Stephanie Delazeri is a name you need to remember in immersive theater. A graduate from CalArts with a BFA in Experimental Animation, Delazeri caught the attention of JFI Productions when she drew The Willows in her iconic style. From there, she was brought on to assist in Awake and Haus of Creep, painting almost all of the art within its walls. In collaboration with Andrew Frank and Mollymuck Immersive, she created her first immersive experience, The Green Waltz, last year and it quickly became a fan favorite. This year, she’s back with Here the Birds Burn: A Phantasmagoria Revival.
Haunting had the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie Delazeri to discuss her upcoming project, the lessons she’s learned in the past, and more about what a phantasmagoria actually is.
In your own words, what is Here the Birds Burn: A Phantasmagoria Revival?
Here the Birds Burn is a revival of an early 19th-century phantasmagoria performance, a type of pre-cinematic horror-theater. Modern guests will join guests from the early 1800s and they will attend the phantasmagoria together. The phantasmagoria is broken down into three acts, a demonic lecture and puppet show, a salon de physique, and finally a conjuration of spirits. Incorporating working authentic 18th- and 19th-century magic lanterns, optical inventions and magical trickery, guests will be able to explore the interwoven relationship between science and superstition in the early 1800s.
Can you speak to the talented team behind Here the Birds Burn?
We have a really strong mix of theater and non-theater people, which I think makes things extra interesting. Liv Wafler is our producer and Ryan Dohner is our Technical/Lighting Director, both of whom have way more experience than me in the worlds of both general and immersive theater. For the magic lantern performance, we will have Melissa Ferrari as the magic lanternist and Sam Gurry as lead singer and sound designer. They’re also amazing experimental animators. Melissa uses magic lanterns in her personal artistic practice and created the glass slides that we’ll be using in the show. Our lovely actors are Drew Lipson, Ryan Fisher and Rene Lovit (Crimson Cabaret), Shoshanna Green and Sam Chan (Give Up the Ghost), and Josh and Kassie Winkler (The Green Waltz). I do also want to give eternal thank you’s to the Executive Director of the Heritage Square Museum Kori Capaldi for all the advice and for letting us use the museum space to create something new and weird. All these people have showered this show with their amazing talents, and for that I am eternally grateful.
You previously created one of our favorites from 2019, The Green Waltz, and you were a key inspiration and artist in JFI Productions’ Haus of Creep. How did your experience with these experiences help you with Here the Birds Burn?
I don’t have a background in theater. I did my BFA at CalArts for Experimental Animation. So Haus of Creep and Creep: Awake were basically my crash course in not only immersive, but just theater in general. Working as crew helped me observe firsthand and learn about the process of taking a show from start to finish. The Green Waltz was a chance to put everything I had learned about theater to the test, and since I learn best by doing, I just wanted to see if I could actually do a show (in collaboration with Andrew Frank). It was a fast experience, as the show only lasted a weekend but I learned a lot regardless about managing, producing, writing, directing and more. Here the Birds Burn is me learning from my mistakes and simply trying to make a better show than the one before. It’s been a learning experience as I try to interweave my interests in theater and animation, despite both of them being on the opposite ends in their relationship with time (i.e., theater can be immediate, while animation can take days to produce a few seconds of work). Phantasmagorias have become a weird middle ground for me, since the roots of both immersive theater and animation stem from it.
As some audience members may not be familiar with what a phantasmagoria is, can you help explain the concept? What expectations should guests have when attending one?
A phantasmagoria is form of immersive horror theater that was popular in places like France and Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most people associate the show today with the use of magic lanterns, a type of early projector that would cast images of demons, ghosts and different apparitions onto a screen. And while that was a main part of the show, the phantasmagoria was way more involved than that. Guests would fast the day before and drink narcotic-laced punch before the performance. There would be a section before the magic lantern projections called a salon de physique, meant to showcase the spectacles of science or as it was referred to back in the day, “natural magic.” The showman would make it clear that the ghost conjurations were purely theater and totally fake, trying to help enlighten audiences… sort of like how Houdini in the early 20th century went around debunking seances, since he didn’t like seeing magic tricks being used to scam people. Regardless, the showman’s ultimate goal was to entertain and even if he did tell people the show was fake, people would still get carried away and get scared by the “ghosts.” People were told to take off their shoes so that they would receive electric shocks from a mat under the carpeted floor. They would cram gunpowder into the cracks of walls and then set it off to create explosions and fire in the space. It was crazy. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to recreate some of the more extreme elements of the show… but yeah, it was pretty intense stuff.
When tackling such an intriguing style, what other works helped inspire this story, the look and the aesthetic of the experience?
I have an interest in history and I love doing research, so a lot of research ended up going into the show, so our sources have quite a range. The show’s story was created by Melissa Ferrari and I, and one of our goals we had from the beginning is that we didn’t want to consider this as a 100% reenactment. The show is called a “revival” because we wanted to try to grab all the research we could find and create kind of a basic foundation in themes and structure that was true to the phantasmagoria format, so that we could create our own show, without being pressured to “recreate” one particular show from the late 18th or early 19th century. And it’s honestly impossible since records of phantasmagorias only exist in bits and pieces, with shows constantly changing at the time as showmen moved cities, audience changed tastes, and technology improved. Our goal is to create a show that could have existed in the United States at the time, that also fills modern guests in on the surrounding context of the why, who, and how these shows came to be.
Some of the texts that were heavy inspirations were: the book Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern by Melvyn Heard, the film Häxan (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922), witch hunting almanacs like the Malleus Maleficarum (1487), works by early 19th-century English essayist Thomas De Quincey, poetry from Percy Shelley, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Greek mythology, and the book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. All these sources definitely made their mark on the script and overall themes of the show.
With a strong meta-narrative, Here the Birds Burn places audiences in the role of horror fans watching an immersive theater experience about horror fans watching an immersive horror experience. Can you speak more to this narrative, and what about a meta-narrative appealed to you?
Since the beginning, having period-era guests mediate the relationship between modern audiences and the phantasmagoria show was an essential element we wanted to have. The main obstacle we faced in creating a theatrical show from the 1800s is: How do we make it relevant or understandable or even entertaining to a modern audience? When it comes to media from a certain time era we need to keep in mind that it carries the vocabulary, jokes, references and ideology that were all meant to cater to the audience of that particular time era… because that’s when it was created. Similar to how sometimes people say one generation “doesn’t get” the media beloved by another generation… now change that gap from like 20 years to over 200 years. It’s like a culture shock situation that can cause confusion. So we have our period-era guests from different backgrounds and different perspectives there to help guide and inform the audience of the historical social context surrounding the phantasmagoria itself.
Another, less stuffy, less academic way of looking at it, is that it’s also just fun to hang out with a horror fan from another time era, and to witness this kind of parallel world. Our period-era guests include a theater critic, a scaredy cat, and a hardcore lover of horror, and I’m sure their modern counterparts will pass through the show at some point. The play is more “slice of life” than a narrative.
True phantasmagorias used spooky decorations, total darkness, sound effects, and sensory stimulation, including smells, as methods of making sure spectators would be more convinced of what they saw. What sensory techniques will you be employing to help achieve your goal.
We’ll be using spooky decorations, atmospherics, smells, live instruments, a pepper’s ghost, authentic magic lanterns… and darkness, lots of it. We’ll also be offering mulled wine during check-in.
With so many different sub-genres of immersive horror, what is the format of this experience? Will you be led in a linear fashion from room to room, or will you have moments of free exploration? Will audiences be able to interact or participate in any scenes, or is it more of a spectator performance? Will they have the agency to influence the narrative?
This will be a linear show, where audiences will be led from scene to scene. Audiences will have no influence on the play itself and the show is mainly scripted. However there will be light periods of interaction, such as talking or doing small directed actions.
Locations often become characters in their story. Why was the Heritage Square Museum chosen and how does this location help evoke the theme of a 100-year-old immersive theater experience?
I work at the Heritage Square Museum, so I end up spending a lot of time there. And I’m always thinking of interesting things to do with the space, since it’s so unique and kind of obscure. The Green Waltz as well as Here the Birds Burn both had their inspiration directly based off the museum space itself. And the houses at the museum sort of dictate to me what can and can’t happen, where things go and don’t go. For Here the Birds Burn, the structures at the museum are presented to guests as “abandoned homes repurposed by a showman in early 1800s Boston.” And this type of setting is exactly where real phantasmagorias would have taken place, not a normal theater, but instead dilapidated churches, convents, cemeteries. All meant to help the showman in furthering guests’ anxiety and fear during the show.
In practical terms, having a custom space also helped the showman and his group design the space to their choosing, being able to hide their illusions and magic tricks better than if they were stuck with a normal proscenium theater.
In spookier terms, eliminating the theater seat also eliminated the certainty that one was watching a fictional performance. Doing shows in environments, houses in our case, that have the “creepy, haunted” vibe further added to the fear that what you are watching may or may not be real.
What do you want people to walk away from your experience with? What do you want them to feel or learn?
We’d like our show to help people reflect on the history of our culture’s relationship with rationalism and superstition. In keeping with the original themes of the phantasmagoria, sure, elements of superstition can be fun. But we must also find excitement and passion in rationalism and critical thought, as darker consequences can emerge in our world if we decide to choose myth over fact in our daily lives.
Regardless of our research and internal ideological struggles of presenting period theater in a comprehensive format, in the end we just want people to have fun and enjoy themselves. I really love the nature of the phantasmagoria and the ideas it explores, and I just want to share that love with other people.
Here the Birds Burn: A Phantasmagoria Revival runs February 7th through the 23rd; purchase tickets HERE.