The sullied, prehistoric creature opens up a mysterious wooden box with a large dial on top of it and places my pain inside it. I turn the dial, listening to the grinding as the box completes its purpose, my pain disintegrating. The creature comes to my side and pulls out a compartment from the bottom of the box where I see the remnants of my pain: black soot. I am asked to raise my left hand and choose my favorite finger, which the creature then guides into the soot. Gently, the creature takes my finger and slides it down its cheek, leaving behind a black, tear-like streak. Our eyes lock and the creature tells me that I am not my pain – that I am much more than the pain I inflict or has been inflicted on me. And with that, my pain is gone.
Bottom of the Ocean is the third full-scale project by Andrew Hoepfner, creator of Houseworld and co-creator of Whisperlodge, which is currently being workshopped at the Gymnopedie in Bushwick, Brooklyn. During this two hour immersive production, audiences of three are led through eight different rooms to experience one-on-one interactions with the inhabitants of the world, and to perform rituals with varying levels of contact. All actor-participant touch is light and can always be removed if a guest opts out and uses the safe word. However, the show’s main source of interactivity comes from you, the audience member, as you are asked to recall moments from your day, confess moments of pain, and relive childhood memories. The more honest and vulnerable you are, the more you will get out of the show, but the participation level is ultimately left up to each participant’s comfort level. The show ends with a sound bath, a general term for an experience of relaxation and transformation through sound and vibration, which uses several ASMR techniques. If a guest is sensitive to ASMR, Bottom of the Ocean can be quite a moving experience. Overall, Bottom of the Ocean is an experience which all guests can enjoy, but only the most open attendees can unload the burden of their mind and have a truly transformative experience.
At its heart, Bottom of the Ocean is a show about and for you, the audience member. In order to get to the bottom of the ocean, you must dive deep into yourself, through your many layers, to achieve peace and transformation. You must give a part of yourself in each room in order to be prepared and ready to enter the next room. There is no concrete plot, per se, but the more you participate and share, the more the actors have something to respond to, making each room specific and personalized. This show is about letting go of the pressures and distractions of the outside world so that you can ultimately focus on yourself and find peace within. You decide what memories you want to keep with you or discard on your journey, and you learn to be grateful for the things that make you laugh. Aside from the physical journey of exploring a new and mysterious space, you are taken on an emotional and spiritual journey deep within yourself.
Since Bottom of the Ocean is performed in the basement of an old church, the rooms may initially seem sparse, but the simple yet elegant set design truly transports participants into the unknown space. Each room stems from a piece of secondhand furniture, and whether that piece be a desk, bed, or tent filled with balloons, its slightly used appearance enhances the mood and immerses you in the strange universe you have just stepped into. The lighting is simple yet effective; spotlighting the person or item that deserves focus while keeping in shadows that which is unnecessary. Colored lights in different rooms evoke a variety of emotions and perfectly coincide with the ritual of the room. Your first induction into this world is a room filled with fog, white cloth, green light, and a man standing in the middle waiting for you. All of the aspects in this room come together in a way to make you feel safe and prepared for what’s to come. The fog indicates mystery and the cloudiness of our minds, the cloth adds a soft and calming texture to the room, and the green lights add intrigue yet are not meant to frighten you – but allows you to focus on the figure standing before you. The ambiance is intellectually designed and quite effective.
But it’s really a testament to the actors who keep and guide your focus and fully immerse you into this world as they lead you through each ritual. In a show as intimate as Bottom of the Ocean, a very caring and understanding cast is crucial. The three performers in Bottom of the Ocean make guests feel safe enough to open up to them, thus moving the participant forward. The standout of the show is Hoepfner, who performs one of the three roles in every performance. Since this is his show, he feels the most at home in the space and has a certain way of transferring that ease to you. During the performance I attended, Hoepfner played the role of the Siren, who is relegated to the call-and-response rooms. His smooth physicality, patient delivery, and calm demeanor puts you at ease in each of his rooms. Also, I must give a shout out to Chia Lynn Kwa, who has the more difficult role of the Confidant; her character is the one asking guests to be their most vulnerable and share secret memories with her. Kwa is quite endearing, yet never forceful in wanting an answer to her questions. Her improvisational skills to fill time in the memory room helped me feel grounded and protected.
One standout of the show is the incorporation of music throughout the piece. At times it felt as if I were in an immersive musical and my voice was needed to propel the show forward. In the first room you enter, you are asked to sing portions of a song back to the actor, which immediately forces you to forget the outside world and focus on the moment at hand. It sets the tone for the piece and prepares you for how dependent the show is on your participation. Another beautiful musical moment is after the sound bath, while you are guided to the final room: Hoepfner sings one of the most gorgeously soothing songs I have ever heard in an immersive show, one I truly wish I had a recording of to listen to every night before bed. It was a beautifully fitting ending to a beautifully moving show.
Since the performance of Bottom of the Ocean I attended was a workshop presentation, there are many aspects of the show that will change and grow as it evolves over the next two years. I must say, though, that this was quite an emotionally moving experience, especially if you allow yourself to open up and not judge yourself. What Hoepfner and his team do is so beautifully crafted and quite attuned to each guest’s needs. It’s one of those few shows where you feel safe and accepted the entire time. I’m excited to see the evolution of this show, and I’m curious to dive back down to the Bottom of the Ocean to see what other insights may lay there.