Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Play Takes a Bushwick Warehouse Back to the 70s

“The Grand Paradise” is a sultry, multi-sensory performance set in a ‘70s tropical resort.
February 9, 2016, 4:50pm
Elizabeth Carena. Photograph by Third Rail Projects

There’s a lush, tropical paradise in a nondescript warehouse off the Jefferson Stop in Bushwick. Inside, beautiful people wait to welcome visitors with chili spiced sangria and flower garlands. There’s sand on the floor and sex in the air, but this is not Brooklyn’s newest surf-themed cocktail bar. This is The Grand Paradise, an immersive theater-dance experience from the fanciful and inventive artists of Third Rail Projects.

The Grand Paradise is set in the hazy, culturally liminal late 1970s, on the grounds of a sumptuous tropical resort. Its residents are lounge singers, mustachioed lifeguards, palm-reading disco queens, and satin-clad hustlers who roam the hotel’s beaches and grottos. Visitors duck off wind-swept Bushwick streets into an airport lounge resplendent with vinyl upholstery and Time magazines featuring Richard Nixon. Once guests “land” in their tropical destination, a sultry Siren invites them to explore the world of The Grand Paradise. What follows is a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style multisensory experience; the audience follows characters who pique their interests, weaving a bespoke narrative of love, loss, and longing.

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Tara O'Con. Photograph by Darial Sneed

Third Rail Projects, led by artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, also created Then She Fell, a critically-acclaimed, long-running immersive show based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and staged in an abandoned East Williamsburg parochial school. Their site-specific, experiential works range from intricate, evolving window displays to choreographed takeovers of corporate atriums. The company reimagines the ways audiences engage with art, and in The Grand Paradise, they are transporting visitors to a detailed, ethereal world and turning them loose to unravel its secrets.

“Something we talk about a lot is honoring the audience’s choices and what they bring to the show with them. We’re also pushing the envelope a little on people’s comfort zones,” Willett tells The Creators Project. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing! Some people may leave this piece feeling uncomfortable or experiencing thoughts that pose some questions. But I think that’s a big win. The experience isn’t laid out crystal clear. There’s something to walk away and stew over.”

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Roxanne Kidd. Photograph by Darial Sneed

The Grand Paradise is rich with the one-on-one performer interactions theatergoers seek out in shows like Sleep No More. But unlike that production, The Grand Paradise bestows every audience member with a degree of agency and the opportunity to steer intimate dialogues. Visitors engage in pillow fights, dance to Fleetwood Mac, choose costumes and perfumes, and have their palms read by performers, who read the room and react moment-to-moment.

“When someone’s there with you, responding to everything, it’s like being a standup comic who tells one joke and gets the entire audience to laugh. It’s empowering,” says Elizabeth Carena, Third Rail’s Managing Director, who originated the role of the Siren in The Grand Paradise. “But when you encounter someone who’s not really responding, or responding in subtle ways, and then hook them with one line or one moment, that’s remarkable.”

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Carlton Cyrus Ward and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. Photograph by Third Rail Projects

Third Rail Projects is exhaustive in its approach to site-specific work, and the company crafts physical environments as rich as its accompanying narratives. Visitors can play with a vintage Atari and witness a water show in a human-sized fish tank, details that up the allure of getting lost for a couple of hours in the world of The Grand Paradise.

“People want to be seen. There’s a big difference between seeing a play in a theater in a dark room and coming to an immersive piece,” Carena says. “It’s like virtual reality, in a way. You transport yourself to a new place and time and interact with new people. It feels like you’re playing a role, and I think people love that feeling. It’s an incredible escape.”

The Grand Paradise is running in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and tickets are on sale through March 31.

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