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'Houseworld' Raises the Roof of Immersive Theater

We met Andrew Hoepfner, the mastermind behind the otherworldly experience that explores new frontiers of performance, music, and the human psyche.

Joe Crow Ryan as the Bathtub Guru in 'Houseworld' in 2015

Perhaps the most creative task for New York City's creative class is affording to live in this big-ticket city. Odd jobs can lead to unexpected artistic pursuits and equally rare living situations. Andrew Hoepfner, the 33-year-old musician of Give to Light and Darwin Deez, has made ends meet with the money he's earned from playing the organ in Brooklyn churches. Through his church connections, Hoepfner was invited to live in an enormous parsonage house that was occasionally rented to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire for filming. Hoepfner, too, saw the potential to create worlds in his home, and inspired by the immersive theater format of Sleep No More, transcendental meditation, old computer games, and the human psyche, he converted the house into a surreal theater experience called Houseworld.


Somebody has the key to the attic, but who and how to get it? Audience members wander the house encountering "residents," who engage them with activities, games, portraits, monsters, or shots of whisky. The Bathtub Guru, played by musician and G-train subway platform performer Joe Crow Ryan, sits in the tub and dispenses clues and red herrings. The man with sensitive ears, Nevins (played by Jason Trachtenberg of the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow players), will teach you his much-loved board game called "picnic," in which the rules are never explained and the only way to learn is by playing—kind of like life, or Houseworld itself. The cook (Salvatore Musumeci) is angry, but if you say the right thing, he'll give you a beer. Haunting folk singer Larkin Grimm sings a cheery death song on the harmonium as the murderous Amaya. Sound healer and musician Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith's daughter, plays the Angel of Peace and Light. Each character represents a different emotion, and though the vibe is mainly whimsical, the intimacy of the experience can get intense. The Best Friend character offers a chill reprieve, an always-available pizza, and video game-fueled escape zone.

Watch an exclusive video of 'Houseworld' :

Many people who see Houseworld want to get involved, and many former audience members have become future cast members as the performance continues to evolve and shift shape. This happened to me. After seeing Houseworld in February, I asked Hoepfner if I could participate, and he invited me sit in as the Best Friend at a performance two weeks ago. I knew Hoepfner and a chunk of the cast from the Sidewalk Café/Antifolk music community and was delighted to encounter so many talented artists from the scene engaging in an innovative collaboration of this scale.


This interview took place earlier this week, when Andrew and I met at my house to talk, just days before the end of his Kickstarter campaign. Though he's reached his $30,000 goal, donating to the Kickstarter is currently the only way to reserve season two tickets.

VICE: How do you see Houseworld in the context of your own life? What journey brought you from Andrew Hoepfner, the musician, to Andrew Hoepfner, the immersive-theater mastermind?
Andrew Hoepfner: If Houseworld was a reaction to anything, it was being bored and jaded about shows at clubs, bars, and outdoor festivals—those limiting ways that music is expressed. My first idea for Houseworld was a very precisely staged show in the living room, a music concert, but very different from a club. With birdbaths, a harp, the sun pouring in from windows, and everyone wearing white robes—and all the songs designed to communicate a feeling of peace and relaxation, right? That was my first idea, of like, Wouldn't that be such a nice change from having to go play this bar? And then you go up to my room and somebody sings you a song, just you and them. And then you go down in the basement, and there's a monster in the basement. And then it wasn't about the concert at all.

How is Houseworld different from Sleep No More?
When I attended Sleep No More, I was immediately in love. It was like discovering a new medium. I think of it like going to see The Jazz Singer in 1927, and thinking, "Oh! Movies! We can tell stories through movies! I could make a movie!"


I stopped taking vacations. Whenever Houseworld happened, I thought, This is like going to my favorite city.

You invested your own money in the first season of Houseworld. How much money did you spend?
It cost between $5,000 and $6,000 to put on the first six performances. There was also probably $1,500 or $2,000 from the pockets of other cast members. Now I've spent around $8,700.

As a music teacher and musician living in Brooklyn, that's quite a personal expense. How did you make the decision to self-fund it like that?
I don't earn a lot of money, but I'm pretty good with money. I don't have a pet, I don't have a wife, I don't have a girlfriend, I don't have a baby, so I can just spend all my leisure money on Houseworld. I stopped taking vacations. Whenever Houseworld happened, I thought, This is like going to my favorite city. Rio de Janeiro is a place that I really love going. I've spent a lot of money to go there. And when I would do Houseworld, I would think, Well, that was just as good as buying a ticket to Rio. I went to Houseworld for a night.

Jesse Paris Smith as The Angel of Peace in 'Houseworld' in 2014

Could you tell me about how you got interested in transcendental meditation?
I became interested in meditation in general about five years ago. I listened to an audiobook of Catching the Big Fish_ by David Lynch_. It became my inspiration, kind of like a religious text to me. It brought me back to what I love the most about making art. I'd gotten into a place that I really didn't like with art, trying to figure out what production style and what genres people were interested in, trying to pick apart the details of what music is worth creating right now, and I started forcing myself to learn a lot about stuff that wasn't what I loved. In _Catching the Big Fish_, David Lynch talks about falling in love with the idea, and that really grabbed me. And because he was kind of preaching my artistic gospel to me through this audiobook, I became very interested in what fuels him. So I had to learn about transcendental meditation.


How did transcendental meditation inform Houseworld?
The meditation is described as improving the container of your awareness. So you're not going in to meditate to get ideas for Houseworld or whatever your project is, but you're improving your awareness container so when you go back into the world, it can start to receive those ideas. I found huge improvements in my artistic ideas and my relationships with people and my emotional state, so I'm kind of sold on transcendental meditation.

Speaking of the Bathtub Guru, meet New York subway performer Joe Crow Ryan:

I heard you describe Houseworld as "therapy in disguise." Could you talk about that?
When you go to a party, somebody might ask you, "How are you?" and you say, "I'm good, everything's fine," right? That's, like, a party conversation. But when you go to Houseworld, you're kind of welcome to say, "Actually, this part of my life isn't good, actually I have a sadness here," or, "Actually, I'm really angry," or, "Actually, I have this secret that I'm ashamed of," and so I started giving characters ways to give our audience permission to have those discussions.

How so?
For example, we have this character, Nevins, who loves playing this game. He might tell someone, "Sometimes people say that I'm irresponsible. And sometimes I feel guilty. Maybe I am a bad person. Do you ever feel irresponsible?" There's this idea that Nevins is maybe the father of the monster in the basement and that he's neglecting his son in order to play this game and not deal with the difficult issues. So he would prompt people to talk about neglect and irresponsibility and the guilt of that.


Then there's also Angela [Carlucci], who's the healer. The healer is prompted to go around and directly say, "If you're experiencing any pain, whether it's physical or whether it's emotional, you're welcome to bring that to me, and maybe I can offer you some peace."

Jenny Reed as The Wind in 'Houseworld' in 2015

While playing the Best Friend, I was visited by someone who is one of my best friends, and she is typically a very warm, generous person, but something about being in Houseworld made her a little bit more mischievous. I noticed that she was really embracing it. I was like, "Hey, do you like cards, you want to play a card game?" And she said, "Yeah sure," and she picked up the deck and she's like, "How 'bout 52 pickup?" and throws all the cards. It was shocking because she isn't someone who would ordinarily do that. Then she switched back into reality and said, "I'll help you clean it up." But for a moment she was kind of indulging this part of herself where she just wanted to mess around, which was cool.
I want Houseworld to be a place where people can go to darker, stranger places because it is a darker, stranger place. The character, Nevins, loves his game, but he has sensitive ears. So you can either delight him by playing the game, or you can torture him by being loud. 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.

Andrew Hoepfner in 2014

One of my favorite parts of Houseworld was when Jesse Paris Smith does this sound ceremony at the end of the play. It reminded me of yoga, where after doing all this activity, you just lie like a corpse on the floor. In New York, you get to see so many cool cultural performances, but then you get on the subway and it's hard to process the experience. Houseworld has that built into it. Jesse is a certified sound healer and Patti Smith's daughter. How did you get to work with her?
Jesse was born in Michigan, and she seeks out Michigan things. She found my old band Creaky Boards. We're all from Michigan. She started dating me for a little bit, then Mike Campbell, who is in the cast and a chief collaborator on the show. Mike told Jesse about the show, and she designed the sound-immersion ceremony for it. I love it. It's the closest I get to a spiritual ritual that resonates with me.


Jesse Paris Smith as The Angel of Peace in 'Houseworld' in 2015

How did you get to be so involved with churches? Are you religious? How have churches informed Houseworld?
I was raised Lutheran in Michigan, and started questioning it in my adolescence. Around then I became a non-Christian. But, as a consequence of my upbringing, I know how to play a hymn. And that's just been a valuable way for me to both earn money and kind of endear myself to these churches and get access to them as artistic spaces. When I was 19, I recorded my first solo album in a church, where I played music and was friends with the pastor. I had my drums in the basement, I slept there half the time, I ate the spaghetti and the peanut-butter crackers for my meals.

Now I have my fourth set of keys to my fourth church, which is beautiful, and almost always empty. I can go there and be loud, record, and even stage Houseworld. In the West, religion is becoming less and less popular so all these buildings are becoming neglected, so they're just empty most of the week. Because I have hymn skills and this religious background, I can't get away from these beautiful empty spaces. It's too good to pass up.

Andrew Hoepfner as The Greeter in 'Houseworld' in 2015

Probably the most interesting Kickstarter award is that for a $10,000 donation, the band DIIV will reenact your dream. How did that come about?
Zachary Cole Smith and I played together in Darwin Deez. He texted me that he heard I was doing a Kickstarter, and asked how he could contribute. He couldn't play a benefit show for us because of contracts with Governor's Ball and Webster Hall, and we had already had the idea that a Kickstarter reward would be reenacting someone's dream, so we decided his band would do that. That will happen in season two this fall.

Tell me about your own creative development. When did you start playing music and how did you end up in New York?
I fell in love with the piano when I was five or almost six. My sister started piano lessons and I was so jealous of her. When she would walk away from the piano, I would sit down at the book and try to decipher it until I'd earned myself the right to get lessons too, even though the piano teacher thought I was too young. I followed that path and joined rock bands, and I eventually moved to New York City because I love the creativity here.

My reason for moving to New York is actually kind of a Houseworld reason. When I would walk down a street, I'd want to go into every storefront and see around every corner. What's in the back of this club? What's in this store? In Michigan, where I'm from, I didn't feel that way. In Michigan, I'd walk down the street and I'd think, "I'm not interested in what's behind any of these doors. I'm bored. I'm restless." So I moved to New York because I wanted to see what's in these buildings, what's behind these doors, and that's kind of a Houseworld feeling.

Season Two of Houseworld premieres this fall. The Kickstarter to fund it ends Friday.

Deenah Vollmer is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.