By David Blackman, Talya Chalef, and Jess Kaufman
Off Off Broadway, Site-specific Audio Experience
On sale through 12.31.21
Secret location in Brooklyn
by Asya Gorovits on 11.8.21
Participants of Assemble. Photo by Talya Chalef.
BOTTOM LINE: A self-guided audio experience turns browsing in a furniture store into an existential immersive journey.
Life is dealing with the consequences of the choices we make. We are happy about some of them, but often we question ourselves. As we agonizingly try to make a decision, our minds swing between the memory of past mistakes and anxiety about the future. COVID-19 only exacerbated this feeling of a "time of uncertainty," which is really an undertow of human existence. But the pandemic certainly played right into the rewrite of Assemble (it was initially staged in early 2020).
Assemble is an audio experience that combines mundane shopping with existential dread. We find Jane (Jen Taher), the protagonist, on the verge of her fortieth birthday—a obvious time of transition that comes with acute feelings of uncertainty. We never actually see Jane, but, with the help of the app designed by the Assemble team, audience members are invited to join her on a quest for clarity. And doesn’t everybody crave clarity in life?
In this solo, self-guided audio experience, Jane and her companions are led by Sigrid (Sophie Sorensen), an AI shopping assistant/life coach created by a global retailer whose name I was asked not to reveal. During the brisk walk from the meeting point (a bar in Red Hook) to the secret store, the main character is introduced and the participant’s body gets tuned in (via prompts to register sounds, smells, and tastes, delivered a bit too rapidly). I should make a note here—this was my second time attending Assemble (I went during the initial run in January 2020) so I already knew where this site-specific performance takes place. Nevertheless, I was still thrilled to enter the massive store—would I make better decisions this time?
Assemble is a choose-your-own-adventure experience, in which Sigrid brings options up on the screen of your mobile phone, and you get to decide what is going to be the next turn that Jane’s (and thus your own) adventure takes. The scenes and monologues that unfold upon making a selection might be contemplative or else might encourage you to interact with the environment.
The experience is made surreal because Assemble is a 100% guerilla performance. No other visitors of the store, staff, or executives are aware of what is going on in your headphones. Trespassing feels exciting, like true street art. That said, the creators of Assemble are respectful of the business they populate, its customers, and their audience members. All the mischievous prompts are innocent enough and don’t stray away much from the behavior of regular customers.
My only concern this time around is the sensation of an increased tempo in comparison to the first run. With the exception of a few scenes, the rewrite allows less time for the participant to calmly soak it all in. I felt like I was constantly nudged to move and perform actions that didn’t always feel necessary. My guess is that, by activating the audience through physical action, the creators hope to achieve more immersion, but they may have taken it too far. Between Jane’s story of mid-life crisis and Sigrid’s cheerful attempts to piece it all together, there is less space left for the audience member—their sensations, their emotions, their life experiences. And isn’t that why we love immersive theatre? Because it places the participant at the center?
However, the environment is designed to pull you in, which is something that Assemble plays with. The simple yet genius conceptual frame to unobtrusively claim the store layout as a site of performance and to populate it with new narratives still has a powerful effect. Without ever saying it directly, Assemble continues to be a clever critique of consumer culture, and of the rising expectations that “successful” citizens, especially women, need to fulfill. In a way, the quickened tempo and the intensified sound design is synonymous with the frenzy and density of modern urban life. But I wish I had just a little bit more time to stroke that duvet while listening to the snoring of an unseen partner.
(Assemble plays at a secret location in Red Hook, Brooklyn (revealed upon buying a ticket). Tickets are currently on sale through December 31, 2021. The running time is around 1 hour 45 minutes. Performances are daily (Mondays through Sundays), starting every 20 minutes from 5 – 6:40. Tickets are $40; $30 for students, full-time artists and unemployed. For tickets and more information visit projectassemble.org.)
Assemble is by David Blackman, Talya Chalef, and Jess Kaufman.
The cast is Jen Taher, Sophie Sorensen, Danny Bryck, and features a global ensemble of 20 voice actors including Alison Bell, Neil D’Astolfo, Robin Galloway, Brooke Ishibashi, and Mia Katigbak.