Putting on any play is challenging enough. A theater picks a script and sets a budget; chooses a director, actors and designers; spends several weeks rehearsing and marketing the production, then opens the show for what everyone hopes will be a successful run.
The Project [theatre], a Miami company whose newest work, Urban Apparel, opens Friday, does all of that. But artistic director David Hemphill and his colleagues have a much longer to-do list when they put on a show.
In this case, once they came up with their concept — a play set in a hipster boutique — they had to find an empty store, turn it into Urban Apparel (a riff on Urban Outfitters and American Apparel), make deals with designers and resale vendors for merchandise that such a place would sell. And they had to create a brand-new immersive theater piece, from scratch, in just a few weeks.
“A lot of our brand is designated by the venue,” says Jackie Rivera, one of the play’s coauthors and performers. “Our mantra is ‘venue first.’ We started by finding this great storefront space downtown ... then figured out what issues we wanted to tackle.”
Urban Apparel unfolds in a newly created boutique at Miami’s Ultramont Mall, 112 SE First St. The store opens an hour before each performance. It features a bar selling craft beers and wine, and theatergoers — or is it shoppers? — can buy the merchandise before, during and after the show.
Wearing another of her many hats, Rivera struck deals with Bashful Amy’s, Cabinet of Pretty Things, Heist Jewelry, Jewels and Mud, Katty’s Handcrafts, Moodring Boutique, StudStruck, Total Recall Vintage and Love Steady Arts for the jewelry, clothing, wall decor, prints and organic lip balms that Urban Apparel will carry during its fleeting two weeks of existence. She found the suppliers by visiting Etsy.com and looking through 450 pages of Miami-based artists. Those chosen will donate a percentage of sales to the theater company.
Urban Apparel the store exists, of course, because of Urban Apparel the play. The piece is another of The Project’s site-specific, immersive theater experiences, as were the earlier Beer Samplers: The Legend of Constance Lingus (a play about a stand-up comedian, set in a nightclub space created in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater) and Extended Stay (at the Riviera South Beach Hotel).
This time, the play follows the adventures and life crises of those who work at Urban Apparel. Joe Reaves, the owner and general manager, never appears in the flesh. Astrid (Gladys R. Benton) is the assistant manager who dreamed up the store’s concept and style. An employee who goes by the numeral 6 (Rivera) in lieu of a name is the store’s top salesperson. T’eb (Jeremiah Musgrove) creates displays and crushes on Astrid. And Morris (Marquise Rogers) is a new hire with a secret.
Hemphill, who created the script with the four actors, explains how Urban Apparel got from idea to play.
“We begin the rehearsal process with just four walls and truths about the characters,” says the director, who went to New World School of the Arts with Rivera and Benton.
“A lot is developed through structured improvisations, theater games and character improvisations. We learn what the scenes are, then I structure them into the play. The script acts as a guide, so we learn where the dramatic beats are. What we’ve grown into is feeling strongly about empowering actors and artists. The effort, especially on devised pieces, is so incredibly collaborative. It’s amazing to watch these four great storytellers, to watch their minds work and make connections.”
Working with a $10,000 budget, the company has received vital support from Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center and a two-year $25,000 Knight Arts Challenge matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Scott Shiller, the Arsht’s executive vice-president, is an enthusiast about the artists involved in The Project and its style of theater.
“I’m really engaged in moving forward with immersive theater, supporting local companies and these specific artists,” he says. “The old term ‘interactive theater’ has a negative connotation, the idea that the audience is pulled onto the stage and forced to participate. It’s cheesy. With immersive theater, you set the stage, create a vibe and a storytelling apparatus as you walk into the theater. The audience is being invited in to curate its own experience. ... You engage the audience in a new way of storytelling and tearing down walls.”
The 75 people who will be the “customers” at each performance of Urban Apparel skew younger than an average theater audience, from mid-20s to mid-30s. Rivera says that what The Project does offers something different to her contemporaries.
“When theater is gorgeous and ornate, it can be great, but it’s like having a museum experience,” she says. “But for non-typical theatergoers, there’s a thirst for a different way of looking at things...The audience really loves the adventure.”
Rivera and her fellow artists do too.
“There’s this feeling like you created something bigger than your role,” she says — in this case, a here-today, gone-in-two-weeks store.