TheaterWorks tells a virtual campfire story in a real-life haunted house

·5 min read

TheaterWorks Hartford had to postpone its live season opener and has substituted a Halloween-ready live online show, “Someone Else’s House.” Created and performed by Jared Mezzocchi, each performance is live, with viewers getting sent little boxes of stuff that become clues to the haunted house mystery.

“Someone Else’s House” was created and is performed byMezzocchi, an acknowledged innovator in the technical aspects of online theater, a field that did exist before COVID but exploded during it. He was a pivotal part of the political comedy “Russian Troll Farm” by Sarah Gancher, which TheaterWorks co-produced just before the U.S presidential election last year and which landed on national top ten lists as one of the best theater shows of the year

Mezzocchi has a deep connection to the story he brings in “Someone Else’s House.” It happened in a house that has been in his family for generations, and he actually performs it from within the house. “Someone Else’s House” reunites him with his “Russian Troll Farm” collaborator Elizabeth Williamson, former associate artistic director of Hartford Stage, whose credit here is creative producer. Margaret Bordelon, a 2013 graduate of the Yale (now Geffen) School of Drama, directs.

The show premiered in May at the Geffen Playhouse in California.

The Courant spoke to Mezzocchi and Williamson about how no two performances of “Someone Else’s House” are the same, how the show “tours” without leaving the house, and how TheaterWorks is adding its own live elements to the Hartford run.

Mezzocchi: The house is from my family’s past. My mom would tell it at Halloween around a campfire. It’s a significant event for my family. I’ve been sharing it with people since I was a kid. So many people I’ve told it to over the years are psyched to hear it again. It’s a real story, but it asks a bigger question: Who owns what when you die?

Last year I thought ‘I should really look into this,’ and did a lot of research. That research is all new. We had some ghost hunters come to the opening of it [in L.A.] and they posted verifications after it. That’s better than getting a good review, in a way.

It’s me telling a story from a remote location, to an audience that can’t be with me. If it were onstage, it would feel irrevocably manufactured.

Williamson: It becomes actually scarier because it’s live. If he’s in danger, he can only see what the camera lets us see.

Mezzocchi: If you’re talking to someone on the internet, there’s nothing you can do. The viewer can not help that person. There’s a lot that’s different than it would be in a theater. A blackout, in the theater, doesn’t mean a lost connection. The importance of walking through the lobby after a show was a blind spot for me — how do we take a collective breath when a show is over? Also, the show is already built; how do you tour something that doesn’t need to physically move?

We’re using theater tools to tell a story in a new format. This has a campfire feel — what does it mean to gather around a campfire? The audience isn’t just solo feeds. People are having dinner parties to watch it. In June or July, when people started coming together again, I was able to witness that in real time. For TheaterWorks, there have been subtle changes based on concepts we had. They’re innocuous yet impactful. There are a few sections we’re tweaking for clarity. That’s where Elizabeth’s eye is so important.

Williamson: Starting with ‘Russian Troll Farm,’ Jared was digging into more experiments than I was.

Mezzocchi: That’s why I love Elizabeth, and Margaret [Bordelon, the director]. They’re storytellers. We’re all married to our commitment to liveness. A lot of [virtual] work out there was just focusing on the text.

This show is always performed live. At the Geffen, I did it for five or six performances a week, sometimes twice a night. I participate with the audience. I have to lean on them for certain pieces of information.

Williamson: What we’re also exploring is an ensemble model of producing. The technical staff and performers, the whole team, is putting together a show. How do we want that to work?

Mezzocchi: Everyone involved is sharing in the profits. I always wanted ViDCo to be a town hall, even though I’m the CEO. I want a democracy. We all contribute. We need to demolish that line between the cast and the crew.

Williamson: Something all theaters are struggling with is compensation, right? Coming back in person, how will that work now? This is very like those older ensemble theater companies, where everybody is included.

Mezzocchi: The goal is to broaden the conversation. I don’t want to demolish the venues, but I love this digital moment of last two years because it’s artist-centric.

It’s fun to tell the story and feel an audience. One night during the Geffen run, there was a light earthquake, and some people’s cameras started shaking. We thought it was the ghost. A dog walked through one night, and everyone laughed, because it was like ‘Oh, right, he sees us.’”

At the Geffen, everybody was asking why I was doing a ghost story in June. It did very well. But it’s fantastic that it’s happening for Halloween now. We are super excited that TheaterWorks is doing in-venue gatherings for this. Our culture knows how to do this, with the Super Bowl and other events. We’re excited to see how they do that.

“Someone Else’s House” runs Oct. 21-31. Virtual performances (each of them live) are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at noon and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m. TheaterWorks is also holding in-person viewing parties in its 233 Pearl St. space Oct. 22-24 and 29-31 at 8 p.m. $45-$60. twhartford.org.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.

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