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Go Inside a 1,000-Gallon Water Tank at Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique

Take a unique tour of Twist's show at HERE Arts Center.

The view from backstage as Basil Twist and a team of puppeteers perform Symphonie Fantastique in a 1,000-gallon water tank at HERE Arts Center.
(© David Gordon)

Twenty years ago, the puppet designer Basil Twist premiered his daring theatrical adaptation of Hector Berlioz's 1830 orchestral piece Symphonie Fantastique as the inauguration of the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre at HERE Arts Center. The piece is unlike anything you've ever seen, taking place in a 1,000-gallon water tank disguised as a puppet theater, where fabrics and objects swirl around creating a breathtaking world of color, timed precisely with Berlioz's music.

Basil Twist, in a harness, performs a portion of Symphonie Fantastique at HERE.
(© David Gordon)

In the ensuing two decades, Twist has become an internationally recognized artist and MacArthur Fellow. He's made octopus tentacles move for The Addams Family, brought Chairy and the other denizens of Pee Wee Herman's playhouse back to life, and sculpted a nightmare made of tunafish in Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's Oh, Hello on Broadway. And now, celebrating HERE's 25th anniversary, he's returned to his Symphonie, which runs through September 2.

This is what Symphonie Fantastique looks like from the audience's perspective:

(© Richard Termine)

Backstage, however, is a different story. Twist invited TheaterMania to watch the 55-minute performance from behind the scenes.

Two puppeteers hang suspended over the water tank during Symphonie Fantastique.
(© David Gordon)

At all times throughout the 55-minute performance, Twist and his fellow puppeteers — Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Rachael Shane, and swing Patrick Newton, who served as our guide — have to be perfectly in sync with each other and pianist Christopher O'Riley, who performs in front of the audience, and whose work is pumped backstage via loudspeaker.

Pianist Christopher O'Riley performs the Franz Liszt transcription of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique nightly at HERE.
(© Richard Termine)

The production is a give-and-take of movement, as the performers, donning wetsuits, manipulate and control the fabrics, puppet creations, and various lighting sources, often while suspended over the tank of water itself:

(© David Gordon)

And the artists get wet. Soaking wet. But that was part of the fun, especially when they create an image like this one right in front of your eyes:

(© David Gordon)

Audience members wanting to have an experience similar to this one just need to stick around after the performance. Twist, who performs only on Saturday evenings, and his cast invite willing participants on a backstage tour once the show ends. It's an exciting end to a beautiful evening.

Backstage during a performance of Symphonie Fantastique at HERE.
(© David Gordon)
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