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The sights and sounds of Hell’s Kitchen provide a real-life backdrop for an innovative immersive theater experience, The Detour Series, playing out now on the streets of the neighborhood.
Rather than taking a seat in the auditorium, audience members follow a narrative journey while learning some of the hidden history of Hell’s Kitchen’s buildings, businesses and inhabitants as well as tackling the modern-day issues of living on the West Side.
A collaboration by off-Broadway mainstay Playwrights Horizons and audio theater repertory company The Parsnip Ship (in association with Business Lunch Productions) running through September 25, the series features two experiential audio plays — The Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen Presents: A Time Traveling Journey Through NYC’s Wild West written by Christin Eve Cato and West Side Quest written by Opalanietet.
The entire experience is free — just bring a phone and a pair of headphones to the exterior of the Playwrights Horizons building and scan a corresponding QR code. Audience members are then given a short set of instructions priming them for the journey ahead as well as story-integrated walking instructions to lead them along the way.
Iyvon E, Artistic Director of the Parsnip Ship and dramaturg for both projects, said the collaboration between the two organizations came about during the pandemic. “After theaters shut down, there was a lot of pivoting towards audio theater as a new form of engagement,” she said.
“I connected with Playwrights and specifically with Adam [Greenfield, Artistic Director] and after a few months of getting to know each other, Adam came to me and asked if we wanted to partner with them.”
For Alison Koch, Director of Digital Content at Playwrights Horizons, partnering with the Parsnip Ship was a no-brainer. “The Parsnip Ship has been in the business of audio theater well before anybody knew what a coronavirus was,” she said. “They knew that this was very specifically a tool and a medium to explore because it is intimate and delivers something totally different than the in-person experience or even a screen-based theater experience.”
“At the time, we didn’t know when theaters were coming back,” said Iyvon. “We talked about how to activate a space theatrically without needing to go inside.”
“I proposed to Adam: what about starting audio journeys that start and are activated outside of the Playwrights Horizons building and take you through Hell’s Kitchen? I also work at Signature Theatre, and I was thinking about how theatrical Hell’s Kitchen is. It’s a bit more authentically theatrical than Broadway down the block — there’s something about knowing that just outside of Playwrights there are people speaking Chinese, people speaking Spanish, people speaking myriad languages and everyone has a story to tell.”
Iyvon and the team at Playwrights settled on exploring Hell’s Kitchen because of its location as a neighborhood that many assume is simply an extension of greater Midtown. “We wanted to get people to reconnect with a neighborhood that we all love and that we’re always in, but maybe we actually don’t know that well,” she said.
The team started by recruiting playwrights Christin Eve Cato and Opalanietet, who they knew would bring identity-influenced points of view to the creation of two audio plays. “We were keen to work with playwrights who have very direct and specific links to New York City as a whole, and also to this neighborhood,” said Iyvon. “I reached out to Christin Eve Cato who was born and raised in the Bronx, because it’s always important to get people from the outer boroughs and their stories because those often don’t get centered. How do we bring the Bronx to Hell’s Kitchen and portray how someone from the Bronx feels about this neighborhood?”
Playwrights and the Parsnip Ship also contacted writer Opalanietet to bring an Indigenous perspective to West Side Quest. “His ancestry stewarded this land, and so it was very important for us to have that representation,” added Iyvon. “Hell‘s Kitchen wouldn’t be what it is without Indigenous folks.”
The artists walked the blocks of Hell’s Kitchen with Iyvon and the Playwrights team to blend their own memories of different West Side landmarks with Hell’s Kitchen history and a throughline narrative, she added. “These stories were born from walking around the neighborhood — being very observant and intentional and also meditative” as they pieced together two separate audio plays.
They also took care to craft a 360-degree sound design to replicate the all-sides sensory experience of the city itself. “You’re going to question, ‘is that horn that I just heard in the sound design or is that the horn of this garbage truck that just drove by?’” she laughed.
Getting the balance of all the technical elements, as well as ensuring that audience members are able to follow the progression, took significant time and experimentation, Alison explained: “We’re trying to give you the invisible hand that’s guiding you throughout, so you feel like you are going in the right direction without being told in the middle of the story. It’s a pretty spectacular feat of timing and guidance.” The team took care to ensure that the journey is accessible as possible, and can be enjoyed by audience members of different mobilities.
“We tried to make sure that it wasn’t the pace that I walk, which is that of a super fast New Yorker,” said Iyvon. “We wanted a pace in which people would lean into the story, and sometimes get lost in the story. We want to encourage wandering.”
What are the joys of taking the time to wander through Hell’s Kitchen to create the stories? Discovering hidden gems and new West Side hangouts, said Iyvon. Regularly heading west led to a Kobe beef spot and the Landmark Tavern, which ended up featuring in The Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen. “The Landmark Tavern might be haunted by a woman,” said Iyvon, “and when I would go over there, the audio would sometimes glitch. I’d always wonder, ‘Is that me?’ or is it something else? I always felt like I was being watched from above.”
Alison added that putting a close lens on the neighborhood for The Detour Series gave Hell’s Kitchen new meaning. “It’s easy to forget how residential Hell’s Kitchen is, and as you start to get farther west, I am always struck by how much calmness there is to it — it is beautiful and very much lived in. What I hope people discover is that this isn’t just a tourist trap — it’s a place with a soul.”
Both Iyvon and Alison hope that West Siders and visitors will dive into The Detour Series, leading to future site-specific audio projects that they can center around the neighborhood. “I think that there are myriad stories to be told,” said Iyvon. “We’d love to do one where you follow a delivery messenger, because I feel like they’ve seen some things.”
For now, they are excited to share the stories of the West Side — and New Yorkers — in a unique theatrical format. “Everyone has a story to tell, and I don’t think there will ever be a shortage,” said Iyvon. “We’re following people who call the West Side home, exploring what it means when you embody that by walking the same steps someone from 60 years ago who’s going to a protest — how does that change your perspective? It really is the concept, ‘walk a mile in my shoes.’”
Playwrights Horizons is at 416 W42nd Street (just west of 9th Avenue). Each piece will be available for three weeks (from September 1 to September 25). Free and fully accessible from each participant’s mobile device via a QR code.