When Grayson Morris was working on a press kit for her interactive art series, emersion, a friend advised her not to use the words “immersive theater.” That genre has, apparently, become passé in many cities. Happily, it’s still relatively new to Asheville. And, “My thing isn’t theater-theater. It’s site-specific performance art,” Morris points out. “I chose the word ‘emersion,’ with an ‘e,’ which means ‘an emergence,’ because the show emerges out of the space.”
On Friday and Saturday, July 13 and 14, Morris’ semiannual project returns with emersion presents: half-light, taking place in the woods near Asheville at dusk. Unlike previous emersion experiences, which offered multiple viewings per evening, there is only one show each night so that participants experience the day-to-dark transition while in nature.
Morris doesn’t want to give much away — the unexpected scenario set up by her emersion events is what makes them so powerful. But past emersions included a futuristic world, created inside Downtown Books & News, where showgoers took on the roles of alien anthropologists studying the remnants of the extinct human race while moving through various stations in the bookstore setting. At one stop, attendees could have a “work experience,” stamping books with a stamp that had run out of ink. At another, strangers were encouraged to perform dramatic readings of a series of inane emails. It was funny, but also disconcerting.
Morris developed the emersion concept after hearing about Sleep No More, a site-specific work in New York City based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “I’m going to create a series of worlds in my house that people can walk through,” Morris remembers telling herself. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t even seen immersive theater and I was doing this cool thing.”
The house in question, a two-story at the edge of Montford, provided a walk-through exhibition of sights and sounds. At one emersion, a performer in white perched on a ladder and asked attendees to name a good deed they’d done that week. In another room, showgoers sat in a chair and watched a video of a stranger sitting in the same chair. Then, in the final moments, the video changed to a recording of said showgoer squirming or looking around in “Now what?” uncertainty. At the final stop, in the backyard, a group of African-Americans sat around a picnic table, sharing a beer and talking candidly about the experience of being black. White viewers could watch from a circle of chairs on the periphery, but not contribute to the conversation.
These days, the house, though still owned by Morris (she bought it as a college student, back when such a thing was possible in Asheville), is occupied by her friends, making it unavailable for emersion events. The restriction led to creative problem solving: the upcoming emersion in the woods.
These day, Morris is based in Los Angeles. She visited that locale while on a road trip, and “When I drove into the city I was like, ‘Holy shit, I have to live here.’ It was visceral,” she says. “In LA, you can be whatever you want. … In LA, people believe they can make it.”
Though known in Asheville for her work as a comedian, it’s theatrical clowning that is Morris’ current passion. But while there are creative career opportunities in LA, “it’s really hard to produce [an emersion] here, because I don’t have the resources and I don’t know all the people and places,” she says. But, “If I don’t stay in my practice with creating, I’ll doubt myself and I’ll doubt my identity as an immersive theatermaker. … It helps me with my attitude to keep producing, even if I’m scared.”
The desire to continue the project aligned with a vision to “to do something cool in the woods.” Initially, Morris imagined a small performance in the urban forest located between the Five Points neighborhood and UNC Asheville, but then a friend’s land became available.
“I always hope to create something other than your everyday life, like the experience of a different world,” Morris says of emersion. “I really like to make people feel connected to the earth, connected to each other and have a sense of hope that we can create the world that we want to live in.”
From futuristic bookstores and puppet shows-within-a-show to being fed grapes by a burlesque artist and, now, entering a twilit forest, emersion offers a little discomfort, a lot of imagination, and — perhaps best of all — a sense of possibility.
WHAT: emersion presents: half-light
WHERE: In Leicester, 30 minutes outside Asheville. Location and directions will be provided to advance ticket holders
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, July 13 and 14, 8:30 p.m. $15. Tickets are likely to sell out in advance. halflight.brownpapertickets.com