Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
Audience members were haunted by a particular spirit, for example, during “Hollow Moon,” Vigilance Theater Group’s 2018 debut work.
“People, especially during our beta tests, had so many questions about who is this spirit, why is she here,” says Renee Rabenold, Vigilance Theater Group’s director.
Vigilance Theater Group — consisting of Rabenold, Sean Collier, Ariella Furman and Dana Custer — answers those questions and explores this spirit’s world in “Welcome to Moonside,” a new, immersive theater experience that transforms the former Lava Lounge space into an otherworldly, mystical, neon place.
“Welcome to Moonside” runs Thursdays through Sundays between Aug. 22-Sept. 8. Nine characters will guide you through their world with one-on-one conversations and traditional scenes. Earth is rotting, spirits are disappearing and no one can remember how to make things better. Some of the spirits think you can help; some think you’ll destroy Moonside. Audience members and the Moonside spirits must team up in order to save both Earth and Moonside.
After writing the script and securing funding, Vigilance found Moonside’s home in the Lava Lounge, which closed in 2016.
The bar’s interior has been largely untouched for the past three years, featuring the same volcano-inspired light fixtures and rock pits as when the bar was in its heyday. According to Sean Collier, who wrote “Hollow Moon” and “Welcome to Moonside,” the strange space already encompassed Moonside’s essence when they began working on the set.
“[It] was very fortunate for us because we were looking around for a long time for some space that we could make really odd and bizarre, and we just happened upon a space that was already odd and bizarre,” Collier says.
Although “Hollow Moon” viewers will have a better understanding of two characters who appear again in “Welcome to Moonside,” new Vigilance viewers will still understand Moonside’s happenings.
“The story of ‘Welcome to Moonside’ has a beginning, middle and end that only has to do with what people are seeing on this night,” Collier says.
According to Collier, the two productions are connected, but function kind of like the Marvel Universe.
“You’ll get more out of Ant Man if you know about Captain America and Iron Man, but there’s no reason that you had to have seen those first,” he says.
Like “Hollow Moon,” the tone of “Welcome to Moonside” is a bit on the darker side, but not enough to give you nightmares, Collier says.
“We are trying to make you a little creeped out,” he says. “We are not trying to traumatize you.”
Audience members should not be afraid to interact with characters and each other. Doing so only enriches an audience member’s time in Moonside. However, this particular production functions like a videogame: you can participate enough to complete the main mission—the main plot— or you can only focus on the side quests — hanging out with one character throughout the entirety of the show. The level of involvement is yours to choose, and your experience in “Welcome to Moonside” will be different each time because of it.
“Welcome to Moonside” has an improvisational aspect thanks to the audience’s ability to talk directly to characters. According to Rabenold, although the main plot points are set, actors must know their characters fully in order to answer any questions the audience members ask them.
“It’s a lot of observation and listening. So it’s working with the actors to establish their characters. How do you feel about everything in this world? How do you feel about the other characters? How are you going to feel about the human visitors? And then expanding on how are you going to listen to what the patrons have to say and use that to bring them in and notice how they’re feeling in this space,” she says.
Collier says there’s information in the script that actors can use when talking to audience members.
“When you feel it’s appropriate and you know someone is an audience member and is chatting with you enough that you feel they’ve maybe earned a little bit more of your time and attention, here’s something to tell them,” he says.
But, coming up with characterization is a team effort, he says.
“I can tell them a little bit about who their characters are and what they do but the details are ultimately up to them and that’s that’s always really interesting to see what they bring to what we’ve kind of created together,” he says.
Collier sees these shows as a trilogy, with Vigilance’s next work expanding upon one particular character’s journey from “Hollow Moon” and “Welcome to Moonside.” Although he’s not sure what form it will take, it will encompass a new plot that is once again accessible to old and new Vigilance viewers.
“There will be something that you [won’t] know if you’ve never seen one of our shows before you can still follow along,” he says.
Seeing a piece of immersive theater can leave you jarred, vulnerable and unsettled, but also bonded with the rest of the audience members. Rabenold says that’s the beauty of it.
“That’s why immersive is so cool. It’s taking all of these social skills that we use and we have to use them right now,” she says. “Theater has [the art of communication] but immersive theater is in action: You’re seeing the communication work being done. And that to me is just very exciting.”