacking in avant-garde plays. People aren’t willing to go off the books.”
Shawn LaCount, artistic director at Boston-based Company One, said that several organizations, including Company One and the American Repertory Theater, haven’t shied away from occasional immersive theater. However, he said, Boston doesn’t have as thriving an immersive theater scene as New York and Chicago.
“Immersive theater is something that ebbs and flows in waves in and out of Boston and has for a long time,” he said.
Watkins said she didn’t approach Company One with her idea because, after being turned down by other places, she felt like “it was a sign” to start her own company.
Watkins chose to base her group in Quincy, not only because of her roots there, but also because she feels that Quincy is an outcast in the Boston theater scene — which partially explains the company’s name.
“I feel like Quincy is a pariah area in the Boston metropolis,” Watkins said. “It’s not trendy. It’s accessible to Boston — there are four T stops — but it’s not part of the [theater] scene.”
Watkins was able to garner funding for “. . . Or Dreaming” from Emerson College (where she attends graduate school), the South Shore School of Theater (which she founded), and the Swedish Council of America.
About a year in the works, Watkins’s labor of love is finally coming to the stage — although there won’t be an actual stage. The 22-person play will be performed in several rooms of the Quincy YMCA.
The story takes place in the 1930s in both a garish carnival sideshow and a grim mental hospital. It revolves around three women who play different versions of Agnes, daughter of the Vedic Hindu god Indra. Agnes goes to Earth on a quest to learn about human suffering. Each version of Agnes chooses a different path and interacts with different characters. Some aspects of this are true to Strindberg’s work; some are adaptations by Watkins.
On a recent weekend evening, the ensemble gathered at the YMCA for rehearsal.
In one room, carnival music played and sideshow actors ranted. In another, mental patients wailed and crawled on the floor. Watkins bounced among different rooms. She was thrilled at the devotion of her actors, who, she said, were “so into their characters.”
At the performances, audience members will be led by one of the three Agneses at the start, but they can choose whether they want to stay with her, join a different group, or venture into another room with no one leading the way.
Immersive theater presents unique challenges for the actors. There may be stretches when no one is watching them, but they have to remain in character, in case an audience member walks in.
“You can’t break character. There’s no offstage,” said Meredith Saran of Waltham, who plays a Siamese twin.
Adapting Strindberg’s words to a physical performance was tricky, Watkins said. “A Dream Play” is about the illusion of life, and time is not linear, characters are not concrete, and things happen that could never happen in real life.
“The audience should feel like they don’t know where they’re at, like they’re in a dream,” Watkins said.
A couple of actors are instructed to interact with audience members, but most are told to ignore interruptions, Watkins said. The audience can’t influence the course of the plot; they can only influence their own experience of the “dream.”
The actors come from all walks of life. They are student, professional and recreational actors from all over Greater Boston. Several are Watkins’s theater students from Eastern Nazarene College, where she has taught for three years.
Allison Tucker is a recent Eastern Nazarene graduate. She, like most of the actors, is performing in experimental theater for the first time — and loving it.
“There’s always a time and place for the remake of classics,” she said. “But now is the time for new. Every other aspect of Bostonian culture is new, why shouldn’t theater be?”
Emily Files can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.