What Is Theater? That and Other Questions Are Plumbed at The Watering Hole
Signature's new immersive installation invites you to dip your toe into theater again.
It was on one of the hottest days of the year so far that I walked down 42nd Street toward the Pershing Square Signature Center to see The Watering Hole, a new immersive collaborative work conceived by Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon, but a work by Nottage that had "water" in the title seemed like it was worth braving the heat for.
It turns out that The Watering Hole not only refreshed me, but got me thinking about what theater is, or can be. After a year of streaming taped productions, and watching Zoom-adapted works, many of us have had our fill of "screen theater." The Watering Hole is also a reaction to the pandemic — there are no live actors, but there are many recorded voices and videos; audiences are small; masks are worn — but at least it gets us somewhere, into a gathering place with others who have come to share an experience.
Is that what theater is? It's one of the questions I asked myself as I made my way through the first of the show's 10 installations (shimmery blue rivulets on the floor symbolize the flow from one section to the next, with each group of four audience members led by an individual guide). The main lobby, a large communal area where theatergoers congregated in pre-Covid days, has been transformed into an impressive oceanlike space where three ships sail in "This Room Is a Broken Heart," created by Vanessa German and Haruna Lee. The hulls of two of the ships are barnacled with questions and quotations that prod us to think about the gratitude we show each other and about whether the theater is a safe harbor for everyone.
The "stream" carries us through the theater's hallways, stages, and backstages in a strangely disorienting journey (I found myself frequently losing my bearings amid Amith Chandrashaker and Janak Jha's otherworldly lighting). The impressive and moving "Wings and Rings," created by Emmie Finckel, Ryan J. Haddad, and Riccardo Hernández, takes place in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, which has been flooded to simulate a swimming pool. A large screen shows a film of Haddad, who is disabled, swimming laps as he describes his experiences with water, including a near-drowning at a water park.
Audiences are then guided through blue-lit back hallways and corridors to other rooms that are usually off-limits to audiences. In a dressing room, "Ebb & Flow", created by Miranda Haymon and Christina Anderson, asks us if our experience there with a TV and a foot piano keyboard (which you can play if you want) could be part of a new paradigm for theater.
Maybe. But other segments of the show might incline you to say yes. "Freequency," created by Christina Anderson and Justin Ellington, seats the audience on the venue's largest stage, the Diamond, looking out on the rows of seats blanketed by enormous white sheets that act as a screen for a visual meditation. It's the most breathtaking of the installations, with Kenita Miller's soothing voice telling us, "You are the experience," suggesting that theater isn't necessarily this place outside that you come to; it is you.
However you define theater for yourself, something The Watering Hole encourages you to do is think about why theater as we have come to know it often feels like an exclusive club and not like a safe, welcoming place for everyone. What will it take for that to change? I was asking myself that as I walked back out onto 42nd Street and an approaching storm broke the heat over New York City with a light summer rain.