"On Spiritual Experience" by Savannah Reich
I’ve often said that film is about watching something that happens to the characters, while theater is something that happens to you. This is the luxury of live performance; we are not just passive watchers, and if things go very, very right, I will not forget myself in it, but will be deeply present in the room where something extraordinary happens. Adriano Shaplin’s “Spiritual Experience” offers a highly concentrated version of this idea, of theater as not just a story, but the personal experience of having this story told specifically to you. Each $200 ticket delivers two seats, the only two seats in the space. The show is served directly to the two audience members like an exquisite six course meal. As with a chef’s tasting menu in a high end restaurant, I sat down with no idea what was coming next, but hoping to experience something thoughtful and new.
What comes next is a little over an hour of intense, delicious precision. The space in which the two audience members watch the show is carefully designed to keep us feeling comfortable and safe while it psychedelically transforms dozens of times. Performances by Severin Blake, Annie Wilson, and the author are finely keyed into both a deep weirdness and a familiar intimacy, a kind of knowing wink at the audience that silently asks, did you know you’re not the only one who feels this way? Director Becky Wright serves up an immersive experience including smells of incense and soap, a constant mesmerizing soundscape, and visuals that feel like an embarrassment of riches for only two people. There is a constant sense of entering an ancient palace, a secret penthouse apartment, a holy crypt- something which should probably be overrun with hundreds of tourists, but at the moment, is open to only you.
I thought a lot about the idea of “perfection” while watching this show, which infuses the text as well as the production. The story takes the shape of a lifetime of searching for answers, a kind of Siddhartha released from any specific time or place. At times it felt like the narrative was approaching the deepest truths of life- or really, reminding me of those times in my life when I thought I was approaching them. Those moments of overwhelming love, of intense work, of being seen and admired for my art, where I thought, this is it- this is how we experience our one precious life in the truest way possible. This is how I should always feel. This is how I will always feel. But in this story, as in real life, those moments slip away, prove unsustainable, and ultimately come to feel a little bit ridiculous. The show asks, urgently and without providing answers, why can’t we stay forever on those mountaintops? Were any of them really the answer? Is the searching itself the problem? Is it the solution? Will this one be my last?
I think perhaps that all theater should either be free, or cost at least $200. I strongly believe in theater as a shared community experience, accessible to all, that exists in a similar cultural place to a religious service or small-town football game. I also strongly believe in the existence of work like this. This piece is not a big, welcoming church service; it’s a pilgrimage to a distant place, a labor of love and a true journey. It is not an everyday meal. It is spiritual fine dining, and it will feed you in a way that is exceedingly rare.
-Savannah Reich, playwright