New York City is known as a hub for the theater and the performing arts, but Third Rail Projects is truly a cut above the rest. An innovative, imaginative, and entirely enchanting theatrical company, Third Rail Projects focuses on crafting clever, creative, and immersive plays that transport guests to different worlds.

Formation, theater, and immersion

Famed for their play titled “Then She Fell” (which seemingly takes place in a Victorian madhouse and is directly inspired by “Alice in Wonderland”) Third Rail Projects also created “The Grand Paradise” which turned a Brooklyn warehouse into a beachy-island resort circa the 1970s.

Most recently, they crafted the brilliant “Ghost Light” which ran at the Claire Tow Theater at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and focused on the adventures of numerous specters that haunted a playhouse.

Rendering site-specific and immersive work are not easy, but Third Rail Projects has mastered this difficult task. Their sets, props, and costumes are outshone only by the skill of their performers and the sheer quality of the writing that manages to tie together various themes, plots, and characters, in a way that is surreal and dreamlike without being nonsensical.

Third Rail Projects aims to recreate modern day theater and rethink how audiences should interact with the performers. Rather than sitting idyll in a chair, visitors to any performance by this company might be spoken to, touched, or even fed by the actors. Although they have been creating theater since their formation circa 2000, the company is now starting to gain worldwide recognition, respect, and fame.

In 2016, they had shows running in Russia, Colorado, Chicago, as well as their home base of New York and they are also the recipient of numerous awards including a New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”). “Then She Fell” continues to run in Brooklyn and will celebrate its fifth year in October.

Jennine Willett, the lauded co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, recently discussed her experiences working with the company, their plans for the future, and more via an exclusive interview.

Interview, plays, and future projects

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to create "Ghost Light"? For instance, did you have the idea for a "show about a show" before securing the space or did the location drive your muse and impact the theme's core?

Jennine Willett (JW): The location was a driving point for the concept. When we are invited to create a work for a specific space, we often start by asking “What can we create that is born out this space and how can we use its unique history, purpose, and architecture as the inspiration for our process?” This was the case with “Ghost Light” as we created it for the Claire Tow Theater.

We looked at this site as both a rather new theater with a unique and beautiful design all its own and as a space that has the same features found in every other theater in the world. Lincoln Center Theater gave us the chance to experiment in every nook and cranny of the space, and as a result, we were able to give audiences stunning and unexpected vantage points as they journeyed through the show.

MM: The play loosely focuses on the concept of specters an in a theater setting, repeating their long-ended performances night after night. Was this inspired by any real-life legends about haunted playhouses?

JW: While researching theater superstitions and ghost stories was a part of the process early on, we also drew upon our own experiences with ghosts, our perspectives about what it means to be haunted, and the notion of how each performance can leave an imprint on a space that lingers long after the curtain, or show, closes. Our company members all share the common experience of repeating scenes hundreds and even thousands of times in our other shows. It is no wonder that the repetitive element of performance is especially resonant, so we chose to have fun with highlighting that really.

“Ghost Light” has many layers, the outermost touching on the common threads that are shared when putting on any performance, and then those that delve deeper into the themes and conflicts that surround anyone who has ever been on the stage. And even deeper still, performance is a metaphor for life. We are all performing for each other, and we all shift from one role to another depending on our audience.

MM: Many of the cast members wear outfits that reflect a number of different eras...from Shakespearean times to the 1800s to mid-19th century. Was this done purposefully in order to convey the feeling of ghosts from a range of times rather than one specific time?

JW: We intentionally wanted to evoke many time periods and to subtly reference iconic plays, characters, choreographers, and playwrights that are meaningful to us, while also allowing for space for interpretation by not getting too specific. Maybe this idea was sparked when we started playing in the costume closet in the corridor during our first residency at the Claire Tow, where we discovered a variety of costumes from so many shows. Sometimes our performers and their traits and unique abilities influence our development of characters. They generate scenes and craft material that may be reminiscent of quality, time-period, or performer of the past, and then we find a way to run with it.

MM: As audience members walk through the theater, they hear bits and pieces of the theater's supposedly haunted history and then, later in the performance, they see some of the events acted out to "put the pieces together," so to speak. Was it challenging to find ways to connect all these elements?

JW: It is always a challenge to connect everything- but that is the aspect of this type of work that we enjoy so much. Working in different media is a key component of our cumulative storytelling method. Dance, spoken word, ephemera, art installation, melodies, lyrics, and interactivity are all ways of building a narrative. They support and enhance one another, and create space for interpretation in the way that they fit together.

MM: Your previous show--"The Grand Paradise"--and your still-running "Then She Fell" both had different experiences per person. In "Ghost Light" does everyone see roughly the same scenes, albeit in different orders?

JW: There are anchor scenes that everyone sees, but the show unfolds in some different ways, and you may spend time with different characters or perceive characters in a different light depending on how you encounter them. “Ghost Light” was created for 108 audience, which is the largest number we have ever worked with when creating a show of this type.

MM: Your performances are immersive, and so a lot is going on at once. What is it like to plan out how each group will be divided and led about?

JW: Our goal is to create a cohesive and meaningful journey for each person, no matter how the show unfolds. Then there is the logistical and physical aspect of what it means to move 108 people through space in a way that provides one impactful threshold experience after another! Many hours go into conceptualizing the way that an audience moves through a performance like this and trying it out with real bodies moving through space and getting the mechanics of it to be smooth and graceful. This is where the experience and artistry of our performers and stage management team comes into play!

MM: What has audience feedback been like and what have been the most rewarding experiences of working with this show?

JW: As a kid, I spent a lot of time watching rehearsals from the wings and catwalks as my dad led the stage crew for our high school musicals. I still feel that childlike delight and excitement when I am backstage- and it is so satisfying to hear audience members respond to the show with that same wonder and excitement. Seeing the underpinnings and stepping behind the façade of performance could be just as magical as watching from the seats of the house.

As a performer, I have most enjoyed my interactions with audiences in the dressing rooms. Those scenes begin with the vibrant exterior persona of my character and then strip down bit-by-bit to give a brief glimpse of the real person underneath the stage makeup, revealing the fragility and vulnerability of being a performer and artist. Having those few moments of sharing something heartfelt and real, and seeing the audience respond to that honesty, was very special.

MM: You have had some other plays running in other states, such an antique-themed performance in Colorado. Might you one day open this show in New York?

JW: We had a show running in Denver called “Sweet and Lucky,” show in Chicago called “Learning Curve,” and one in Saint Petersburg, Russia called “As Time Goes By,” all last year. We are always dreaming of ways to bring our shows to audiences in more parts of the world. We will keep you posted as the stars align for future projects!

MM: What is coming up next for you and are currently working on any new shows?

JW: Ideas are always brewing, but we do not have anything ready to be officially announced just yet…But stay tuned!

MM: If you could work on any show, in any space, where would you like to perform and what plot theme and setting would you most like to explore?

JW: There are so many avenues I would like to explore and spaces I dream about. Trains, ivy covered estates, ocean front campgrounds, caverns, cobblestone streets and well-kept secret spaces. I hope that a work of immersive theater for the theater such as “Ghost Light” has the potential to travel and reach more audiences around the country. Adapting the show and drawing upon the stories and distinct qualities of each new theater would be a wonderful way to devote my creative energy for a while.

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