The first article in a series on venues in New Orleans. Journalist, Amelia Parenteau interviews Wynn Thorn, the Artistic Director of the new immersive event space and black box theatre, Nostalgia Purgatory.
Amelia Parenteau: When did you found Nostalgia Purgatory?
Wynn Thorn: At the beginning of the summer . I moved to New Orleans in February. Actually to start this project.
Amelia: Have you had experience in other places, running or opening venues?
Wynn: Immersive design and spatial storytelling is what I do as an artist. When I moved to New Orleans, I was moving from Providence, Rhode Island, and I was doing a lot of work in the Boston scene, as well.
I did immersive experiences that had one or zero actors that you could walk through, that told a story. Like a scavenger hunt, but I’m rewarding people for their curiosity in a designed space. I’m hiding things, and every aspect of the room is designed by me, so you open drawers and find things.
Amelia: What does immersive theater mean to you?
Wynn: In my opinion, as an immersive designer, immersive theater is creating a scenario where the audience feels like an integral participating component of the telling of a story. It is because you are there that the story gets told.
Amelia: You’ve mentioned curiosity as a motivator for your interaction with your audience members. Can you elaborate why that is essential to your work?
Wynn: I think people naturally like to rummage through things, and I’m interested in multi-sensory manipulation. Not only objects and atmospheres, but also sounds and possibly smells, any way we can direct the audience without an actor. I think that’s why I come back to curiosity, because when you leave somebody in a room, everything that they experience is self-directed, rather than while you’re watching traditional theater on a stage, the actors, the narrator, or the progression of a linear story, it directs for you. When you’re alone, you direct yourself.
I want people to walk into the spaces we created and feel like they’re really taken out of reality.
Amelia: For how long has immersive theater been a passion of yours?
Wynn: A really long time. I have always been fascinated by theme parks, and when immersive theater came into my field of view for the first time, I realized that was a more straightforward way of doing what I admired certain theme parks for, creating worlds through your sensory manipulation.
Amelia: What was your primary motivation for deciding to open a venue?
Wynn: We wanted to open something that was experimental, part-way between immersive theater and an escape room venue. My business partner, Chris Szeto, owns the property, and we thought this would be an interesting artistic pursuit. Escape rooms are a new and developing form of entertainment, so we want to try to do something like storytelling through spatial design. We are slowly building out rooms in our location, which is a block over from Oak Street, and room by room, over the course of the next couple years, we will review different types of stories and different themes. There will be some elements of puzzles and entertainment like escape rooms have, but we are also planning on hiring actors, and there will be actor-player interactions in the space. And we are going to be a venue for traveling and local shows as well.
Amelia: Can you tell me about the first room that will be completed?
Wynn: It’s a Belle Epoque theme, so an 1890s kind of mystery, that’s ingrained with New Orleans history, specific, local, Carrollton history.
Amelia: How do you conduct your research for work like that?
Wynn: I have friends in town that are historians or their families have been here for so long that they just seem to know. I also go to libraries, and research libraries. I like to look at primary source materials, because it informs the objects I create to put in the space. If I’m going to write a letter, I’m going to take a look at some letters; if I’m going to import a photo, it may as well be a true photo.
Amelia: It feels like time travel.
Wynn: Time travel is definitely something I think about a lot. I want people to walk into the spaces we created and feel like they’re really taken out of reality.
Amelia: Once the escape room element is fully realized, will you continue to be a presenting venue for other shows, or will you transition to only presenting work you’re producing yourself?
Wynn: We are keeping one room open for shows that are traveling through or local, that’s like a blank slate, black box theater. However, the way we’re designing some of our rooms, they make good environments, like ready-made environments if someone wants to have a show in them, as is.
Amelia: In terms of the work you’re bringing in from outside, how does that process work? Are you seeking things out or are you letting shows come to you, or is it a combination of both?
Wynn: Right now, it’s shows coming to us, and the email is firstname.lastname@example.org. When we launch our website, we plan on having a formal application, but for now, it’s as simple as emailing your idea, and we will work together on a plan.
So far, we have worked with the horror film festival, Overlook, to present All of Them Witches, an immersive game, before the Broken Bone Bathtub show. Broken Bone Bathtub is Siobhan O’Laughlin’s traveling show, which she’s been doing for about 5 years now [presented in June 2019].
Amelia: Let’s say a year from now, what would success look like for Nostalgia Purgatory?
Wynn: We would have the first floor running. On the first floor, we hope that we have 2-3 storylines for people to go through and explore. Success I think would also look like having an immersive installation art bar as well, that serves as the waiting room.
Amelia: How do you see your venue in conversation with the larger theater scene that does exist here?
Wynn: I think a lot of people are engaged with the traditional theater scene, and a lot of people are interested in the immersive, and they’re a lot of the same people. I would like people who are involved in the theater scene to reach out to us if they have an idea for an immersive show, or if they want to use our space for some reason. I am always looking for collaboration. We definitely need to know, and become part of what is going on in that scene in New Orleans, because we’re so new.
8131 Plum Street
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