Immersive Theater is Still Cool
BY Victoria Spencer — October 18, 2021

On May 20, 2015, thirty-three-year-old musician and playwright Andrew Hoepfner launched a project on Kickstarter called Houseworld. His idea was an immersive theater performance that felt like a lucid dream, showcasing a cast of characters that each represented an aspect of the human mind. Guests entered the House one by one and interacted with the characters—an angry chef, an old man soaking in a bathtub, a young woman sobbing in a black gown, among others—playing games and holding often intense conversations. In one scene, a character holds a séance in which participants discuss their relationships with their mothers. In another, guests wander downstairs to a creepy basement to read a book to a monster. New York magazine put the performance on its list of Critic’s Picks. Gawker called it “the best theater in NYC.” The show closed in November—and Hoepfner emerged nearly $20,000 in debt.

“I feel like immersive theater … has a certain stigma,” Hoepfner says when asked about his interest in the medium. It can feel cheesy, or too personal. He remembers wanting to see Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s immersive theater performance based on Macbeth. None of his friends wanted to go with him. When he finally went, he felt like the performance gave him permission to “exist in a different way.” Stigma or no, immersive theater invites a new kind of self-expression. Surrounded by actors, people can explore parts of their personalities that they don’t normally show to the public.

Houseworld came from a desire to create something similar to Sleep No More, and it was fleshed out over a series of lunchtime discussions and beer-fueled brainstorms between Hoepfner and his neighbor, Mike Campbell. At the time, Hoepfner lived in a mansion in Flatbush, Brooklyn, which used to house the pastor of the Flatbush Reformed Church, the oldest church in Brooklyn. For a while, the building’s owners rented rooms out to tenants. Residents left one by one and were never replaced. Hoepfner had the place to himself and a bunch of empty rooms to do with what he wished: “They had a year-long experiment where there were tenants in it. And when that experiment started to fail, I filled this empty house with these scenes.”

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As the idea grew, Hoepfner and Campbell needed a more permanent venue (in Hoepfner’s words, he was being “somewhat evicted” from the mansion). At the time, Hoepfner, who had been a touring musician for years, was working as an organist at the San Damiano Mission in Williamsburg to pay his rent. After many failed site visits to performance spaces throughout Brooklyn, Hoepfner did something somewhat out of character for him: He decided to mix his professional and personal projects. He launched Houseworld in the same space where he plays the organ at Sunday mass.

The project was largely funded by Hoepfner’s friends, and this, combined with Heopfner’s personal connection to the venue, gave the project a homey, low-fi quality that the audience loved.“I think that the things that make Houseworld work and [make it] special are the inspiration and the love behind the ideas,” Hoepfner says. In the small rooms, winding basement, and chapel next door, he saw participants brought to tears by the interactions they had inside the House. “It always seemed like the good kind of crying, like people released some sort of emotion or some memory that they haven’t talked about in a while, and have some sort of a breakthrough or catharsis.” One guest was so stirred by the experience that she kissed Hoepfner—who was dressed in a blue full-body suit to play the character of the Sky—on the mouth. He says he saw guests develop crushes on the Sky several times. “I’ve always wondered: Can they tell it’s me, and do they like Houseworld, so they wanted to kiss the creator? Or was there something else about this strange Sky-being that they liked?”

Doubtless, there was something about Houseworld, and that still exists around immersive theater in general, that brings out an audience’s feisty side. In a 2015 interview with VICE, Hoepfner says: “We like the idea that you can give someone the chance to explore their dark side, be that dark character, and leave without any consequences.” One character in Houseworld, for example, hates loud noises. He spends much of the performance next door to a room filled with balloons. Whether to honor his request for quiet is left up to the participants.

For Hoepfner, Houseworld didn’t bring out his dark side as much as his artistic side. Though he has been a musician for years, playing in indie bands Creaky Boards and Darwin Deez, Hoepfner’s music is largely unknown outside of New York. After years of feeling too old to go to rock shows anymore, Houseworld gave him a sense of credibility in the art world that he didn’t feel like he had before: “The magical thing about Houseworld for me is Houseworld has allowed me to become an artist in my thirties, which is what I really wanted, and I feel like it’s really difficult to do that as a musician.”

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On his Kickstarter page, Hoepfner calls Houseworld a game, a performance, and a therapy. The show didn’t give Hoepfner financial success, but it gave him a chance to finally feel like an artist. It also inspired participants to look inward. In the light of other, better known immersive theater performances, Houseworld achieved a uniquely cool status in its underground community. It didn’t feel cheesy—it felt authentic and progressive.

“It feels new, and this is what I can’t figure out, and I think it has to do with intimacy,” Hoepfner says. “So much of what happens in Houseworld could have happened in ancient Greece: a room where you get your hands washed, a room where you have to cut bread and you get yelled at. This is not new technology, so why hasn’t this stuff been exhausted [already]?” He wonders if all the technology that surrounds us creates a thirst for close human interaction, something Houseworld, and similar experiences, provide.

Hoepfner is saving funds for Houseworld’s 2016 iteration, which he hopes will grow even further out of the underground community in which it got its roots. Still, he is certain that the foundation of the event—inspiration and love—will remain.