When you go to Blind Whino SW Arts Club this month to see “In Cabaret We Trust,” you’ll have to show your ticket to get into the theater. That’s about the only thing this “immersive theatrical experience” has in common with any other play you might see in D.C.
The 15,000-square-foot space will be transformed into a cabaret theater set in the not-too-distant future, complete with burlesque artists, fire breathers, drag acts, hula-hoopers and aerialists. But there’s another story going on behind the scenes: A populist regime has taken hold of the nation, and a conservative senator is coming to shut down the cabaret, which has become a hideout for D.C.’s remaining liberals. Audiences are welcome to wander around any spaces in the theater to listen in on side characters’ conversations, watch artists create chalkboard murals or become participants in an act of political resistance.
“In Cabaret We Trust” is the first production from a new D.C. theater company, TBD Immersive (it stands for “tradition be damned”), which specializes in theater that’s more “choose-your-own-adventure” than “beginning, middle and end.” Artistic director Strother Gaines, who created the show with a team of three playwright-producers, likes to compare their work to the fantasy theme park in HBO’s “Westworld.” “At the end of the day, the audience has full control over their experience,” he says.
Gaines and his team assembled as TBD after staging successful immersive theater experiences at last year’s TEDxMidAtlantic conference and D.C.’s Mulebone. “In Cabaret We Trust” was created (and staged with CulturalDC’s Space4 program) as a response to — what else? — the 2016 election, and it gets a lot of its inspiration and imagery from Germany’s interwar period, when the country was under the rule of the Weimar Republic.
“What we’re exploring here is that populist, nationalist perspective. We intentionally don’t mention political parties of today; we don’t mention his name in the show,” Gaines says, alluding to President Trump. “We don’t want people to stick on that. We want people to be invested in the concept of this nationalism piece.”
Up next, TBD will rework “In Cabaret We Trust” for a remount in February at the Dupont Underground. After that, Gaines and his team have plans for immersive theater experiences both big (a scavenger hunt around the monuments?) and small (private in-house dinner theater).
“D.C. hasn’t had a producing company that does immersive work exclusively,” Gaines says. “Is that because D.C. doesn’t support immersive work or just because no one’s done it yet? Hopefully it’s the latter.”
How to make the most of it
You can explore the world of “In Cabaret We Trust” any way you want, but here are some suggestions.
1. Play with the actors. “Anybody who’s costumed up, you can interact with,” show creator Strother Gaines says. That might mean having a drink or a chat with a character, or accepting a challenge from what Gaines calls the more “puzzle-based” actors. If someone runs up to you and asks you to complete a task, like bringing an item to a certain character, “you can play the game or not,” Gaines says.
2. Don’t overlook smaller rooms. The audience is allowed anywhere in the building — with the exception of some of Blind Whino’s storage areas — and there’s action everywhere. For example, “All the secrets go down in the catering kitchen,” Gaines says. “If you’re like, ‘I need the juicy stuff,’ the catering kitchen is the place to be.”
3. Keep an eye on every character. Though you certainly could follow around one character for the whole show, Gaines recommends interacting with as many as possible. “Every character has a unique storyline,” he says. Gaines is fond of the “young, perky, bitchy” reporter who’s sympathetic to the populist side. “Her hashtag is #thepopularpopulist,” Gaines says.
4. Divide and conquer. Since there’s no way to see everything, Gaines recommends attending with friends, wandering off in separate directions during the performance, then comparing notes. “The exciting part is going out to drinks with your friends afterward and being like, ‘Did you see this thing happen?’ ‘Did you see the potential orgy?’ ‘Did you see this character down here?’ ‘No, I saw her upstairs. She was pregnant!’” Gaines says.