A Partygoer’s Love Letter to “Southern Gothic”
Photo Credit: Andrea Klohn
Recently I’ve been really missing the stage. It’s almost like being homesick when you’re little and off to a sleepaway trip for the first time. You’re grateful to be where you are, but missing the familiarity you’re used to. The last few months I’ve had that heartachy feeling about theater. I just really miss being part of it.
Enter Southern Gothic at Windy City Playhouse.
It’s an immersive theatrical experience where audience members are guests of the Courtier family in Ashford, Georgia in 1961. You’re invited, along with up to 30 others, to attend the 40th birthday party of Suzanne Wellington. Actors perform the script all around you all over the Courtier home.
You can’t hear the entire script from anywhere in the house.
I’d been dying to see it. There is something about well-crafted immersive theater that is so alluring to me as an audience member. I’ve had opportunities to experience immersive art before, but not to this magnitude. There is an intimacy so few audiences have the chance to experience in any performance.
There is an entire house on stage for crying out loud! You’re actually in a house, drinking Tom Collins and champagne, eating crackers and being a fly on the wall. And, as flies, we only see and hear what is close enough to see and hear.
My husband and I did not see the same show. The lady to my right for most of the show and I did not see the same show. No one sees the same show.
When we talk about art imitating life and flip that on its head so the art is extraordinarily reflective of life, it makes the conversation a lot more interesting. Southern Gothic is a messy exploration of human relationships. It’s one thing to hear Stanley Kowalski cry out “Stella!” and a whole other thing to be standing literally inches from an enraged husband spewing venom at his wife. There really is no way to artificially create the sense of discomfort in that moment.
Everything is real.
Open the cabinets, there are dishes. There’s an actual bathroom, a coat closet, working lamps and light switches. There is a reality shrouded in theatricality that is unnervingly addictive.
For the first time as an audience member I was acutely aware of the space I was in. While usually I’m aware of the space amongst the crowd – don’t take up both arm rests, don’t accidentally kick the chair in front of you, etc. – it’s a much different feeling to be aware of where you are in the scene. It’s like being an actor without blocking. It’s scary, but exhilarating.
Southern Gothic gave me a breath of fresh, performative air. The kind of evening my heart had been craving. A chance to feel like I was once again part of the ensemble and not just another set of eyes in the darkness.
To put it plainly, Southern Gothic swept me off my feet.